Gov't Struggles to Find Arabic Speakers

For decades government agencies trained linguists in Russian to deal with America's Cold War enemy. Now that the new enemy primarily speaks Arabic, Washington has a lot of catching up to do to find reliable and fluent Arabic speakers.

The military has recently been burned by having Arabic translators who have proven to be security risks. Several Arabic speakers hired by the Pentagon to work in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where suspected Al Qaeda (search) and Taliban terrorists are being detained, were discovered possessing classified materials and having inappropriate contact with foreign governments. The cases are currently under investigation.

Thomas West, founder of Intermark Language Services Corporation (search) in Atlanta, said the paucity of professional Arabic translators made the military desperate.

"What the government was doing in Guantanamo was grabbing taxi drivers and having them translate," West said.

The FBI (search) has not suffered from the same security breaches as the military because it conducts a rigorous background check and only hires American citizens, but it does have a shortage of translators who can decipher millions of hours of unedited tapes.

The effects of the shortage were made crystal clear after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks when the FBI acknowledged that it had intercepts of Al Qaeda operatives discussing planned attacks, but agents were unable to act on the information because the tapes were not translated until after the attacks.

Following Sept. 11, the FBI set out to hire translators for hundreds of languages and dialects, and received 40,000 applications. But only about 200 translators were ultimately hired, said FBI spokesman Paul Bressen, because the rest lacked the requisite skills or did not pass intensive security tests. Background checks for translators can take about six months, Bressen said.

"The director has made a commitment to translate things in real time or almost real time and we're not quite there yet but we're making significant progress in that area," he said.

Kevin Hendzel, spokesman for the American Translators Association (search), said he sees no quick fixes to fill the hole from a lack of translators.

It took 20 years for enough Americans to learn Russian to meet Cold War needs, and a similar timetable likely will be needed to acquire enough qualified Arabic speakers, he said. Speakers knowing other languages and dialects, including those from the Middle East and Central Asia, will also be in short supply.

Hendzel suggested building up the stable of Arabic speakers by having the government reach out to existing language talent, a strategy already pursued at a certain level through recruitment plans and other programs. The federal government may also try expanding and bolstering existing specialized language schools, such as the Defense Language Institute (search), and having universities renew their emphasis on language training.

Universities "spend more money on training people in Latin than in Arabic," Hendzel said.

Already, the National Security Education Program (search), a government program that funds undergraduate and graduate American students to study critical languages, is working on expanding Arabic, Chienes and Persian language courses.

The lack of university classes in Arabic and other little-studied languages has damaged the development of skilled linguists, said Robert Slater, director of NSEP.

Students receiving between $8,000 and $20,000 a year from NSEP to study languages commit to working in the federal government in a national security position after graduation. The nine-year-old program has funded over 2,000 students, with 500 so far having completed their federal service requirement; many of the rest are still in school.

In addition to funding students, NSEP also helps universities develop advanced curricula so that students can attain the necessary competence in these languages.

"There's some recognition that we need more programs, but funding is very much lacking and a lot of colleges dropped the language requirement years ago and it's even hard to find well-trained faculty," Slater said. 

"These aren't easy languages. They take years to learn," said Hendzel, referring not only to the shortfall of adequately trained graduates, but also to the lack of instructors able to train translators.

Although NSEP is one of the few programs advancing the study of these languages, it has received no increase of funding since Sept. 11.

"We've got a lot of interest and attention but no more money," Slater said.

Those who go into language programs may find it's not what they expected, said Shuckran Kamal, senior Arabic translator at the Office of Language Services in the State Department.

Simply having language skills is not enough. Translators must be able to analyze texts, have a sophisticated knowledge of both languages being used, be able to rewrite texts in an intelligent way and understand how to use a range of research tools.

"There is a large effort to recruit more translators, but unfortunately their skills do not fit the bill," Kamal, a native of Egypt, told "The pool is extremely small and the universities are not paying attention. 

"Translating and interpreting is a good profession. [Educators] simply are not looking at it in that way. It is not being sold to students as an interesting career."