In Afghanistan, vital information is sometimes lost in translation

KABUL, Afghanistan — American soldiers in Afghanistan are relying on civilian interpreters who in some cases don't know the languages they were hired to speak, resulting in dangerous military mistakes.

A former screener of translators alleges in a lawsuit that his former employer overlooked cheating on language proficiency exams, according to an ABC News report. The whistleblower, Paul Funk, told ABC that 28 percent of the interpreters hired by the firm between November 2007 and June 2008 failed the U.S. government's language requirements. The company denies the charges and is fighting the lawsuit.

The interpreters in question appear to be those hired from the U.S. and sent to Afghanistan, mostly of Afghan ancestry. American troops, however, also rely heavily on local Afghan interpreters supplied by U.S. contractors.

Monitor interviews with more than half a dozen former Afghan interpreters reveal that many learn crucial languages "on the job," occasionally resulting in deadly mishaps and misunderstandings in the mission to win hearts and minds.

"All the interpreters, when they first start, hide," said one former interpreter called Tahir. It took him five or six months, he said, to understand English well enough to translate. In the meantime, he would retreat to the toilets whenever he thought he would be chosen to go on a mission. "Our friends would cover."

All the interpreters — or "terps," as they're referred to — refused to be fully named, explaining that they could be killed if other Afghans learned that they'd worked for the U.S. military.

Yousuf admitted that when he was working with international forces in 2004, he didn't know the Pashto language well. Pashto is widely spoken in the Taliban regions of rural southern and eastern Afghanistan, while Dari is spoken in Kabul, where Yousuf and many other Afghan terps are hired.

On the job in Paktia province, he mostly needed to speak Pashto, particularly with the Afghan National Army (ANA) men there.

At one point, his unit of international forces (ISAF) was on one side of a hill and the ANA were on the other. The ANA radioed Yousuf to tell ISAF to launch flares over the left side of the village so they could see what was going on.

"Suddenly I couldn't hear this National Army guy — it was a little noisy with the sound of gunfire. I hear: 'You can fire on the left side of the village.' "

The ISAF troops fired on the village, Said Karam, until the ANA called back in distress. The next morning, hundreds of cows and sheep lay dead — but no people, as it was an area set aside for grazing. ISAF paid the villagers for their losses.

He admitted that his poor Pashto might have played a role in the misunderstanding. "If it was in Dari, maybe I would have heard it well enough."

Yousuf said he was hired after just a short conversation in English. "They asked: 'Do you know Dari and Pashto?' I said, 'Yes, I can speak in Dari and Pashto.' But they never asked me anything in Dari or Pashto."

Tahir and another terp, Malikzada, alleged that the tests didn't matter — all one needed to do was bribe an Afghan middleman.

Sometimes the language that's misunderstood isn't English, Pashto or Dari, but military-speak.

One translator, Ibrahim, told of a fellow terp, Javed, who'd just joined his unit in Panjwaii District of Kandahar province in 2007. They were working with US Marines who were training the ANA.

A Marine told Javed to tell the ANA to shoot "an illume" — a flare — to light up an area.

"He didn't understand what they meant. He called to the ANA company commander and he told him that you can shoot some of the mortars on the area," said Ibrahim.

The ANA mortars killed many innocent people in the area, said Ibrahim. The colonel was angry with Javed, but let him off with a warning.

Ibrahim said new terps such as Javed should receive training on military phrases and other difficult terms.

Another potential problem is experience. Some of the terps are extremely young; Tahir said he joined at age 16. "The soldiers were making fun of me: 'Look at this kid!' "

He said that some of the terps had sold cigarettes to soldiers outside Bagram Airbase, and after a few years knew enough English to apply for a translator job. Their boyish perspective may make them overlook the extreme danger of the job.

Tahir had to grow up fast, surviving two IED explosions. One, in Helmand province, killed the four others in the truck. "The guy sitting next to me, they put his body in trash bags," he said.

While time on the job clearly improves the work of a translator, the terps say the contractors who hire them do little to reward seniority.

The pay just goes up $100 a month or so, meaning that experienced terps were making around $800 a month. Anyone with years of English experience could earn far more working for international organizations in urban areas, however, they claim.

"We have mentioned (seniority pay) several times to the team I worked for," said Ibrahim. "They said it's not up to them, it's up to the contractor."

Some of the terps suspect that their experience started to count against them. Tahir had worked for more than five years with U.S. and British forces when he was fired.

"I dunno; my time was up or something. I think they have a security policy that if you work a long time with them then you know (too much) stuff about them. A lot of my friends who worked a long time with them are fired — they made excuses."

(Arnoldy is a Christian Science Monitor staff writer.)

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