One of the best (and, sadly, only) stories I’ve read in a while about interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan is this piece by Neil Shea on NPR/Foreign Policy. What’s so great about it is the way he shows how progress (if that’s the word to use) on the ground depends not on the number of interpreters, the amount of money that the Pentagon pays to defense contractors to supply those interpreters, or the quality of the interpreters themselves. What matters is the interaction from all sides of the language barriers that occurs in the traffic of words. Both sides fail; they can’t help themselves.
U.S. troops rely on translators. There is no alternative. On the battlefield and in the shuras, young officers like Kearney, raised in the get-down-to-business culture of America and its military, often express themselves to their translators directly and with heaps of slang, roughly the way they might talk to a college buddy. The terp is then expected to decide not only how to translate the words but also how to bridge the gulf of propriety and custom. But although this colloquial language is informal, it is still complex. And unfortunately, it assumes even more common background and idiomatic understanding than a more formal diction would: Think of phrases like “man up,” “freedom isn’t free,” or even “shoulder responsibility” and “build your nation.” In the best circumstances, the most successful shuras, it would be unrealistic to expect all this meaning to pass intact to a group of old men from another world. Try filtering it through a translator who didn’t attend college, was never your buddy, and didn’t grow up surrounded by phrases Americans take for granted, and the chances for error or insult multiply rapidly.
This resonates in interesting ways with David Mitchell’s new masterwork novel, <a href="The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel, which I just finished reading. The novel takes place on a small trading island where the Japanese keep their Dutch trading partners contained, like dangerous viruses. They’re managed by a guild of Japanese translators and interpreters (interestingly, whole families get into the language business, and fathers pass positions to sons) who not only communicate messages but also act as censors and procurers, and who even engage in corruption themselves. The Dutch don’t learn Japanese — except for de Zoet, who begins the novel as a wet-eared but canny lower clerk pining for a girl at home and ends up, many years later, as someone so inside the culture and language but who still couldn’t be with the Japanese woman he loves. Over and over Mitchell shows how the real trade isn’t in copper or porcelain; neither is it in ideas (an early scene has de Zoet fearful that his Psalter will be confiscated; Christianity is prohibited in Japan) and knowledge (the Japanese clamor for Western medical expertise). The real traffic is in words and what they mean.
As a depiction of the economy of language in a pre-colonial context, Mitchell’s novel is excellent. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, translation and the economies of meaning determine outcomes — not only in terms of geopolitical resolution but in terms of what has to happen in order for US soldiers to be able to leave those places and come home, alive.