Mistakes By Afghan Translators Endanger Lives, Hamper Antiterrorism Effort
September 02, 2008
When U.S. or NATO soldiers need to communicate with Afghan villagers, they rely on translators provided by private contractors. But for various reasons — regional dialects, cultural misunderstandings, or even ethnic animosities — translators in Afghanistan often don’t relate everything they hear.
And what is lost in translation can hurt efforts by NATO and the U.S.-led coalition to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. In the worst cases, innocent civilians can be arrested or wrongly targeted as Taliban fighters.
Zalmai Zurmutai, a Pashto translator for NATO troops in Afghanistan, is angry about what he has seen happen when unqualified translators serve as a liaison between foreign troops and Afghan villagers.
For example, Zurmutai says, when a Dari speaker from northern Afghanistan is sent out with NATO troops to Pashtun parts of southern Afghanistan, it is not unusual for the translator to have difficulties understanding the local Pashto dialect.
Other times, Zurmutai says, a young Afghan translator who has grown up in Europe or the United States does not understand the traditional tribal culture of Pashtun villagers.
‘Unable To Convey The Meaning’
Local animosities also can come into play. When a translator is from a tribe or ethnic group that suffered under the rule of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban regime, Zurmutai says some treat Pashtun village elders with contempt — the kind of behavior that can turn an entire village against the foreign troops.
“If you go to [the provinces of] Kandahar or Oruzgun or Zabol or Paktia, most people can’t understand Dari,” Zurmutai says. “And if you go to Badakhshan or Takhar, they don’t speak Pashto and they can’t understand it. Imagine when a [native Dari speaker] becomes a translator and goes into a Pashtun village where the people cannot speak Dari — and the translator cannot understand [their local dialect of] Pashto.
“Unfortunately, there are so many translators like this who are unable to convey the meaning of Pashto speakers to the coalition forces. And he can’t convoy the message of foreign troops to these local people,” Zurmutai continues. “There also are some Afghan translators who are coming from other countries who are less familiar with the Afghan culture. They don’t know about the tribal value system. Or there are some emotional young Afghans who don’t care about the local values. They have very rude behavior — very [undiplomatic and] cruel — without respect for people. They are creating misunderstandings between local people and the coalition forces. They are destroying mutual trust. There are some translators who are working for their own political, personal and tribal interests. These translators are treating people in a very bad way.”
John McHugh is an independent filmmaker whose documentary “Lost In Translation — Afghanistan” was released on the Internet this summer by The Guardian newspaper group.
Filmed while McHugh was embedded with U.S. troops near the Afghan-Pakistan border, the eight-minute documentary shows how tensions rise between U.S. soldiers and Pashtun villagers when a Dari-speaking translator is unable to understand a village elder’s Waziri dialect.
‘Is It Any Wonder?’
The elder gives lengthy answers to the U.S. soldiers’ questions about the lack of security in their village and the threats against them by Taliban fighters who regularly cross the nearby border with Pakistan. The translator fails to convey the elder’s concerns.
“The soldiers ask to speak to the village elders, but everything gets lost in translation,” McHugh says. “Everything here hinges on the translation — the subtleties of Pashto and English. The translators have become unexpected power brokers in all this. And sometimes, they just don’t translate everything they hear. Is it any wonder that the Americans feel baffled in these situations and that ordinary Afghans feel ignored?”
Zurmutai says there are many misunderstandings during NATO military operations in Afghanistan that are caused by bad translations.
Zurmutai described one case in which a translator wrongly told NATO troops that an encampment of Pashtun nomads — a Kochi tribe — were Taliban fighters. He says it was only the last-minute intervention of another translator that stopped NATO from calling in an air strike on the tents of the innocent nomads.
“Unfortunately, we can’t deny that there are tribal and regional differences between Afghans today. And translators are involved in this stuff,” Zurmutai says. “Many translators have been sacked because of creating these kinds of conflicts. Recently, so many people have been killed in mistaken bombardments that were later found to be the result of bad translations.
“Nowadays, coalition forces understand that the real source of the problem is with the translators. And they are paying more attention to this issue,” he continues. “If this problem would be solved, it would be a major step forward for reconstruction and for bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.”
U.S. and NATO military officials in Afghanistan have admitted to RFE/RL privately that inaccurate translations cause problems for their soldiers, whether in a battle situation or simply communicating with members of a rural Afghan community.
One problem has been for the U.S. military to get qualified Dari and Pashto translators who also meet the Pentagon’s security criteria. For years, the Pentagon required that its translators be American citizens and also have top secret military security clearance.
That was the case through 2005 when translations for U.S. forces in Afghanistan were provided by the private U.S. firm Titan as part of a $4.65 billion contract with the U.S. Defense Department.
Former Titan employees tell RFE/RL the company had great difficulties meeting the demand for Afghan translators with the necessary security clearance. As a result, former employees say Titan appeared to overlook the language deficiencies of many of the translators it provided.
A firm called L-3 Communications Holdings inherited Titan’s translation contract when it bought Titan in 2005. [By year’s end, with numerous complaints on file about Titan translators, L-3 lost the contract for interpreters in Iraq. A new five-year deal for U.S. military translations in Iraq was awarded in February to Global Linguistics Solutions, a joint venture of DynCorp International and McNeil Technologies.*]
At the same time, the Pentagon publicly recognized the limitations of its human expertise, launching an initiative to improve foreign language skills and cultural knowledge within the U.S. military. Admitting that a great deal of information was being lost, Pentagon officials said translators who act as go-betweens would no longer be seen as the whole solution in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Under that initiative, linguistic and cultural expertise started to be seen by the Pentagon as a warfighting skill that needed to be incorporated into operational and contingency planning.
Nick Grono, the deputy president of the International Crisis Group, tells RFE/RL that the Pentagon initiative was a step in the right direction. But he says there still needs to be more focus on ensuring that the translators who go out with foreign troops in Afghanistan do their jobs correctly.
“We have said that there has been a woeful lack of investment in translation interpreting capabilities,” Grono says. “So much of what drives support for the Taliban is not support for their agenda or support for their objectives. It is grievance driven. It is grievances with a local government. It is grievances with the international community that is often perceived as supporting a corrupt or illegitimate provincial government. So if you don’t understand these grievances, if you don’t understand them properly, it is very difficult then to devise strategies that enable you to effectively respond.”
Grono says a good translator can help prevent air strikes on innocent civilians, like the bombing last month of a village in Herat Province that, according to UN investigators, killed 90 civilians. In that case, the Afghan government sacked two senior Afghan military officers, saying they had provided wrong information to NATO forces about the presence of Taliban fighters in the village.
“One of the big challenges for the international forces in Afghanistan is the whole cultural understanding issue,” Grono says. “It goes way back. It goes back to the initial international intervention back in 2001 and 2002 when there were claims that the Northern Alliance or warlords were using the international forces for their own ends and able to get them to target political opponents who weren’t necessarily a threat to the international effort. So much of this revolves around an inability to properly understand what the important issues are because you don’t have the ability to get to grips with them. Translators are information brokers in this context.”
Zurmutai says there has been progress in the last three years on improving the quality of NATO and U.S. translators in Afghanistan. But he says there are still translators working for the alliance who do not have any knowledge of the local dialects in the areas where they are deployed. As a result, Zurmutai says, some translators continue to cause more problems for foreign forces than they resolve.
RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan Deputy Director Hashem Mohmand and correspondent Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this story.
[* RFE/RL’s original story erroneously indicated that L-3 Communications Holdings lost its translation contract in Afghanistan, to be replaced by Global Linguistics Solutions. In fact, the GLS contract from February is for military translators in Iraq, not Afghanistan.]