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.
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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.”