Without translators, foreign troops in Afghanistan would only be able to communicate with locals by pointing to simple pictures on brightly colored cartoon cards. Translators are indispensable, and yet they rarely appear in media coverage of the conflict.
A remarkable 8-minute video report by John D McHugh on The Guardian’s website, "Afghanistan: Lost in Translation," highlights the extent of the problem by following some American soldiers whose work is hampered and whose lives are in danger because their Afghan interpreter literally lies to them. [Readers should be warned that the soldiers’ language is a bit salty.] As McHugh notes, “The translators have become unexpected powerbrokers…, and sometimes they just don’t translate everything they hear.” [photo by John D McHugh]
Of course, the media have often pointed out the fact that there aren’t enough trained interpreters who know the languages spoken in Afghanistan, but this 8 minute long report breaks new ground by showing what the stakes are for a soldier in a battlezone to be able to communicate with local people. This is my summary of the video:
An American position in Khost Province is hit by rockets launched from somewhere near a village. Soldiers from Charlie Company of the 173rd Airborne Division go to the village to find out if the inhabitants know anything about the attack. They arrive to find the place deserted—“This is just like every other town, everybody disappeared,” says the American commander.
A lone, frightened-looking man carrying a shovel appears on the road. The translator asks where the elders are. The conversation is a bit confused but the man seems to be saying that they are in their houses. Here it becomes clear that the translator himself does not speak particularly good English. The commander snaps at the translator. “They’re in their house? Are they sick? What did he just say?” The translator tells the man to fetch the elders but he walks off seemingly in the wrong direction. Time passes.
“I just want one of them that has so sense about him… Ah, that’s him.” The commander has noticed a distinguished-looking man with a fiery red beard coming down the road. Through the translator, the American commander invites him to sit down and make himself comfortable. “How are things here?” the commander asks, signaling a willingness to listen to whatever the elder has to say. The translator, according to the subtitling provided by The Guardian, translates this into Pashto as “How is the security here?” Thus, the translator has narrowed the scope of the query and in so doing turns it from a sympathetic question into nothing more than a request for information.
The elder replies, “There is no security here.” Wrong answer. The translator says, “No—what I mean is, how’s the security situation here?” The elder becomes flustered and says that he has just said that there is no security. The translator brazenly misrepresents this to the commander as, “We are fine. There are no problems here.”
The elder, not knowing that his words are getting lost in translation, goes on to say that he wants to cooperate and points out where he thinks the Taliban position is. Then he starts to tell an allegorical story about wheat and ants to prove that he understands the importance of cooperation with the multinational forces. He says that he is grateful for the road the Americans have built in the area and he is frustrated by his inability to give real help to the international forces. The translator reports all of this merely as “he is giving examples” and repeats where the man thought the Taliban position was.
When the commander asks when the Taliban were last seen in the area, the translator states that the elder said that it was one year ago. The commander frightens the elder with a burst of profanity and asks the translator to tell him that “he’s full of shit.” The conversation goes nowhere because the translator cannot convey what the American commander wants to know and does not bother to report the Afghan elder’s concerns about the Taliban.
A week later the American position is hit by more rockets, apparently launched from the same place. The commander expresses his frustration over the village “with the big fat red-haired, bearded guy—the guy’s full of shit. I wouldn’t mind clearing the whole place out.” He chuckles dismissively, apparently because he’s just said on video to a reporter (albeit facetiously) that he wishes he could engage in what sounds like a war crime.
The commander is right to be frustrated. From the subtitles provided by The Guardian, we can see that the elder is willing to help and understands what is at stake, but because of the poor translation the American commander can only conclude that he is an uncooperative fool. The translator’s own prejudice also gets in the way since, as McHugh writes in another piece, he has said, “I hate these people, sir” of the local inhabitants.
The situation has strong parallels in British India, where British colonial officials constantly accused native informants of misleading them because of their “Oriental” cunning or local prejudice. The problem was usually exaggerated, at least that’s what my research suggests, but still it was deeply unsettling to the British that their overlordship in India depended so much on translators whose loyalties they could never be sure of. The two solutions were to teach Indian languages to ethnically British administrators, which created a rift between the colonizers and the colonized because Indians were excluded from most administrative work, and to create a class of pro-British Indians who could fill non-sensitive positions. Those very anglicized elites would later bring down the British Empire by asserting that they too had rights.
Translators are naturally suspect because their background makes them susceptible to having multiple loyalties. The highest profile case at the moment is that of an Iranian-born British interpreter, Daniel James (known until ten years ago as Esmail Gamasai), who was arrested in November 2006 under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly passing on secret information to Iran. He is fluent in Pashto and Persian (more on these languages below), and so was an obvious choice to be the personal translator for the commander of international forces in southern Afghanistan.
I am certainly not implying that all translators are traitors. An article in the Globe and Mail on June 8th about an interpreter who was injured while serving with Canadian troops is a great illustration of the risks faced by translators and their bravery under fire. The point is that the issues that arise when employing translators should be considered.
One of the main issues is what to do with the translators who have ceased to work as translators. Although translators are well paid according to local standards, the US, the UK and Canada all have a history of not giving them post-employment assistance. They are often in grave danger in their home countries because they are perceived by some as having “aided the enemy” but Western governments are reluctant to accept them as asylum seekers because doing so would make it look as though we are losing the conflict. Thus, there have been only 500 ex-translator visas granted per year in the United States. This year’s allotment was already reached in February, according to a piece by Walter Pincus in The Washington Post. However, the number of asylum places for translators will be increased from 500 to 5,000 next year. Additionally, after December 2007, Afghan and Iraqi translators who settled in the United States will receive certain benefits. Those who arrived prior to that found it almost impossible to start a life in the US.
Although media coverage of the fate of translators after they stop working with coalition forces had a role in forcing politicians to act to help them, there are many troubling questions that have to be asked about the role of translators on the battlefield. Is it right that an issue so closely tied to success or failure in Afghanistan should get so little media coverage?