Language focus | 28.01.2010

When combating terrorism gets lost in translation

Foreign languages play a significant role in today’s society, especially for governments in their counter-terrorism policies: from covert transcriptions of audio transmissions and the translation of written communications to the interpreters who risk their lives accompanying troops in the field – foreign languages have never been so important.

However, both UK and US governments have been receiving quite a lot of criticism for their language policies in a world where reliance on the most up-to-date information can be a matter of life or death. For the former, it was the staggering decision to remove compulsory language teaching from the curriculum (a move which thankfully has since been rectified) which provoked wide-spread disbelief from linguists nationwide. For the latter, it is the inability of government departments to effectively store and catalogue large amounts of foreign language intelligence which has created a massive backlog and caused public uproar.

One of the largest employers of linguists in the UK is GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) who class linguists as ‘absolutely vital to our intelligence production effort’. GCHQ work in over 40 languages on a daily basis (with a capacity for 80 languages) and 60% of the intelligence produced is from foreign language material – a figure which is on the increase. One of its missions is called Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) which is responsible for providing information of national security to the government and Armed Forces and which subsequently has a bearing on policy decisions and military operations. In a bid to combat the decrease in the uptake of foreign languages in schools, GCHQ also carry out workshops providing language taster days.

This is all positive action and it serves to emphasize the need for and the importance of foreign languages in combating terrorism. Yet not so long ago, it was also a seemingly paradoxical situation for an agency which, in its own words ‘needs linguists’, but found itself robbed of potential future employees by the government it was created to support when the aforementioned withdrawal of compulsory language teaching took place.

Similarly, the US places the same importance on languages for counter-terrorism operations. However, the criticism in America concerns intelligence management – or mismanagement – and a distinct lack of cutting-edge language technology.

It is estimated that Washington spent $4.5 billion on translation and interpreting services between 1990 and 2009 ($1 billion of which was spent in 2008 alone) with the Department of the Army spending over $800 million on linguists in 2008. (Source: Global Watchtower™) However, despite these significant sums, the New York Times reported in 2009 that the FBI was failing to review ‘significant amounts’ of material and was experiencing a lack of translators. The 2009 Justice Department’s Report also stated that the FBI only managed to hit its hiring targets in 2 out of 14 languages and failed to review 7.2 million electronic files. The problem lies in the increasing amount of intelligence which is collected, but which cannot be categorized or translated in good time. Plans are in place to update the current systems and to use machine translators to fill in some of the gaps.

Foreign languages have never been so important for governments. As GCHQ state, “The intelligence we provide is at the heart of the struggle against terrorism”. Maybe it is time for both US and UK governments to put their money where their mouth is as far as languages are concerned – educationally, technologically and linguistically. In their bid to combat terrorism, it would appear that the pen could certainly prove to be mightier than the sword.


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