The progressive translator

The purpose of this blog is to provide a forum, a clearinghouse, where progressive translators and other interested persons may discuss issues of concern, including, but not limited to, political aspects of translation, translation theory, the policies and structure of the ATA, and activism at the local group level.


Ken Kronenberg is a German translator specializing in medicine, patents, and 19th- and 20th-century diaries and letters. The views and positions taken by guest bloggers are not necessarily those of Ken Kronenberg or the Progressive Translator.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The "Translator Surge"

In his article titled "DynCorp Wins Army Pact to Supply Translators in Iraq." in the December 18, 2006 edition of, Will Swarts references Progressive Era journalist Randolph Bourne and his 1917 essay "War is the Health of the State." "Nearly a century later," as Swarts notes, "it's much healthier for the private sector."

Case in point: In mid-December 2006, DynCorp International and McNeil Technologies were awarded a "$4.6 billion, five-year contract from the Department of Defense to provide language services to the U.S. Army and other U.S. government agencies fighting in Iraq." Swish that around in your mouth a bit: four point six billion dollars! The "translation agency" that they set up is called Global Linguistic Solutions LLC. And, the "contract calls for 6,000 local Arabic translators and up to 1,000 U.S. staff who are trained in the regional languages."

And what happened to the previous holder of the contract? Remember Titan Corp., the company that was featured in Robert Greenwald's documentary "Iraq for Sale," and whose translators were implicated in the prisoner abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? Titan was acquired in 2005 by L-3 Communications for a whopping $2+ billion. It was a great deal at the time since Titan was the government's leading supplier of linguists, according to Defense Industry Daily. But for some reason, L-3/Titan lost the contract to DynCorp, even though DynCorp "previously had no experience in overseeing linguistics services"!

According to Erik Olbeter, an analyst at Stanford Financial Group:

"We have gotten no disclosure on exactly why the military decided to change. Clearly they're going to be employing the same people — it could have been the price, it could have been something interesting in the DynCorp proposal. We just don't have any information."

Perhaps the winning bid had something to do with the fact that the VP in charge of the new venture is a former commandant of the Defense Language Institute, Michael Simone. -- Or could it be that Titan was too tainted by the disclosures of abuse?

In any case, as Olbeter noted, "Clearly they're going to be employing the same people." And who are these people?

Apparently, the linguist contract is referred to on Wall Street as the "taxicab contract" because so many bilingual cab drivers went to work for Titan. And why shouldn't they have? As a former cabbie myself I have a hard time second-guessing anyone wanting to trade grueling 12- to 18-hour days with the potential to earn, say $150-$200 per day, for an exciting gig with a guaranteed income of at least $150,000 per year. At the old Boston Cab garage, Arabs and others from the Mideast were routinely ridiculed as "camel jockeys" and "ragheads." Now they will have a seemingly important role to play. Who wouldn't grab the ring?

The problems, however, are several. For one thing, with very few exceptions these recruits are not trained linguists, and we know from experience that, at least under Titan, they received virtually no training in interpreting or translation. Will it be different now? Then there is the problem that translators and interpreters are right up there when it comes to being targets for insurgents. And how many of these newly minted linguists will come to identify with the aggressor, and act accordingly? The articles referenced in DynCorp's Wikipedia listing indicate that it's ethical track record leaves a little more than something to be desired.

But the issue runs deeper: The Iraq War is lost. It was ill-conceived at the outset and mismanaged throughout. The escalation being announced by the Bush administration -- euphemistically called a "surge" -- is either cynical or delusional. The war is being dragged out because those who started it cannot now admit that they were simply wrong -- or they want the next administration to be saddled with the "loss." Having squandered the lives of at least 3000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the administration promising to sacrifice even more lives.

Given the swamp of moral and ethical corruption and greed that gave birth to and maintains this war , it should come as no surprise that some of the forces on the ground -- including translators -- should behave corruptly.

And the corporations like DynCorp, Titan, and L-3 (not to mention Halliburton) that have become addicted to lucrative military contracts are more than happy to play along -- regardless of the cost in lives and treasury.


Anonymous rudy said...

Any time there is profit, somebody has to pay. The same goes for profiteering. And especially war profiteering. Who is paying this time? First the Iraqi people (to the tune of 650 thousand dead and counting). Second, American soldiers (to the tune of 3 thousand dead and 20 thousand badly injured). Third, regular, average people the whole world over. The world is not safer now than it was before. Actually, the opposite is true.

If L3 or Dyncorp or Titan asks you to join their workforce, you'd be well served to respond with a very loud "No!". Cross the street. Start walking fast in the opposite direction.

January 15, 2007 2:47 PM  

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