09 September 2010

Lost in Translation

'Tis a rough time to work for a linguistics company in Afghanistan.  For much of the day, and I anticipate, the near future, I have been fielding accusatory questions from friends and family.  Among those more intimate with my position, there have even been calls that I turn whistleblower myself, considering some the shenanigans I have witnessed. 


There is certainly a strong ethical argument to be made for walking away.  I am frustrated, and sometimes horrified, at the implications of a providing a substandard product, which is to say, linguists.  Moreover, I have personally questioned the abilities of linguists hired in the US on more than one occasion.  There was the time when shoddy interpretation from a US hire nearly cost a local linguist his visa application, or again when several soldiers complained to me that their linguist did not know mission-specific language, including the Dari word for rocket (it turns out to be…rocket.  Fantastic). 


When followed to their most extreme consequences, such deficiencies could jeopardize both the US mission in Afghanistan and soldiers lives.  Honestly, I'm not always sure if the instances are the result of simple ineptitude or something more insidious.  Either way, they need to be investigated and addressed with promptness and gravitas.


Unfortunately, at least in my case, these concerns seem to fall on deaf ears.  Whether this is reaction is warranted or not, I often feel that certain actors at the Corporate office are more content adhere to the letter of our policies and contracts over the spirit, as the latter is too hard on the profit margin.  I had a dim view of it before, but now any faith I had in the reality of corporate social responsibility has gone up in smoke. 


Still, I find myself in the precarious position of having to defend a company I have no particular loyalty to, against allegations I partly agree with.  I can't say if it's guilt or a sense of community or what.  Human nature is a funny thing.


That said, part of my defense is, I think, warranted.  The majority of our linguists, both US hired and local, perform their jobs competently.  Admittedly, few are able to do so with a high level of proficiency, but that is in large part because their jobs are nearly impossible.  They have to translate the highly vernacular and jargon-heavy expressions of US soldiers (often delivered in regional accents, including Boston, New York, and South Carolina, just to name those floating around Camp Phoenix) into literally hundreds of dialects of Dari and Pashto.  This would be a prodigious task for even a professionally trained interpreter, a description that does not remotely fit our linguists.  It's unfortunate, but in many instances, even a marginally qualified linguist is better than none at all.  And given the numbers requested by the DoD in the face of the surge, marginally qualified is really the best we can deliver at this point.


Even so, much of my defense could legitimately be written off as rationalizing.  I was deeply conflicted about my motives for taking this position, and now about those for staying.  If I truly believed that the company was callously risking lives, or even mission effectiveness, for profit-maximization, I would have to quit.  As yet, I do not believe this to be the case, even as I continue to identify issues with linguist performance.  For now, I'll continue to sound the alarm in the hopes that I see some positive reform.  In not, I'll be interested to see how long I am able to suspend my ethical imperative before I flee theatre like a rat off a sinking ship.