Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Language of Terror

The few translators that our intelligence services actually employ are faced with a big problem in performing their jobs. Not all Arabic is the same. Different regions produce different dialects and colloquialisms. Especially troubling:
It doesn't take much to mistranslate words, because many Arabic words use the exact same letters. Arabic does not have vowel letters. Vowels appear as short lines or symbols above or below each letter, indicating pronunciation. These markings can change the meaning of the words. Often in official or handwritten documents, these vowel marks are not shown. Thus, the reader must derive the word's meaning.

Meanwhile, when spoken, many words sound alike, but have various definitions.

For example, the word meaning "appear" sounds like bada. The word meaning "start" sounds like badaa, with a slight guttural inflection. When pronounced quickly in news reports or in conversations, these two words sound almost identical.

But there is a big difference in saying, "He appeared to shoot," and "He started to shoot." It could mean the difference between an acquittal and a conviction.
Now for the really scary part:
A bipartisan State Department advisory panel on public diplomacy, headed by Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria, found that only 54 of 279 Arabic speakers employed by State are fluent. Of those, only six were fluent enough to appear on Arabic television programs. As of December 2003, the Army had approximately 1,300 active-duty soldiers who it said can read or speak some Arabic. The FBI has raised concerns over the shortage of Arabic translators, which has created a backlog of thousands of documents that require translation.

Different Government translators and contractors must implement a standard checking system to guarantee the most accurate translations possible. Current translators must take more intensive refresher courses, especially in colloquial Arabic, to familiarize themselves with the nuances of different dialects. Translators must also enter immersion programs, allowing them to live in, understand, and experience the cultures from which they are translating or interpreting. Finally, better incentives must be offered to attract high-quality translators.
What do you think the odds are we can get terrorists to start speaking slower?

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