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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mistakes By Afghan Translators Endanger Lives, Hamper Antiterrorism Effort

By Ron Synovitz 
Coalition soldiers meet with local Afghan elders in Helmand Province.
When U.S. or NATO soldiers need to communicate with Afghan villagers, they rely on translators provided by private contractors. But for various reasons -- regional dialects, cultural misunderstandings, or even ethnic animosities -- translators in Afghanistan often don't relate everything they hear.

And what is lost in translation can hurt efforts by NATO and the U.S.-led coalition to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. In the worst cases, innocent civilians can be arrested or wrongly targeted as Taliban fighters.

Zalmai Zurmutai, a Pashto translator for NATO troops  in Afghanistan, is angry about what he has seen happen when unqualified translators serve as a liaison between foreign troops and Afghan villagers.

For example, Zurmutai says, when a Dari speaker from northern Afghanistan is sent out with NATO troops to Pashtun parts of southern Afghanistan, it is not unusual for the translator to have difficulties understanding the local Pashto dialect.

Other times, Zurmutai says, a young Afghan translator who has grown up in Europe or the United States does not understand the traditional tribal culture of Pashtun villagers.

'Unable To Convey The Meaning'

Local animosities also can come into play. When a translator is from a tribe or ethnic group that suffered under the rule of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban regime, Zurmutai says some treat Pashtun village elders with contempt -- the kind of behavior that can turn an entire village against the foreign troops.

"If you go to [the provinces of] Kandahar or Oruzgun or Zabol or Paktia, most people can't understand Dari," Zurmutai says. "And if you go to Badakhshan or Takhar, they don't speak Pashto and they can't understand it. Imagine when a [native Dari speaker] becomes a translator and goes into a Pashtun village where the people cannot speak Dari -- and the translator cannot understand [their local dialect of] Pashto.

"Unfortunately, there are so many translators like this who are unable to convey the meaning of Pashto speakers to the coalition forces. And he can't convoy the message of foreign troops to these local people," Zurmutai continues. "There also are some Afghan translators who are coming from other countries who are less familiar with the Afghan culture. They don't know about the tribal value system. Or there are some emotional young Afghans who don't care about the local values. They have very rude behavior -- very [undiplomatic and] cruel -- without respect for people. They are creating misunderstandings between local people and the coalition forces. They are destroying mutual trust. There are some translators who are working for their own political, personal and tribal interests. These translators are treating people in a very bad way."

John McHugh is an independent filmmaker whose documentary "Lost In Translation -- Afghanistan" was released on the Internet this summer by The Guardian newspaper group.

Filmed while McHugh was embedded with U.S. troops near the Afghan-Pakistan border, the eight-minute documentary shows how tensions rise between U.S. soldiers and Pashtun villagers when a Dari-speaking translator is unable to understand a village elder's Waziri dialect.

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