Monday, October 19, 2015

Quotable: Jessica Cook on translating and interpreting, “a microcosm of diplomacy”

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Sunday, October 18th 2015
A crucial step in communication with foreign audiences is translation of American thinking, expressed in American English, into a local language.  Foreign Service officers often have been schooled in a host country’s language, and they can also bring to bear the bilingual abilities of an Embassy’s local employees.  Military units and headquarters, on the other hand, often deploy without much capacity in (written) translation and/or (spoken) interpretation, and this impairs a commander’s grasp of local conditions. 

FSO’s need to understand the contours of the problem in the armed forces, for in whole-of-nation counterinsurgency campaigns, both Embassy staffs and military commands must manage with whatever scant resources are on hand.  More knowledge of the organizational and human resources dimension of the issue should be in each FSO’s mental backpack.

Army Captain Jessica Cook, a former commander of the 51st Translator Interpreter Company at Fort Irwin, California, writing in the September-October, 2015, issue of Military Review, provided an overview of the Army’s response to the need.  Her article, “Army Translator and Interpreter Companies: A Wasted Resource,” can provide a professional introduction.  Realizing how deployed Army units needed fluent speakers, “the Army’s preferred solution was to enlist bilingual (or multilingual) native speakers of other languages to train as soldiers, translators, interpreters, and cultural emissaries.”

How the Army enlisted soldiers who spoke such languages as Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi,Urdu, and Tajik, how these soldiers were trained and deployed, and how the “09L” Military Occupational Specialty is managed -- will be of interest to FSOs and HR managers.

Here, however, are a few of Captain Cook’s thoughts on the importance of accurate translating and interpreting.  Regional English Language Officers and language instructors at the Foreign Service Institute will nod their heads.

As a practical matter, high-quality translation and interpretation are not rendered merely by assembling words literally translated from one language into another.  To be effective, professional translators and interpreters need a comprehensive understanding of the cultural backgrounds, languages, and motivations of all parties for whom they are translating. Just as native English-speaking soldiers studying other languages need to interact with native speakers of the languages studied (preferably through language immersion), so do U.S. Army translators, who are not native speakers of English, need to interact with English-speaking Americans. They need extensive social interaction with other soldiers and other U.S. civilians, more than Fort Irwin or Fort Polk can provide through training rotations, so they can improve their proficiency in idiomatic American English and gain intimate familiarity with American cultures.

To illustrate the challenge of rendering an idiomatically correct translation, consider a word-for-word translation of the English language statement “I made a friend today” into German. The phrase would have the awkward literal meaning of “I constructed a new friend today.” Other examples of idioms in English that might cause problems if only rendered as literal word-for-word translations into another language come from a cultural tradition of British naval dominance that has filled the English language with metaphors about seafaring: “That ship has sailed;” “This ship sails itself,” or “She runs a tight ship.” In practice, these phrases are commonly used metaphorically in circumstances that have nothing to do with ships or sailing. If a translator comes from a historically landlocked culture unfamiliar with the intent of the metaphor, rather than its literal meaning, these idioms make no sense. All known languages are filled with such metaphors, the meaning of which can only be learned with time and experience by intimate and constant exposure to a language even as it is evolving.

Skilled translators and interpreters need sufficient familiarity with U.S. cultures and routine exposure to American English so they can master the nuances of American jargon. They need practice hearing and using American English and choosing just the right way of interpreting meaning to achieve the intentions of both parties. During operations, they often interpret language without the benefit of time for research or reflection. They need practice applying critical and creative thinking skills to render precise interpretations of meaning. This is a serious matter. In many situations, the stakes for misunderstanding or misinterpretation due to the inability of interpreters to properly phrase and communicate shades of meaning are high. In a tenuous situation, such as a first meeting after hostilities, one communication misstep could spell disaster for all involved.

Thus, translation can be viewed as a microcosm of diplomacy that requires frequent, lifelong, specialized training as well as ongoing meaningful exchanges with a variety of people from all walks of life.

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