Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Fighting an insurgency: you are only as good as your interpreter

October 22, 2009

AFGHANISTANSome of my nastiest moments as a war correspondent in the Caucasus and Central Asia had nothing to do with bullets, explosions or tanks. It is one thing to cover a conflict where you speak the language and quite another when you don’t. Working with a poor interpreter is worrisome at best, downright dangerous at worst.

I got by most of the time by speaking Russian, which is not an option in Afghanistan today. A recent PBS documentary on the conflict showed a U.S. squad in one isolated village having great difficulty making itself understood properly because the interpreter was second-rate.

This set me wondering. How do foreign troops work effectively in a place riven by factionalism and tribal conflicts, a place where interpreters can be threatened and even killed? How do they know the people translating for them are doing an even halfway decent job?

The Canadian military, which has 2,700 troops in the violent southern city of Kandahar, recently issued a large counter-insurgency manual. The Canadians have had a rough time, losing 131 soldiers so far, proportionately more than any other nation involved in combat. The manual is serious, comprehensive and well thought-out, explaining the importance of communication with locals. Nowehere does it mention the possibility that the locals may not always understand what you are trying to say.

I put this to Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, the head of Canada’s army, when I interviewed him this week. His response was forthright: “You are absolutely, 100 percent, bloody bang on. And I’ll tell you something. If I could turn the hand of time back to 2002, when Canada first went into Afghanistan, with the knowledge that we were going to be there until 2011, language training for officers and NCOs would have had precedence over a whole bunch of other things.”AFGHANISTAN

The army has a couple of hundred people who know their way around Afghan culture. Leslie says they should have thousands. For the most part the military relies on locals to help them navigate a ferociously complicated landscape. Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, Canadian commander on the ground, recently told CBC radio that working “in this theatre is incredibly challenging. It’s very, very complex. The nature of counter-insurgency warfare is hard and it’s a quantum leap harder in Afghanistan for a whole bunch of reasons”.

Leslie says the local interpreters are brave people doing a good job. “The use of interpreters can give you an understanding of local complexity, it can give you someone who can recognize key players, who can — if they’re honest and forthright with you and not intimidated to hell and back — (give) some suggestions on who to trust, who not to trust. The danger is of course that a lot of interpreters know they’re going to be there after we’re gone and you can’t always rely on every interpreter to give you all the info you might need,” he said.

To skirt the intimidation factor, some foreign troops have used interpreters from other parts of the country. This can pose unexpected complications — one NATO officer stationed in the south told me his translator absolutely hated the local people. So I asked myself, how much could he trust what the man was saying? And what effect would this have on the mission?

Leslie says this is the reason the Canadians mainly use local interpreters. But it’s clear he still has big regrets about the decision the armed forces failed to make so long ago. “I always thought we’d be there (just) two more years, two more years, two more years, and guess what?” The troops have been in Afghanistan for almost eight years and for the large part, cannot communicate without the help of others.

((Canadian soldiers in Kandahar province; Reuters photos))


The Canadian military is poised to try an alternative (albeit imperfect) – electronic Voice Response Translators, allowing troops to “speak” to locals when there’s no interpreter around (more on that here: ).

That said, though, electronics will NEVER replace the social dynamic, cultural or body language translation a live human seeing and hearing a message being delivered can provide.


As a language professional, I am used to seeing this disturbing trend in so many fields: business, medicine, technology. “We are just going to…, so why bother getting a translator.”

How sad that human lives are lost because someone is trying to take a shortcut.


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