Afghanistan war: What happens when a war interpreter doesn't know the language

US troops rely on local Afghan interpreters in the mission to win hearts and minds in the Afghanistan war. But many learn crucial languages on the job, resulting in deadly mishaps.

By , Staff writer

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    US soldiers of Bravo Company 2/508th PIR, 4th BTC, 82 Airborne (Air Assault) (L) and Afghan translators fly a kite at a base in Kandahar province's Kukaran on August 5.
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American soldiers in Afghanistan are relying on civilian interpreters who, in some cases, do not know the languages they are 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, tells ABC that 28 percent of the interpreters hired by the firm between November 2007 and June 2008 failed the US government’s language requirements. The company denies the charges and is fighting the lawsuit in court.

The interpreters in question appear to be those hired from the US and sent to Afghanistan, mostly of Afghan ancestry. But American troops also rely heavily on local Afghan interpreters who are supplied by various US contractors.

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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,” says 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 here – refused to be fully named, explaining that they could be killed if other Afghans learned they had worked for the US military.

Dangerous mishaps

Yousuf admits that when he was working with international forces in 2004, he did not know the Pastho 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, named 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 admits that his poor Pashto may have played a role in the misunderstanding. “If it was in Dari, maybe I would have heard it well enough.”

Yousuf says 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.”

Bribing your way to a terp job

Tahir and another terp, Malikzada, allege 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, tells the story of a fellow terp, Javed, who had 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,” says Ibrahim.

The ANA mortars killed many innocent people in the area, says Ibrahim. The colonel was angry with Javed, but let him off with a warning. Ibrahim says new terps like Javed should receive training on military phrases and other difficult terms.

Young interpreters, young perspective

Another potential problem is experience. Some of the terps are extremely young when hired. Tahir says he joined at age 16. “The soldiers were making fun of me: ‘Look at this kid!’ ”

He says 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.”

Part of the problem - experience costs

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. But anyone with years of English experience could earn far more working for international organizations in urban areas, they claim.

“We have mentioned [seniority pay] several times to the team I worked for,” says 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 worked more than five years with US and British forces when he got 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.”

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