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Language Work, Language Unwork

When it comes to language and politics, there are four major stories in the American context:

1) language diversity in the US vs. English-only nativism

2) the rhetoric and the reality surrounding foreign language expertise in the federal government

3) the evolution of linguistic style, including error, in public life; and

4) language work & workers in the war on terror & Iraq.

In the March 26 New Yorker, George Packer has a good story on Iraqi interpreters in Iraq and how surprisingly ill-treated or ignored they’ve been. Packer raises the question: have we prepared to take the people who have helped us in Iraq, when and if we leave? The answer is, of course, no.

Iraqi interpreters are the most contemporary manifestation of a long line of translators and cultural mediators who have done the work of the expanding West whenever it contacts non-European cultures and languages. This lineage of language work begins with Doña Malinche, extends through the frontier expansion of the American West (think not only Squanto and Sacagawea but numerous scouts and soldiers recruited, bribed or captured from Indian tribes), and is now bureaucratized and technologized to support our unpredictable geopolitical commitments and needs to surveil a world of telecommunications.

As I was working on this blog post, wondering how I was going to find out the history of translation and translators on the American frontier, I saw an article on Alternet by Jeff Stein, the National Security editor of Congressional Quarterly about just how poorly underskilled military linguists – even those “certified” in Arabic – are. He interviews a former contract linguist, Dustin Langan, who tells a horrific story about how language work is really treated:

If you look at some of these companies, I think they were originally communications companies, and they said to themselves, We’ll do linguistics too. They kind of treated like it was a technology they could buy and send over there.

Marc Herman also did a cool interview with Langan in Radar.

Stein’s piece ends with something that’s been noted a lot before, but seeing the figures sort of brings it home:

According to a Feb. 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Defense has “separated several hundred members with training in important foreign languages. During fiscal years 1994 through 2003, DOD separated 322 service members for homosexual conduct who had some skills in a foreign language that DOD had considered to be especially important.”

Among them were 55 soldiers considered “proficient” in Arabic, the GAO said. But as disturbing as a lot of people found that report, the fine print should have — but didn’t — rile people who are in charge of this war.

Here it is: Of the banished homosexuals, 209 had attended DLI “for training in one of these important languages,’ the GAO said.

Lest you think there’s some gay connection to language aptitude, Stein’s last fact should disabuse you: only 98 of the 209 had received a proficiency rating; of these, 62 scored at or below the midpoint of the Department of Defense’s scale. That is, only one-third of the people who could speak a foreign language were any good, and they were less than one-fifth of the total who attended DLI. The confounds are many, though. The count spans 9 years, for one thing. And I don’t know the proficiency rate for DLI grads as a whole. If you’re part of an aggrieved group in a culture like the military’s, does that affect test performance? What’s the attitude towards gays at DLI specifically? And would you test lower if you knew you were getting kicked out?

Something going on here worth checking out.