The importance of translators and interpreters goes beyond localization, medical, legal, and business translation. As terrorism reared its atrocious head once more, this time in the French capital, the necessity for translation and interpreting is being highlighted. A Parisian police dog, Diesel, is being hailed as a hero following his death in a raid to apprehend the alleged mastermind of the recent Paris terror attacks. Perhaps, translators and interpreters also deserve some credit or at least should be accorded greater importance.
Translation Is Vital
It was 2004 when the Los Angeles Times published an article about the role played by translators in the fight against terrorism, highlighting the critical importance of translation and interpreting even in something not easily associated with the world of language translation. Also, around six years ago, The Washington Times published an exclusive piece about how the lack of translators affected the US anti-terror war. It’s worth revisiting this subject in view of the recent Paris terror attacks. The article reported that United States national security agencies suffered a dire shortage of foreign language speakers and translators. Security officials back then noted how the government had to bear the challenge of fighting enemies who were using obscure dialects.
Translation Challenges in Antiterrorism
Writing for its 2010 budget report, the Senate Select Committee expressed worries over the lack of US intelligence personnel who have the necessary skills in reading and speaking the languages of people suspected to be involved in terror operations. The Senate Select Committee pointed out the scarcity of adequately skilled speakers of Dari, Pashto, Urdu, and other languages used often by those involved in terroristic plots.
It was as if the languages were already encrypted since nobody in the anti-terror forces understood them or were properly acquainted with them to precisely read into their nuances. If there were polyglots around, they may not know enough about local dialects or lingual idiosyncrasies to promptly determine the markers of terrorist activity.
Moreover, some years ago, the issue of biases against the hiring of competent Muslim translators also emerged. There were reasonable fears that Arabic translators could become major intelligence liabilities as a Muslim naturalized American citizen who worked for the US government intelligence pleaded guilty to the illegal possession of classified documents in relation to working with terrorists in Iraq. The Italian saying "Traduttore, traditore" (translator, traitor) rings true for many governments as they have since become extremely careful in hiring translators with a level of skepticism comparable to or worse than how many people are now being wary of Syrian refugees. There’s a growing concern that some of these refugees could actually be terrorists riding on the mass migration Trojan horse.
Challenge Shifts to Encryption Technology
At present, it would appear that the scarcity of competent interpreters and translators has already been addressed. After the Paris terror attacks, the issue that quickly emerged was no longer the lack of competent translators and interpreters or multilinguals who work at the anti-terror agencies of different countries. Instead, authorities have been raising the idea of allowing governments to read into encrypted information to prevent terrorists from harnessing the power of technology to plot, coordinate, and hatch their sinister goals.
News about the terrorists’ use of anonymizing messaging apps and even Sony’s encrypted PlayStation network spread. Security experts, however, do not agree that granting governments access to confidential and critical information or channels of communication is a good idea. They believe it can bring more harm than good. For them, it is not a viable suggestion considering how governments are not really known for being trustworthy. The idea may only make it easier for terrorists to access the information they need to spread more severe damages as they might find it easier to get into online banking infrastructure and power grids.
No Stereotyping, Just Work
It’s unfortunate that most of the languages that need to be learned are languages from the Middle East and South Asia. Many local Middle Eastern and Asian languages or dialects are being targeted because they are the languages used by the usual suspects and informants in terror plots. However, just to emphasize, all of these are just about work. It’s just a matter of addressing a demand. Government authorities did not just whimsically decide to focus on these languages but were simply being cognizant of the need to address the specific language divide to push through with meaningful anti-terror actions.
Risks of Translating for Antiterrorism
It’s patently wrong to think that translator heroes in terrorism are just working at the safe confines of their rooms or cubicles, far from the battlegrounds of the war against terror. Translators and interpreters are also risking their lives as they serve their roles in counterterrorism. The risks were clearly demonstrated by the death of hundreds of language service contractors in Iraq as of 2007. While translators working directly under the government may not be that exposed to terror’s dangers, the bulk of translation service providers who operate as freelancers and contractors serving different governments is gravely exposed to terrorist infiltration and attacks.
Qualifications and Duties of Anti-Terror Translators/Interpreters
Interested to become a translator or interpreter who contributes to the global fight against terror? These are the things to bear in mind:
- You need to be extremely fluent and well exposed to the real world use of the language you are specializing in to be able to quickly detect the possible signs of terror activities.
- Most governments prefer to hire translators who are their citizens, preferably those who have already worked in the government for a long time or those whose identities are already known to the government over an extensive period.
- The ability to maintain top-secret clearance is a must.
- Meticulous background investigations will be undertaken.
- Aside from translating and interpreting skills, the preferred candidate also has to demonstrate leadership and teamwork or collaboration skills.
The range of responsibilities of translators and interpreters in anti-terror agencies including the following:
- Listening to and translating intercepted communications
- Serving as interpreters for investigators
- Translating thousands of seized documents
- Training others to understand and speak a target language
- Interrogating suspects
Did the French adequately tap on the services of translators to prevent terror attacks? Is the lack of translators still a problem in today’s anti-terror efforts? It’s difficult to say what translation challenges are being encountered now. However, what’s clear is that translation is a vital part of anti-terror systems. Translators and interpreters can be heroes in fighting terrorists although some of them could also be working with terrorists to infiltrate governments.