The United States military quickly discovered, after they went in
Afghanistan and Iraq, that they needed a lot more interpreters and translators.
Two years ago, it was believed that 7,200 Arabic and 750 Afghan (Pushtu or
Dari) linguists were required. That was nearly twenty percent more than were
needed the year before. Currently, the
Department of Defense is trying to maintain a force of 7,000 Iraqis (or other
Arabs), 2,000 Afghans and 2,200 American interpreters.
Department of Defense can't train enough new military interpreters, so it has
to hire local people. That has become more difficult in both Afghanistan and
Iraq. The problem is that the local terrorists realize that the interpreters
are important, and they, well, terrorize the interpreters into quitting or,
even better, becoming a terrorist spy. This, obviously complicates things for
the combat troops who need the interpreters to get their work done. The
solution has been to have the intelligence troops work closely with hiring and
monitoring interpreters. In some parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, the
interpreters are hired in secret, and much effort goes into keeping their job
status secret from the local community.
other problem, namely literacy and quality. Many Iraqis and Afghans have
learned English, but often not well enough for military use. Then there was the
problem of literacy. Many of these English speaking Iraqis and Afghans were
illiterate in their own language. Thus they were no good for translating
documents or graffiti. There was also a problem with dialects. Many Arabs from
outside Iraq were willing to serve as interpreters, but they quickly discovered
that the Iraqi dialects were difficult to understand. Arab dialects are an old
problem, only partially mollified by the fact that most Arabs can understand,
but not speak, "standard" Arabic. This is how radio and satellite TV
have thrived in the Arab world. But Arabs who travel around the Arab world
continue to be shocked at how mutually incomprehensible the dialects are. This
is less of a problem in Afghanistan, where Dari (an Iranian dialect) is widely
used as a common language (among the dozens of languages and dialects that are
used in everyday speech.)
U.S. military has about 17,000 troops who speak languages like Arabic, Chinese,
Farsi (Iran), Urdu (Pakistan), Hindi, and Korean, there simply aren't enough
for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense
has established the Civilian Linguist Reserve. Those who qualify (in terms of
skills, and ability to get a security clearance) are paid a monthly fee to be
available, in an emergency, to come work for the military. The Pentagon found a
lot of American Arabic speakers during the Iraq war, because these civilians
went to work for contractors, or directly for the government, to provide translation
services in the United States and Iraq. Many of these interpreters are already
qualified for the Civilian Linguist Reserve.
take U.S. troops long to realize that the most dangerous intelligence job in
Iraq was that of interpreter. Hundreds have been killed by terrorists,
including over twenty who were American citizens. Many of the Iraqi
interpreters, and their families, have been allowed to live on American bases,
and some are being offered permanent residence in the United States. Most of
the interpreters regard the death threats from terrorists as part of the job.
It's a good job, paying far more than most other work available in Iraq.
Starting salary for interpreters is $600 a month, going up to $1,000 or more
for particularly dangerous or difficult assignments. The average monthly salary
in Iraq is not much more than a hundred dollars.
danger is great. While two out of every thousand American soldiers serving in
Iraq got killed during the peak period of combat (2005-7), some 30 out of a
every thousand translators died. For many interpreters, the job is more than a
big paycheck. English speaking Iraqis also have a better idea of how things
work in the rest of the world, and are eager to help Iraq overcome its gruesome
to get Arabic interpreters is to hire them from other Arab nations. The money
is attractive, and many linguists in nearby Arab nations have learned the Iraqi
dialect in order to get these jobs. There is also a feeling that Iraq will soon
present many economic opportunities, providing less dangerous work for
non-Iraqis who understand the Iraqi dialect. Some Arabic speaking Americans,
after one tour in Iraq, have comes back to help with screening English speaking
Arabs applying for interpreters. To attract the needed number of interpreters,
many of the supervisory and screening personnel are hired via contractors. That
way, these people, who are in short supply, can be offered enough money to
induce them to take on this work.
Department of Defense can get enough interpreters for Iraq and Afghanistan
operations, but only by hiring a lot of foreigners. This is risky from a security
point of view. Terrorist groups, and hostile governments, can get to these
foreign interpreters eventually, and find out a lot about American intelligence
techniques. This is a long term price to pay, in order to deal with the short
term interpreter shortage.