SAN JOSE, CALIF. — "I feel like eating laban," I told my Egyptian friend recently in my Syrian-Arabic dialect.
"Don't you mean you feel like drinking laban?" she replied in her Egyptian-Arabic.
After a series of exchanges, we quickly realized that in Egypt, laban means milk, and in Syria the same word means yogurt.
Although this was a simple misunderstanding between two native Arabic speakers, it represents an increasing problem among Arabic translators in the US war on terror.
The federal government's lack of Arabic translators and the insufficient understanding - and consequent poor translation - of the language by the translators it does have may mean more Arab-Americans, immigrants, and foreigners could find themselves caught up in the government's dragnet.
Arabic is a difficult language, even for native speakers like me who have studied it for years.
There are many Arabics.
Classical Arabic is derived from Islam's holy book, the Koran, and Islamic studies. It is written but rarely spoken. Modern Standard Arabic, although not spoken by the masses, is the language of modern journalism, used in newspapers and news reports. Then there is colloquial Arabic, spoken differently in each of the 22 Middle Eastern countries. Meanwhile, within these nations there are dozens of regional dialects that add or subtract letters, words, and accents, with a sprinkling of other languages mixed in as well.
In light of all this, it is easy to understand the difficulties Arabic translators face as they try to accurately interpret the spoken and written language.
In Albany, N.Y., federal prosecutors have admitted mistranslating a crucial piece of evidence in a terror-related case against two Muslim men. At first, it was thought that an address book found at an alleged Iraqi terrorist training camp referred to one of the men, Yassin Aref, as "commander." The government later said the book's reference to Mr. Aref actually meant "brother" in Kurdish, which borrows many words from Arabic. The two men have since been released on bail.
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.
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.
Another antiterror case involves former Air Force interpreter Ahmed Al Halabi, a Syrian-born US citizen accused of espionage at Guantánamo Bay.
A former military translator, Suzan Sultan, came forward to say she had mistranslated a letter from the Syrian government to Mr. Halabi. She translated the letter as saying that the Syrians gave him permission to visit another country, Qatar. Later, Ms. Sultan testified, she realized that the word "Qatar," could also mean "homeland" or "region." This mistake could make or break Halabi's case. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
Meanwhile, in Spain, which has been a major US ally in the war on terror, Al Jazeera correspondent Tayseer Alouni, famous for having had the first exclusive interview with Osama bin Laden just one month after Sept. 11, 2001, was arrested last September for allegedly having more than just journalistic ties to Al Qaeda. After his release from jail, Mr. Alouni appeared on Al Jazeera, explaining that his telephone conversations had been monitored and mistranslated.
In the conversations, Alouni said he was discussing the "Nawawi 40," a commentary of 40 of the Islamic prophet's sayings compiled by Imam Nawawi, a revered 13th century Islamic scholar. But in Arabic, the word "nawawi" also means "nuclear," and the interpreter thought Alouni was referring to 40 nuclear weapons.
As the global war on terror continues, focusing on Arabs and the Middle East, the US government and its allies in this war must do more to increase the number of translators, screen them properly, improve their skills, and double-check translations.
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.
These are simple recommendations. But simple translation mistakes could mean, at least, the possibility of life in prison or tangled up in court, and at worst, the possibility of the death penalty for many innocent people here in America and abroad, who are under the watchful eye of international counterterrorism authorities.
• Souheila Al-Jadda is a freelance writer and an Arabic translator for the news program "Mosaic: World News from the Middle East," aired on Link TV and available on www.linktv.org.