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Afghanistan war: What happens when a war interpreter doesn't know the language

US troops rely on local Afghan interpreters in the mission to win hearts and minds in the Afghanistan war. But many learn crucial languages on the job, resulting in deadly mishaps.

US soldiers of Bravo Company 2/508th PIR, 4th BTC, 82 Airborne (Air Assault) (L) and Afghan translators fly a kite at a base in Kandahar province's Kukaran on August 5.


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American soldiers in Afghanistan are relying on civilian interpreters who, in some cases, do not know the languages they are hired to speak, resulting in dangerous military mistakes.

A former screener of translators alleges in a lawsuit that his former employer overlooked cheating on language proficiency exams, according to an ABC News report. The whistleblower, Paul Funk, tells ABC that 28 percent of the interpreters hired by the firm between November 2007 and June 2008 failed the US government’s language requirements. The company denies the charges and is fighting the lawsuit in court.

The interpreters in question appear to be those hired from the US and sent to Afghanistan, mostly of Afghan ancestry. But American troops also rely heavily on local Afghan interpreters who are supplied by various US contractors.

Monitor interviews with more than half a dozen former Afghan interpreters reveal that many learn crucial languages “on the job,” occasionally resulting in deadly mishaps and misunderstandings in the mission to win hearts and minds.

“All the interpreters, when they first start, hide,” says one former interpreter called Tahir. It took him five or six months, he said, to understand English well enough to translate. In the meantime, he would retreat to the toilets whenever he thought he would be chosen to go on a mission. “Our friends would cover.”


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