First, Kill All the Translators

by Dennis Baron

It may have been Shakespeare who came up with the line, ÒThe first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,Ó (2 Henry VI, IV.ii), but it turns out that the people we really donÕt trust are the translators. In the past few weeks federal authorities have arrested two American translators and questioned a third working with detainees at the American facility at Guant‡namo Bay, Cuba (they also arrested a Muslim chaplain). They are suspected of espionage, passing secret information to the enemy. In addition, investigators fear that the translators may have intentionally mistranslated exchanges between prisoners and interrogators. The translators are citizens, and one is a soldier, while the other is a contract translator hired by Titan Corporation, a private defense contractor (the chaplain is a West Pointer).

                  Personnel working with prisoners at Guant‡namo ostensibly undergo background checks. The Arabic translators Titan supplies to the Army must already possess a ÒSecretÓ security clearance and should be eligible for ÒTop SecretÓ clearance. Also required is the Òability to deal unobtrusively with the local populace . . . [and] to conduct oneself in accordance with the local culture and customs.Ó

So the Army is not just looking for a few good Arabic speakers, itÕs looking specifically for a few good Arabs, who can blend in and win the trust of the enemy. There just arenÕt enough non-Arab Americans who speak Arabic and have the necessary clearance to work in counter-terrorism and military operations. ThatÕs because Americans, whatever their origins, donÕt study foreign languages all that muchÑthey donÕt even study their heritage languages.

We are a nation forged from many ethnicities, and while Teddy Roosevelt once warned the United States that it could become a polyglot boarding house, we have become instead a monolingual nation, one that doesnÕt trust speakers of any language except English.

After 9/11 there was a surge in enrollments in Arabic classes in colleges around the country, but that didnÕt do much to meet national security demands. Arabic is not a language you can pick up in a crash course. One Pentagon official says it will take twenty years to train enough trustworthy Arabists for the nationÕs defense.

In the mean time, we have to rely on native speakers of the lesser-taught languagesÑArabic is widely-spoken around the world, but it is not widely-taught in the United States. ItÕs usually a good idea to use native speakers for foreign languages, but the trust issue is compounded when the language they are speaking is an enemy language. In World War I, German publications could not be sent through the U.S. mail; schools dropped German from the curriculum; in Iowa it was illegal to use German on the street or on the telephone. That didnÕt do much for foreign-language study.

We dealt with the enemy language problem in World War II by herding many Japanese speakers into detention camps. After the war we sparred with the Soviet Union for years, but only after they beat us into space with Sputnik in 1957 did we seriously try, with the hastily-passed National Defense Education Act, to bring America up to speed in math, science, and Russian. We never excelled in Korean or Vietnamese, and as our Arabic experience shows us, weÕre still playing catch-up with language.

The problem goes well beyond ÒenemyÓ languages. We donÕt even like friendly languages spoken in our presence. A group of my fourteen-year-old sonÕs friends were over the other night and one of them, calling his father for a ride home, spoke in Spanish. When he hung up, another of the boys said, ÒI donÕt like it when someone uses a foreign language in front of me. I think theyÕre talking about me, making fun of me.Ó In the group were speakers of Chinese, Korean, Hebrew, German, and Hindi, as well as Spanish, and the boy who expressed his concern was studying Latin. Unfortunately, his paranoia is a common one in the United States: if I canÕt understand them, I canÕt trust them.

The translators who were arrested may very well have been spies, though none of the charges really stuck. ThatÕs not the point. The point is, our own ability not just to spy on our enemies but to know whatÕs going on in general is compromised by our weakness in language study. Depending on translators only emphasizes our helplessness, and sharpens our fear that translators, masters of two languages, speak with forked tongues.

There was another story about the language barrier in the news along with the arrests of translators. A third translator, an Iraqi Christian working for the U.S. Army in Khaldiyah, Iraq, was shot to death. A message on a Khaldiyah wall read, ÒEveryone who provides a service to the Americans is a traitor.Ó As we see, translation has become risky business, so it should also come as no surprise that many Iraqis donÕt trust anyone who speaks English.


Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.