Friday, April 10, 2009

Combatant Linguistics

In November, the US military launched the 09L, short for “09 Limas,” a new company of linguists trained as soldiers. Serving mainly as translators and interpreters, the Limas represent the army’s new ideology that it’s easier to train linguists to be soldiers than it is to turn soldiers into fluent Arabic speakers.

And they are pumping 270 million dollars into it this year, which is almost 190 million more than eight years ago. But not enough of them are learning Dari or Pushtu. Why should they? When the war is over, what will they do with these languages? Translate hilly-billy poetry? Provided they don't get killed, of course..

And the situation is dire:

The number of Pashto speakers in U.S. uniform is significantly less than the more than 30 percent of Afghani citizens who are fluent in the dialect. Many locals are currently working as translators for the U.S. officers and servicemen stationed in Afghanistan. At NATO’s headquarters, where every Dari and Pashto interpreter and translator was an Afghan, the language barrier affected the translation of highly technical military information. “Even if they have very, very good English skills, they may not have the technical knowledge or ability,” said Col. Jim Helis, who served last year as Chief of Plans at NATO’s Afghanistan headquarters. “You can literally lose items in translation.”

Apparently, during an operation briefing to senior Afghan military officers in Afghanistan last year, overhead slides were presented. One side of the slide panel was in English, and the other in Dari. One of the senior Afghan generals, who was fluent in English, called attention to a discrepancy in the translation. ‘Your Dari slide doesn’t say what your English slide says,’” he said. It is all a challenge to the US Army – they are handing off the translations and have no way of doing any content control.

That's an alliance whose US side does not know what its Afghan side is doing, to quip it biblically. Scary that you send people to a battlefield not knowing if they know what they should be doing. Such lack of QA results in the by now well documented civilian collateral damage we keep reading about in the news: weddings, villages, hospitals and schools being blown up, US shooting UK soldiers, etc. etc.

And pouring money into LIMAS won't create fluent soldiers in a year. Where will they get their trainers from? What about immersion in the culture? Ooops, couldn't finish that unit - was shot by a local interpreter??

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