A conversation between a US marine patrol in Baghdad and some locals, via a local Iraqi interpreter:
Marine Officer (smiling, and in English): Hi there, how’s everything going? I truly admire you guys for your religious discipline during Ramadan, in this most holy of Islamic months. I am sure you are all looking forward to the Eid al-Fitr after such amazing discipline?
Iraqi translator (in Arabic): Peace be unto thee, my father, I feel bad about translating the infidel’s offensive remarks, but I ask for Allah’s and your forgiveness for my unpleasant task. I have to do what I have to do, to feed my 9 children, a wife, 6 brothers - oh those lazy good for nothing, and 4 sisters - woe unto me for I can’t marry them off, and a mother-in-law - may the camel screw that old crone. O Father, this satanic infidel smiles wickedly at our religious practice and asked why you are so stupid as to fast yourself when everyone is enjoying their food and refreshing drink?
An Elderly Local (becoming angry, in Arabic): And peace be unto thee too, my son, and may Allah curse this infidel. It is times like this when I wish for that old devil, Saddam, to be back here where he would teach these satanic aggressors a good lesson. May the camel f*** his mother - no, not that evil Saddam's but this Yankee son of a scorpion's.
Marine Officer (puzzled, in English): Say Hussein, why is the elderly gentleman looking so angry?
Translator (in English): Sir, he hates Christian people but most of all, Americans like you. He said it’s a pity Osama didn’t kill as many Americans as possible during 9/11. And it's a pity Saddam didn't gas all of you. And sir, I hate to say this, but he said that your American mother was f*** by several camels and Jewish pigs.
The above is of course only a notional scenario, but represents growing concerns that the US military aren’t well served in the important area of communication between American troops and local Iraqis.
For a start, there isn’t enough interpreters to translate what could be possibly life-threatening or life-saving vital information. At intelligence headquarters, files and other captured documents in Arabic are piling up, waiting for translation.
Then, more importantly for troops patrolling the streets, the current limited number of interpreters are not enough to go around with every patrol. The Americans are also wondering whether the local interpreters can be trusted, for they could very well act not only as interpreters but also as self appointed editors or censors, to suit their political, ethnic or personal interests – that’s what my painted scenario implies.
Retired US Marine colonel Thomas Hammes, author of The Sling and The Stone: On War in the 21st Century and an expert in insurgency warfare, bemoaned the shortage of good and reliable Iraqi Arab translators for US troops in Iraq.
He criticised the Bush Administration for ill serving American troops over there. The silence on this issue of interpreter shortage has been remarkably puzzling, all the more so in stark contrast to the publicity surrounding other similar shortages for troops in Iraq (equipment, flak jackets, armoured vehicles, etc). He argued that the Bush Administration is denying US troops in Iraq the tools to do their job effectively.
He pointed out succinctly that without the facility and facilitation of communication across language barriers, American soldiers in Iraq are essentially blind to what’s going on around them.
Hammes painted a scenario similar to mine, that, for example, the US troops won’t be able to identify whether a loud argument in the market is over the price of tomatoes or a threat of murder.
He is worried about trusting local Iraqi interpreters completely. For example, an Iraqi who cannot speak English but wants to inform the Americans about insurgent activities would have to be completely dependent upon the local interpreter. His message wouldn't get across and he himself would be in mortal danger if the interpreter is an insurgent sympathiser.
Hammes is disgusted with the current situation where sometimes communication between American advisers and their Iraqi counterparts have been only by hand gestures
He identified the problem as the low pay an Iraqi-Arab interpreter gets. Why the hell would a reliable interpreter risk his life in a combat situation for a paltry sum while foreign truck drivers employed for work in Iraq are paid a world of a difference?
Hammes suggested that a reliable and good Arabic interpreter should be paid, say, $200,000 a year to serve in Iraq with the troops. He argued that if the work of that interpreter can prevent one single American casualty, that would have more than recovered the cost of employing the interpreter.
He recommends that Arabic-speaking Americans be employed for the task. He wants the Administration to stop marginalizing them as have happened after 9/11, just because they are Arabs. Hammes reminds the Administration to remember the two World Wars, where “new” Americans were as loyal to the Stars and Stripes as locally born or white Americans.
Certainly a deadlier scenario for the Americans than portrayed in the movie Lost in Translation which starred Bill Murray and the delectable Scarlett Johanssen.