WASHINGTON—In a small, nondescript workspace in an unmarked office here, a special team of linguists working for the nation's 15 intelligence agencies plays catch-up in a high-stakes game of words.
The assignments come into the National Virtual Translation Center from the FBI, CIA and other agencies: documents in Urdu, a wiretapped conversation in Arabic, a pamphlet in Pashto, a broadcast in Farsi.
The little-known center, just two years old, is trying to solve a glaring vulnerability in the struggle against terrorism: the language gap. Few Americans in government speak such languages, and the center is aggressively recruiting them by offering unusual flexibility.
So far, the center employs a virtual network of about 100 translators around the country, half working part time, who use secure computers in government offices near their homes. They send the translations to the center, which gets them back to the client agency.
"Our goal is the fastest translation possible, because sometimes there is real urgency, but quality is also important," said Everette Jordan, the executive director of the center, which was set up in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The translation gap has been a problem for years.
Last fall, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine warned of a serious backlog of un-translated documents and tapes within the FBI. His audit found that 123,000 hours of audio in counterterrorism investigations hadn't been reviewed between 2001 and early 2004.
"The FBI cannot translate all the foreign-language counterterrorism and counterintelligence material it collects," Fine concluded.
Since 2001, the FBI has beefed up its language services with 250 to 300 new hires a year for a total of 1,300 language analysts, spokesman Paul Bresson said.
The CIA and FBI handle their own translations for many current investigations and urgent needs.
But the volume of materials keeps growing, and the center was set up to hire translators who don't have to come to Washington and can work part time. Many are pursuing academic careers, have specialties such as engineering and law, and have military knowledge.
"We've had to build this from scratch, and it was a new concept," said Jordan, a Russian linguist who worked for 22 years at the National Security Agency. "It's a more flexible approach, using secure computers, and the translators can work at this as piecework."
The translators must be U.S. citizens and pass FBI background checks. Many even get clearance to handle classified material. Those requirements limit the pool of potential recruits, but competitive pay and the support of translator associations have helped, Jordan said.
About 600 linguists are "in the pipeline now," he added.
The center reports to the new director of national intelligence, John Negroponte. The Washington staff of about two dozen staffers—veterans of the State Department, CIA, NSA and other agencies—make assignments throughout the network and provide quality control.
Maureen Baginski, a Russian linguist brought into the FBI to revamp its counterintelligence efforts, said the translation center "has become a force multiplier that helps meet our needs. It pushes the work to where the expertise is."
As linguists in Washington double-check the translated work, they labor over dictionaries of obscure dialects, manuals on technical and paramilitary terms, and such offbeat resources as "Sleazy, Slimy Slavic Slang," complete with curses, insults and crude sexual references.
As a student of language, Jordan said, "nuance is crucial to good translation," knowing whether a speaker is literal or sarcastic, uses flowery terms or slang, or mixes his dialects.
The assignments come into the center labeled by priority. Agencies often use computerized programs to give a quick analysis to tapes and documents, looking for key words and phrases.
Even in work that appears innocuous, "our translators have found some surprises, information no one knew was there, that has been helpful to investigations," Jordan said.
Not all the work is related to intelligence. After the tsunami in South Asia, the center produced emergency language kits in Achanese and Tamil so that Marines helping victims in Indonesia and Sri Lanka could ask basic questions.
The center also translated the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution into Pashto, Afghanistan's principal language, for the inauguration of that country's president, Hamid Karzai.
There's a "critical mass" behind more language proficiency throughout the government, Jordan said.
The Army is recruiting native speakers as linguists, and the Pentagon has launched a broad effort to promote language skills and may even require officers to have some proficiency in a second language.
Jordan, 45, learned Spanish and French growing up in southern California, then learned Russian in the Army, lured by a posting in Europe. That led to his career with the super-secret NSA, which conducts surveillance and data collection on a massive scale.
Jordan's interests are varied. He studied Hebrew and Arabic and earned a master's degree in theology while at the NSA and briefly as CIA Director George Tenet's foreign-language adviser. He also served on the staff of the congressional investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks.
His job is dominated by the short-term urgency to find more translators, but Jordan also takes the long view of a language proselytizer.
He notes that the United States has entered a difficult, long-term struggle with Islamic extremism and is trying to promote democracy in the Middle East at a time when U.S. colleges, as recently as 2003, awarded a total of six degrees in Arabic.
"There is finally a recognition about the importance of languages, whether it's for defense, the economy, education," Jordan said. "But we have a long way to go."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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