Arabic Translation at the FBI (New York Times editorial)
Thread poster: Silvina Beatriz Codina

Silvina Beatriz Codina  Identity Verified
Local time: 08:20
Member (2002)
English to Spanish
Jun 7, 2002

I found this interesting because it shows how little it is really known in general about the complex skills of the translator, even in high places, like the FBI, and even when such crucial matters are involved. Maybe you\'ll find it interesting too.

New York Times, June 1

Lost in Translation at the F.B.I.


In announcing his restructuring of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, its director, stressed the importance of upgrading the F.B.I.\'s intelligence capabilities by recruiting \"the right people with the right experience.\" If my own experience with the agency is any guide, that should include an urgent recruiting drive for people with the right Arabic language skills.

Less than a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I responded to the F.B.I.\'s calls for Arabic translators. I know of a half-dozen other Middle Eastern studies graduates who also applied — Ph.D.s who, like me, are proficient in one or more Arabic dialects, as well as in Modern Standard Arabic. Ultimately — dismayed by what seemed to us the agency\'s flawed understanding of what proficiency in Arabic means — none of us pursued our candidacies.

I applied less than a week after Sept. 11 but wasn\'t called for the four-and-a-half hour translation test until January. It wasn\'t until February that I sat for a four-hour interview and polygraph test. The F.B.I. was then to begin a six- to eight-month background check. At the earliest, I might have started translating more than a year after I applied.

The slow pace, however, wasn\'t the most unsettling characteristic of the process. There was something more worrisome: The F.B.I.\'s Arabic translation test simply does not measure all the language skills needed for intelligence gathering focused on Arabic speakers.

The Arabic-language test — copyrighted in 1994 by the Defense Language Institute, according to the back of my exam booklet — was solely in Modern Standard Arabic, the Arabic most frequently studied at American universities. This is the form used for official speeches and in the news media in Arab countries — but almost never in conversation. It differs substantially from the spoken varieties of Arabic in vocabulary, syntax and idioms — enough so that a non-native speaker who learned only Modern Standard Arabic would not be able to understand Arabic speakers talking to one another.

The regional dialects also differ from one another — varying considerably from one end of the Arabic-speaking world (in Morocco) to the other (in Oman). The dialects are, for some Arabic speakers, mutually unintelligible. (Once, I mistakenly gave a Cairo taxi driver directions in Moroccan Arabic, and he responded: \"Ich spreche kein Deutsch.\")

These varieties of Arabic are the language of the market, the home and the street for the world\'s 200 million Arabic speakers. Yet no colloquial Arabic, in any dialect, appeared anywhere on the F.B.I.\'s Arabic translation test, which included a listening-comprehension section.

During my post-exam interview, I tried to offer some feedback about the test\'s failure to measure skills in everyday spoken Arabic, but the interviewer brusquely moved on to his next question. Nor was there a chance for me to name the two Arabic dialects in which I am proficient. The interview is scripted; there is no room for unscripted interaction. All the other Middle East studies applicants with whom I spoke said they, too, noticed the test\'s shortcoming but couldn\'t find an opening to comment on it.

As the F.B.I. reorganizes, it should improve its recruitment of Arabic translators by adding tests that measure fluency in one or more of these numerous Arabic dialects. Otherwise, its translators may be limited to reading Arabic newspapers or listening to Al Jazeera broadcasts. They may misunderstand wiretapped phone conversations or be unable to identify crucial information. Until the F.B.I. shows more willingness to listen to the experts it is trying to attract, it will not get the expertise it needs.

Geoff D. Porter teaches Middle Eastern studies at New York University.


United States
Local time: 04:20
English to Arabic
+ ...
Geoff Porter is not alone Jun 7, 2002

Adapted version of my letter to

The Editor,

The New York Times

Re: \"Lost in the Translation\"

Geoff D. Porter of NYU is not alone in his reception and treatment by the FBI when he volunteered his services as an Arabic linguist. Apparently, he also encountered a new definition of the term \"foreign intelligence.\"

After taking the same test series, I encountered similar rigidity and indifference at the FBI Los Angeles (LA) office when I mentioned the incongruity and discrepancy of a test battery composed solely of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).

My field is dialectology in the dialects of the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf region, a skill developed during a 30-year career with the US military as a Foreign Area Officer. Per Geoff Porter\'s comments, it would be better to administer the oral proficiency examination (in a \"criterion dialect\") before the travail of the taped MSA portions, rather than afterward, as is the case now.

The FBI LA representative was dismissive and indifferent when I suggested that I might fit and satisfy FBI\'s requirements for \"operational\" Arabic linguists since I had been the US Embassy\'s interpreter detailed to General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, then a field debriefer in NW Iraq of the first Iraqi scientist defector (who revealed Iraq\'s complex program for nuclear weapons development), and later served an arms control compliance inspector with UNSCOM in Baghdad.

A related suggestion, based on experience as a communications analyst, about the utility of FBI\'s checking and monitoring some easily-accessible foreign-language open source materials was also dismissed out of hand.

Should the FBI consider re-thinking the methods and criteria by which it selects linguists and language-capable analysts, I would be most pleased to provide some insights and advice. The Bureau\'s important and expanded mission of national security is hard enough as it is.


Stephen H. Franke

San Pedro, CA


Uwe Schwenk (X)
Local time: 06:20
English to German
Translation at the FBI Jun 7, 2002

The sad part is that this applies not only to the languages mentioned and not to the FBI alone. My company offers Translation and Interpreting services free of charge to the Emergency services. However, Federal Agencies provided quite often more obstacles, whereby the examples in the previous messages are perfect examples.

However, it works (at least for us) at the local level very well.

The problem I see with Government agencies is the result of the continually down-sized language programs over the last decade at the government per se and now there is a frantic approach to play catch-up.

The lack of expertise and a person with sufficient authority to invigorate changes are the main reasons. However, thats where politics and turf wars come into play. Add to this the budget problems and we have a disaster in our hands.

There are quite a few translators and interpreters willing and able to help the government, but...

[ This Message was edited by: on 2002-06-09 17:57 ]


Local time: 13:20
German to English
Bad translation has its uses, too... Jun 12, 2002

Those of you who read German may find the following link interesting: \"Bin-Laden-Video: Falschübersetzung als Beweismittel?

(a report by Georg Restle and Ekkehard Sieker, who asked some independent translators to listen to the tape):

\"Monitor\" is a well-known current affairs programme on ARD, the main German TV station. The story was also reported in many European newspapers and magazines, including \"Der Spiegel\":,1518,174025,00.html

To the best of my knowledge, none of this has been reported in the States, except on a few websites - such as this one, entitled \"Mistranslated Osama bin Laden Video - the German Press Investigates\":


Yasser El Helw  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:20
Member (2003)
Arabic to English
+ ...
a proper cultural understanding is also important Jun 20, 2002

Remember the Egyptair flight that dived into the ocean a few years ago. The investigation finally concluded that the pilot was suicidal. How did they reach this conclusion? The recovered black box revealed that the pilot before taking command said \"Tawakaltu ala Alah\" which was probably well translated into \"I place my destiny into the hands of my creator\". Based on the interpretation of this phrase, which is one of the most common formulas used by most Egyptians some twenty times per day before they embark on anything, including the simplest everyday activities, the American authorities confirmed the suicide theory. Its not only knowledge of Arabic dialects that they lack, its also the interpretation of the translation in the correct cultural context.


Arthur Borges
Local time: 19:20
+ ...
Mohammed Heikal has a translator story about Nasser and Khruschev Aug 13, 2002

The ex-Egyptian minister to President Nasser tells of Nasser\'s secret flight to Moscow during the 1956 Suez Crisis in a bid to secure maximum support from the USSR. Khruschev was willing to declare military maneuvers in the area but had no intention of engaging Western units. The hapless Soviet translator, however had never practiced Arabic outside a language lab, and metaphorically referred to long rows of Mig and Ilyushin aircraft as \"only toys\", suggesting they were expendable. When Khruschev realized the size of the mistake, Heikal claims, Nasser had to intervene personally to save our luckless colleague\'s life. Oh what wouldn\'t we sacrifice for our clients?


Uwe Schwenk (X)
Local time: 06:20
English to German
One scary question remains Aug 13, 2002

Given the aforementioned problems with the translation, what about all the captured documentation. If the translation is of the same quality, are the ones charged with protecting us here in the United states searching into the right direction?


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Arabic Translation at the FBI (New York Times editorial)

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