Military Interpreting: For many interpreters the least known part of the profession.

November 10, 2014 § 14 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) recently published an article I wrote on military interpreting in its official publication “Proteus.”

Military interpreting has always inspired me. I have the greatest respect and admiration for all those language professionals who serve their countries in harm’s way. For this reason, and motivated by my desire to share something about this part of our profession with all those who live abroad and maybe did not see the article, I have decided to post a version of this article with the needed changes to fit a blog format and honor my commitment to NAJIT. On this Veteran’s Day, I invite you to read it and to share your thoughts with the rest of us.

The conquest of Gaul by Caesar in 58 BC, Hannibal’s march across the Alps in 218 BC, the defeat of Persia by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, the Mongol invasion of China in 1279 AD and Napoleon’s victory over the Third Coalition in 1805 have at least two things in common: They are among the greatest military campaigns in the history of the world, and they all involved two or more nations that spoke different languages. On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant arrived at a small courthouse to meet with General Robert E. Lee. After four years of war Lee had come to Grant to bring the American Civil War to an end. The two generals had a quick chat about a time they met each other in Mexico during the Mexican-American War, politely negotiated the terms of surrender, signed the agreement, and then waved each other off. The whole thing was over in just a couple of hours. Surrenders can be much easier when both parties speak the same language.

The first interpreter appears in history some 45,000 to 60,000 years ago when the Homo sapiens first met the Neanderthals and realized that they could not communicate. That first interpreter could have been a commercial/trade interpreter (unlikely) or a military interpreter that helped negotiate territorial borders, travel rights, and other related matters; perhaps a surrender, maybe a declaration of war. We all know what is the oldest profession, but unlike translation that appears when humans develop a writing system, I am convinced that interpreting is the oldest bilingual profession in the world. Ever since that time, human groups have made war and they have used the services of soldiers and sailors who spoke the enemy’s language. Military interpreting is as old as humans.

What is military interpreting?

military interpreter is a commissioned officer of an armed force who interprets and/or translates to facilitate military operations. According to the United States Army careers and jobs description, a military interpreter is an individual primarily responsible for interpreting and sight translating between English and a foreign language who will first require nine weeks of basic combat training followed by advanced individual training to learn the skills that are required to perform interpreter support in several areas such as checkpoints, medical support, training host nation armed forces, VIP escort, and cultural awareness.   Interpreter officers are used extensively in multinational operations in which two or more countries do not share the same language, or in expeditionary missions where communication with the local population is crucial. Interpreter officers also work in the intelligence gathering and analysis together with civilian interpreters, translators, and analysts. In other words, military interpreting is an essential activity within a country’s armed forces during war and peace times.

A military organization’s demand for interpreters and translators changes according to the location of the military conflict. During the Cold War years the United States military and intelligence services placed particular emphasis on Russian, German, and other languages spokes behind the iron curtain. After September 11, 2001 the demand shifted to Arabic languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Pashto. In recent years there has been a resurgence of the need for French interpreters and translators because of the developments in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

The armed forces need for interpreters and translators also changes depending on the type of war being fought. During World War II the orders were to shoot all soldiers wearing an enemy uniform and interpreters were needed to interrogate prisoners of war, sight translate intercepted messages, and negotiate with enemy commanders. During the Vietnam War and the conflict in Afghanistan things were quite different, U.S. personnel were fighting against guerilla armies with no identifiable uniforms; for this type of military action interpreters are required to develop a close and trusting relationship with the locals; this requires a certain knowledge of the culture and social structure of those whose trust the interpreter needs to gain. In a war zone an interpreter could mean the difference between life and death for soldiers and sailors. The interpreter could overhear, as it has happened, part of a conversation about an ambush or an assassination. Spanish language military interpreters are generally used for natural disaster relief operations and for security checkpoints. Although the United States has no armed conflict with any Spanish speaking country, the fact that there are millions of Spanish speakers in the United States who do not speak English, and its geographical location, make of Spanish a very important language for military interpreting and translating.

Behind the lines interpreters play an important role in logistics and diplomacy. When an elected official visits a military base, military interpreters serve as escort interpreters for said dignitaries. They also participate in media relations with local news agencies, and in the acquisition of supplies from local merchants. Interpreters also listen to radio reports, watch local TV stations, and skim newspapers to gather information about local issues.

Who are the military interpreters?

Military interpreters have been essential to most historical events in the world. Besides the examples mentioned above, we can think of the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico and Peru where interpreters like Malintzin and Felipillo played a prominent role during the conquest. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés first met Malintzin after he defeated the Maya-Chontal forces in what is now the western part of the Yucatan peninsula. At the beginning, while she learned Spanish, Cortés used her as his Chontal Maya <> Náhuatl interpreter. She worked together with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest Cortés freed from the Mayans after years of captivity and knew Chontal, doing relay interpreting. It wasn’t long before she learned Spanish and Cortés realized how skilled she was, so she became his personal interpreter. She also taught Aztec culture to Cortés, and even protected him by warning him of an assassination attempt that had been planned while they were staying in Zempoala, the same way modern-day military interpreters are trained to do if they ever find themselves in that situation. After Columbus’ discoveries at the end of the 15th. century were known in Europe, and the Spanish conquistadors got to the Americas at the beginning of the 16th. century, they arrived to conquer and submit. It was a military enterprise, not a good-will tour; thus the interpreters that aided Cortés, Pizarro and the other Spanish commanders were military interpreters, not diplomatic linguists. It is extremely important to keep in mind that most of these native interpreters, including Malintzin and Felipillo, were not citizens of the big empires the Spanish army was fighting against. They were members of other native nations that had been submitted, oppressed, and exploited by the powerful Aztec and Inca Empires.

Military interpreters come from all walks of life. In the United States they mainly come from three different places: The military officers and regular members of the armed forces; civilians who have some foreign experience and language skills such as former foreign service officers who have spent time abroad working in embassies and consular offices; and local foreigner civilians from the conflict area who speak the required language as their mother tongue and have proficiency in English.

In the United States the 223rd. Military Intelligence Battalion provides interpreting, translating, counter-intelligence, and interrogation services, supporting the Army and the rest of the intelligence community. Many of the civilian and military officers who want to become interpreters attend the Defense Language Institute, a United States Department of Defense educational and research institution which provides linguistic and cultural instruction. The Defense Language Institute’s (DLI) primary foreign language school and training of trainers center are at the Presidio of Monterey, California, and it issues Associate of Arts in Foreign Language degrees to those students who come from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and law enforcement agencies to study one of over 40 languages that are taught at this facility. DLI (through the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State) has a facility in the Washington, D.C. area where it provides training in languages not taught at the Presidio of Monterey, and a location al Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. In recent years the United States Department of Defense has held some innovative courses like the Military Translation and Interpretation Training Pilot Program developed by Cyracom International for the Defense Language Institute. The United States Army currently has 14,000 “soldier-linguists” stationed around the globe. Compare this figure to the mere 1,000 interpreters who are certified to work in the United States Federal Court system in Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo. Of late, the U.S. Armed Forces have been relying more on outsourcing these services to private contractors. This is big business if you consider that in 2007 one of the largest language services contractors in Afghanistan was paid $700 million to provide about 4,500 interpreters and translators. Many of these interpreters are excellent and their language pairs are in high demand, so it is expected that once they leave the Armed Forces they will definitely impact the civilian language services market in the United States and abroad

What do military interpreters do?

Like all interpreters, military interpreters do consecutive and simultaneous interpretation as well as sight translation; however, the way the services are rendered and the environment where they are provided are very different from other types of interpreting. Sight translation is a very important part of their work. There are two kinds of sight translation: The “traditional sight translation” used primarily for strategic and intelligence purposes, and the more widely used summary sight translation. This type of sight translation is used during house searches, enemy searches and searches of local civilian population. The interpreter looks at the document, skins through it, and summarizes its contents for his superior officer. Then the superior officer decides, based on the information provided by the interpreter, if the document merits a more detailed sight translation or even a written translation. Keep in mind that many times during a search soldiers may come across a foreign document written in a language that does not use the Roman alphabet; summary sight translation helps the officer to differentiate a laundry ticket from the directions to build a bomb.

The most commonly used interpretation is a combination of simultaneous and consecutive rendition. When negotiating with the local elders or with enemy forces, interpreters often simultaneously interpret to their superior officer what the counterpart is saying. They do this by whispering into the superior officer’s ear; next, they interpret the superior officer’s words (questions and answers) to the counterpart using a consecutive rendition. Of course, this can vary depending on the number of officers the interpreter is interpreting for; if there are several, then the interpreter will do everything consecutively. The interpreter’s courage and skill are admirable as very often they perform the work under adverse circumstances such as choppers flying over their heads, shots being fired at them, or being surrounded by wounded people crying for help. All of it as they try to interpret and carry a weapon at the same time. Kathryn Bigelow’s movie: “Zero Dark Thirty” shows the role of the military interpreter throughout the film. There is one scene where an interrogation is being conducted through an interpreter performing (as it happens in the real world) a consecutive rendition. And of course, there is the sequence at the end of the movie when during the raid a navy seal turns to the interpreter and tells him to ask a young woman if the man they just shot was Bin Laden. You see the interpreter (previously seen getting off the chopper in full gear alongside the seals) pulling the woman aside, asking her, and reporting back to his superior.

Essential principles of military interpretation (Ethical considerations)

Because of their function, military interpreters work under a different code of professional responsibility. Yes, they are ethically bound to do a professional job, to interpret with accuracy, to prepare for the assignment and to interpret to the best of their ability. They are also ruled by a different set of values and constraints: A military interpreter’s top priority and obligation is to his country and to his fellow soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen. His rendition can and should suffer when he must take care of other priorities such as cover a fellow soldier, take cover himself, assist a wounded soldier, or comply with an order from a superior officer. Their loyalty is to their platoon or battalion. They are not neutral communicators; they are partial and serve one side: their armed forces. Military interpreters are required to interpret everything that the enemy or counterpart says, but they should only interpret back what they are told to interpret. If a superior officer tells them not to interpret to the counterpart either a portion of a speech or a paragraph of a letter, they must remain silent. They are always on duty as they may come across valuable intelligence at any time. It is important to understand that military interpreters are the only interpreters who work in an environment where one of the parties may be the enemy, and may want to kill him. Other interpreters, even court and diplomatic interpreters work in scenarios where there is an adversarial situation, but never with an enemy. Military interpreters are the only ones who hold a weapon while doing their rendition, and the only ones who, if necessary, have to be prepared to shoot one of the persons they are interpreting for. Military interpreters are motivated and moved by the highest principles of love of country and protection of their fellow citizens. This is important because the ethical justification to their job comes from this top values that most societies embrace. Military interpreters go to work every day ready to give their life for their country, and indeed this is common occurrence. Native military interpreters work under tremendous pressure and face incredible danger. They are repudiated by a big chunk of their communities, and are considered traitors by many. American military interpreter officers and enlisted personnel are at constant risk of fire and roadside bombs. Not long ago State Department Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff and her escort military interpreter were killed in Afghanistan while participating in a book give-away to local Afghan kids. She was 25.

The future of military interpreting.

A very pressing issue about the future of military interpreting has to do with another ethical and moral question: Should the nations who hire local military interpreters protect them after the conflict is over, and should these governments take the interpreters with them when they leave? This is a question that many military interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan are asking and to this day they have not received a clear answer. Countries like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Australia need to decide how they are going to handle this delicate situation. A negative or an affirmative answer that comes too late could have an impact on the recruitment of local military interpreters in the future.

As already stated, military interpreting has always been around and it is expected to continue to be an essential component of the armed forces. Languages may change and tactics could differ, but the profession as such will remain basically the same. One day military interpreters may not need to put themselves in harm’s way. The U.S. military already has automated airplanes and it is working on the development of a robot interpreter. In April 2011 the defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued a call to tech companies to design a robot interpreter that must be able to perform sight translations and interpret local gestures as well. It is unlikely that the armed forces will turn over their military duties to a machine, especially in the near future, but maybe space travel will be a place where robotic military interpreters will star their careers as the new “rookies” in the profession.

Although the Pentagon will not turn over its military interpreting and translation services to a machine or to a computer programmer in the near future, military interpreters will have an unprecedented impact on our profession during peacetime. Every day very capable military interpreters are coming back to civilian life, and they are joining civil society with language pair combinations that not long ago were next to impossible to get. These professional interpreters will flood the market with a new kind of interpreter: one who is used to work under a lot of stress and in very tough conditions, one that will bring to the table language skills and the cultural knowledge of their clients; if the government lives up to its promise and does not abandon those local military interpreters who served during the war, we may be able to choose native speakers for these assignments. That would certainly be a wonderful way to write the final page on the armed conflicts that we have lived now for over a decade, and a way to thank our military servicemen and women who worked as military interpreters, and at the same time render tribute to this little known but vital part of our profession. Now I invite you to share your thoughts on military interpreting with the rest of us.

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§ 14 Responses to Military Interpreting: For many interpreters the least known part of the profession.

  • Leo Leal says:

    Thanks for this interesting piece, Tony. I just had my first experience with the military during a multinational drill in Texas a few months back. It enhanced my vision and respect towards the military in a way never before felt. Although it was not in a true military endeavor, the exercise was very realistic and indicative of the situations faced by our service women and men while deployed. I commend and salute them not only today, but every day. Again, thanks.

  • Rosemary Dann says:

    Tony, thank you for reprising this excellent article. And thank you for your service to our country and our profession.

  • Robert Finnegan says:

    Thank you for the article.
    I worked as a translator attached to a UN peacekeeping mission, and trained local language interpreters hired in the field. I saw a lot of situations where the contingent’s soldiers/police did not know how to work with the interpreters, and we gave training on this as well. A lot of awareness needs to be raised.
    I think an even bigger issue are local interpreters hired by coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They face incredible danger for doing their work and are often left to fend for themselves when their usefulness is over.

  • Ted Wozniak says:

    Hi Tony, I was a 96C/97E Interrogator in the US Army from 1980-1989. At the time, we interrogators were the translator/interpreters, which was considered an additional duty. The interrogator Military Occupational Speciality (MOS) no longer exists as such, having been replaced by a “Human Intelligence Collector”, but these service members remain the primary active duty interpreting and translating resources. So one correction if I may. The US does not have any “commissioned” officer interpreters. They are enlisted/non-commissioned officers and, to a far lesser extent, warrant officers. To the best of my knowledge, we are the only armed forces in the world whose linguists are NOT commissioned officers, e.g., captains and majors, but rather sergeants.

    Other than that minor detail, excellent article about a too little known aspect of military service. Thank you!

    • Paola says:

      Ted, thank you for that insight. I have been trying to figure that out. I am debating whether or not to join and before I go to a recruiter I wanted to do as much research. If may, I’d like to ask you something.

      I am about to graduate with my Bachelor and I want to be an interpreter… If I were to join the army after, would I not be able to do it as an officer AND a linguist or interpreter? I would have to be an enlisted soldier in order to work as one?

      • Ted Wozniak says:

        Paola, sorry for the very late reply. Just came back to this blog piece for research purposes. The short answer to your question is “no”, you would not be an interpreter as an officer. (You also can’t join as an officer except for certain professions, e.g., doctor/lawyer.) The longer answer is, as a commissioned officer you could well wind up doing interpreting but that would not be your job title. Then there is warrant officer. Best you talk to a career counselor (NOT a recruiter) and ask lots of follow up questions.

      • Stephen H. Franke says:


        The replies in this thread asserting that only an officer can be a “professional military linguist (i.e. interpreter / translator) are partially correct and misinformed.

        A person can — if initially qualified via passing several tests for language aptitude, proficiency in a claimed foreign language(s), and related areas — enlist for, receive suitable training and qualification, and be classified and assigned as a military linguist.

        Ted Wozniak has provided very sound and good advice in his earlier about getting “ground truth” advice from a career counselor if one is available.

        The original article conflates the term “military interpreters,” as in actuality, the US Army (my original career service an enlisted soldier and later an officer) contains several distinctive types and levels of personnel with defined skills in foreign languages, largely determined by their other and primary duties.

        Examples include:

        [1] Full-time and extensively-trained “MOS-qualified” linguists who tend to work in either the HUMINT or Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) career fields. While those are primarily enlisted career tracks, they also provide career progression and appointment into the warrant officer corps. The NSA has a very-impressive and extensive program for “professionalization” of its assigned linguists provided by all the military services.
        (IMPO, the military services’ communities of non-SIGINT linguists have nothing close to that unique NSA program, for various and understandable reasons. When I was a Program Manager of The Army Language Program at The Pentagon, I became very aware and appreciative of the features of such career development programs developed for military service-members and GS civilians whose duties required those critical language, cultural, and language-enabled operational skills.)

        The above comment applies to (ahem) “plain vanilla” enlistees with little or no prior knowledge of a L2, but are rated via the “DLAT” as having high aptitude for learning a L2.

        Other prospective enlistees who already are heritage speakers of a foreign language, or have otherwise acquired testable and ratable fluency in a L2, normally undergo specialized assessment, classification, and assignment.

        [2] Personnel who are not full-time linguists, but require adequate proficiency in “language-dependent positions” which involve routine and frequent contacts and interactions with speakers of the particular L2. A relevant example includes members of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) community, such as Special Forces operators, PSYOP specialists, and Civil Affairs specialists. Those members attend various sources of basic acquisition language training (BALT) for functional ability in their assigned L2s.

        [3] Commissioned officers (usually senior captains or junior majors) who are selected and designated for the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) officer functional area, with regional concentration (i.e. the Middle East, my region, mostly the Gulf area); they must complete long-term education & training for full qualification as a FAO and resultant assignments.

        That program includes graduate school, followed (but sometimes preceded) by basic language acquisition training in a specified L2 language, usually (and depending on the specific L2 involved) at DLIFLC (Monterey, CA), contract training arranged by the DLIFLC Washington Liaison Office (in VA), FSI in VA, and occasionally overseas sources.

        FAO-trainees then must complete 1 – 1.5 years of overseas residence for their required “In-Region-Training” (IRT) phase, hosted by a US Embassy in the region.

        After completing all of that qualification, then they “get to work.” FAOs are often assigned — but not always, which results in erosion and profound challenges to sustain their perishable language & cultural skills — to language-related assignments, such a military attaches at US Embassies, Command Liaison Officers, or other FAO-specific billets at major headquarters, such as US Central Command or US Pacific Command.

        FAOs who use their language and cultural skills the most are those usually assigned to billets as embassy attaches, liaison officers, or in international security cooperation (ISC) positions (i..e. military advisors or trainers in country X, or in ISC-related staff positions).

        A FAO in an attache position tends to get selected by his/her respective US Ambassador to interpret and otherwise liaise during bilateral diplomatic meetings and other occasions where non-US interpreters are prohibited, especially where matters about security, defense cooperation, intelligence, or counter-terrorism are involved.

        Hope this helps. Today is Saturday, 11 July 2015.


        Stephen H. Franke
        Senior veteran Arabic linguist, dialectologist, and
        trainer/SME (DLIFLC and other USG Agencies)
        San Pedro, California

  • Great article. I have always been fascinated by the Malinche story. Thanks.

  • Janet George says:

    Thank you for a great article about a Profession overlooked too often !
    Every Linguist & situation is very different . Working with the Military
    Overseas is very challenging , interesting , exciting & a wonderful
    Learning experience ! Northrup Grumman Mission Systems hires
    Linguists that the U.S. Military & DOD train to work overseas at
    US Bases . It was an experience I will treasure always !

    • André Csihás, FCCI says:

      Having been a member and a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, I took special pride and felt great privilege in having been asked to participate as interpreter for the Fifth Army Inter-American Relations Program (FIARP), an event held here in Texas, hosting the presence of Mexican Army leaders with the purpose of fostering and strengthening cultural and professional relationships.

      I was observing and interpreting simultaneously the maneuvers that were being executed, as well as describing the hardware shown, explosive power of warheads, snaking my way in and out of APC’s (Armored Personnel Carriers), tanks, special trucks and actively participating in events that normally one doesn’t get do on a routine basis. There were also presentations with questions and answers in designated auditoriums.

      Of course, in addition to previously furnished information, I prepared for it by reading up on relevant material and finding the translated terminology so that I could do the best job possible. Moreover, the “sixth sense” one develops while being in the military helps tremendously, because somehow the experience forever connects you to that endless line of military personnel who have become your extended family.

      André Csihás, FCCI

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