Leadership: Translation Troubles Kept Out of Sight

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April16, 2006: A lot of "experts" do not seem to realize that, like the Soviets and even the World War II Nazis, the Chinese allow a pretty lively military press, and that not all of what's published is necessarily doctrine. Unpopular, and unadopted, ideas are allowed to remain in circulation. Also, native Chinese speakers in the intel business note that that a lot of translations into English are frequently poorly done. The results have often been vague understandings of what's being talked about, and mistaken assumptions about Chinese doctrine. Same pattern with Arabic documents, and any language where there is a shortage of translators, and an abundance of documents to be translated.

One reason, which no one will ever admit, officially anyway, for the recent release of thousands of Arab language documents on the Internet, is to get better translations for them. Let's face the stark fact that there were never a lot of good Arabic translators working for the U.S. government to begin with. Then came September 11, 2001, and the invasion of Afghanistan. Thousands of Arab language documents were captured there, as al Qaeda's largely Arab high command fled in a hurry. Not much document destruction as they went. Many documents were found in captured computers. This embarrassment of riches has still not been fully exploited. Even calling in lots of civilian translators, and cutting corners with the security clearances, there were never enough good Arabic translators. That situation got worse after Iraq was invaded in 2003. At that point, there were literally tons of documents to be translated. By this time there were computer systems that could do a decent, but rough, translation of printed Arabic documents. But there was still lots of hand written stuff that needed the human touch to decipher. And any suspicious looking docs translated by the computer, and flagged, had to be checked by a human translator.

So now there are thousands of Arab speakers pouring over those recently released documents. Chances are that anything useful will not only get translated, but get done accurately, and brought to the attention of someone who can do something about it. We'll see.

The Chinese translation situation is different. There aren't as many documents to translate, a larger proportion of them are printed (and thus eligible for a rough computer translation first). There are more Chinese translators available. But here, you have a problem with the nuances of Chinese military literature. Not just the linguistic ins and outs, but all the cultural background. Translating some of these Chinese "military theory" pieces is not as easy as it looks. And little mistakes can have long range consequences, for these early translations establish the "conventional wisdom." That stuff is hard to shake, down the road, much less correct.

 


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