Sunday, April 12, 2009

Translating Iraq

I wish I could read French.

I have been picking vibes about this new book by Mathieu Guidère (who, incidentally, is on PROZ) , called "Irak in translation: de l'art de perdre une guerre sans connaître la langue de son adversaire."

Dr. Mathieu Guidere is professor at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. He is also Senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (Washington DC.). He published many books on Al Qaeda, especially on Al Qaeda in North Africa. Leading researcher in cognitive linguistics and multilingual monitoring. Guidere was born in Tunisia, in 1971. He holds a Master's degree in Arabic language and literature and a Ph.D in Translation Studies and Applied Linguistics from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He was Assistant Professor at the University of Lyon 2 (France) in Arabic language and Translation Studies. His current research interests include Applied linguistics, in particular, Multimedia Translation and Machine-aided Translation from a linguistic point of view.

He has some interesting things to say about the war in Iraq being one which set out to win hearts and minds and was also one in which translators and interpreters played an important role.
Later in the interview he says that "translating in a time of war is about the art of using words of dialogue, diffusing situations which are filled with tension, using communication in a way which helps conflict resolution."

Would the war might have been won if Bush had been able to use more translators and interpreters? Guidère replies that "It not so much the quantity of as the quality which was the problem in this war. Taxi drivers or pizza delivery delivery people were recruited so long as they had three words of Arabic. The people recruited were both badly trained and badly managed"

At the end of 2006, of 130,000 active US soldiers in Iraq, only 130 knew Arabic, but only at a rudimentary level.”
“There was only one interpreter for every company (around 150 men). This fact can be explained in part by the phrase: ‘Quite evidently, languages did not enjoy much interest in the superpower which had made English the chief language worldwide, and tended to satisfy itself with that.’
‘According to a high-level CIA official, learning Arabic is not so easy: ‘it is easier to teach a pilot to fly a fighter jet than to speak Arabic with precision.’”
‘Private companies hired interpreters in Iraq and other Arab countries for the US army. The chief motive of most of these language auxiliaries for doing this particularly risky work was the ability to make much money. Among these ‘interpreters’ we often found taxi drivers, pizza delivery men, without a true knowledge of English: “Interpreters babbled in broken English and essentially communicated by signs with the soldiers.”’
“Most of the many Arabic speakers who were accepted to work as interpreters spoke English poorly; and most of the Arabic-speaking American soldiers or interpreters spoke Arabic poorly and had no knowledge of Arab culture, let alone Iraqi, which led to many misinterpretations and errors. Not only did US military personnel depend on the competence and trustworthiness of these interpreters, but journalists, prison guards, and the tortured too, whose fate could depend on only one word being misinterpreted on purpose or by mistake.’‘
Profiteers have been many and on both sides and in the most varied ways. Instead of receiving 6,000 USD as per contract with Titan, the chief US language enterprise in Iraq, some interpreters received only 1,500. As an anecdote, an Iraqi interpreter had exploited the naivety of newly arrived US soldiers on their travels. For example, to buy an Iraqi flag as a souvenir, the seller would asked for 5 dollars; the interpreter interpreted it as 45 dollar, and pocketed the difference.’

A reader from Ottawa kindly translated the introduction provided by

‘In every war, there is an original error. The U.S. mistake in Iraq was to believe that we could democratize a country without even knowing its language. That technology could replace man, that manipulation could substitute persuasion. In short, that we could win the hearts and minds by ignoring culture. This book offers a journey into the heart of the chaos in Iraq by following the footsteps of those who know it best: the auxiliaries, translators and interpreters who have worked or are still working for the Americans, but are seen and treated as "traitors" and "collaborators" by their countrymen. Those whom the Americans call “linguists” have paid the heaviest price in this war that never ceases to create victims. But these cultural intermediaries who are essential to the pacification of the country have been accused of treason and felony on both sides, on the part of Americans as on the part of Iraqis. Who are these auxiliaries of the U.S. military? Where are they from and what do they do? How are they recruited and what becomes of them afterwards? An investigation into a real scandal, this book explores the root reasons for the American failure in Iraq. It explains, from unedited and detailed investigation, why the coalition forces have never reached their first objective in this war: to win the hearts and minds against extremism and barbarism.’
Unfortunately, French is not one of my languages, and I will have to bid my time until someone either translates the book, or bed-side reads it to me. Or maybe do what a colleague of mine did many years ago - locked himself up in a library with a massive book on philosophy in German, and a few dictionaries and glossaries, and started translating.. Six weeks later, having gone through this torture from 9 AM to 9 PM, he could not speak German, or pronounce the words, but he could read with understanding.
Time, and the need to make money, are of course to factors that make such an exercise prohibitive at the moment.

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