Tag Archives: Pentagon

How do you say ‘shutdown’ in Spanish or Chinese? Crisis leaves translation contracts in limbo

Antonio Guerra, Cetra's Director of Interpreting Services, with his team of interpreters at the U.S. Pacific Command's 13th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference in Seoul, South Korea (Photo courtesy of Antonio Guerra)

Antonio Guerra, Cetra’s Director of Interpreting Services, with his team of interpreters at the U.S. Pacific Command’s 13th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference in Seoul, South Korea (Photo courtesy of Antonio Guerra)

Here’s a guest post from Philadelphia-based reporter Yowei Shaw

The US Pacific Command has canceled its 16th annual Chiefs of Defense Conference, scheduled for Oct. 21 to 24 in Honolulu — much to the chagrin of Cetra Language Solutions, a small foreign language services company that was contracted by the federal government to provide interpreters at the event.

“We are directly affected by the government shutdown,” says Cetra’s CEO and President Jiri Stejskal, who founded the Philadelphia-headquartered company in 1997 when he started getting so much work as a freelance translator, he couldn’t handle it by himself. He learned of the canceled conference last week, 13 days before the event was supposed to start.

“It was canceled last-minute,” Stejskal says. “The equipment has been shipped. We have about 25 interpreters who have flight tickets and everything. It’s just a total nightmare.”

The company is counting on the $141,000 federal contract, which is now a big question mark.

For the past several years, the language industry has been booming, due in large part to an uptick in federal contracts for defense and intelligence agencies after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Globalization and the federal government’s recognition of an increasingly multilingual US society have also contributed to this growth. A Common Sense Advisory report found that federal spending on language contracts skyrocketed from nearly $14.9 million in 1990 to more than $1 billion in 2009.

But the continuing government shutdown has put foreign language companies like Cetra in a hard place. “It’s been a little bit of a downer, to put it bluntly,” says Thaddeus Thaler, director of federal services at Cetra.

Thaler has been working hard on the situation at Cetra’s northern Virginia office, trying to get reimbursed by the federal government. He says, luckily, Cetra’s contract with Pacific Command included a 100 percent refund policy if the conference was canceled within 14 days of starting.

“And the reason why we have a 100 percent cancellation policy at that point is to make sure our interpreters are paid for those days regardless of the situation, because it’s so difficult for them to go out and find new work,” Thaler says. “Otherwise they’re going to be out several hundred dollars — if not more — for those number of days that they missed.”

But even with that policy, it’s not yetclear that Cetra will get all of its money back or that the federal government will cover the cost of the interpreters’ fees. The Defense Department notified Cetra that the conference was canceled due to the shutdown, much to the surprise of Antonio Guerra, Cetra’s director of interpreting services.

“I was very shocked to find out that this was considered nonessential military activity,” Guerra says. “It’s a very important event. It’s a very important conference and I’ve seen it year after year.”

This year would have been Guerra’s fourth time at the high-level conference, which brings together the chiefs of defense from 37 Asia Pacific countries on a yearly basis to promote cooperation and stability in the region. Guerra says that in the past, the conference has focused on issues like climate change, the economy and the political climate in certain countries, including terrorist factions in Indonesia, in addition to disasters like the Fukushima crisis.

In a somewhat cruel twist of irony, the very same day that Cetra got news of the canceled conference, an auditor from the General Services Administration came to the office to do a biannual audit, to ensure the company was reporting its sales properly.

“So he spent three or four hours in our office,” Stejskal says. “So that piece of government seems to be up and running happily.”

Jiri Stejskal (Photo: Yowei Shaw)

Jiri Stejskal (Photo: Yowei Shaw)

So far, the chiefs of defense conference is the only federal contract that has been canceled for Cetra. But the company is closely monitoring its other federal contracts. And even with the looming threat of a U.S. debt default, Cetra is in a better position than other foreign language companies that provide services only to the federal government. Federal contracts make up roughly a third of Cetra’s business, but Stejskal says he’s thinking of reducing that number in the future because of the shutdown — which was the last thing he expected to happen.

“We’ve been serving the federal government for close to 15 years now and even though it’s a difficult client, given all the bureaucracy and red tape, one of the reasons we’ve been doing it for the past 15 years is because we knew we would get paid,” Stejskal says. “And that’s changing now.”


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What Drones, Bees and Marilyn Monroe Have in Common

Here’s a guest post from Carol Kozma

In the 1930s, Admiral William Standley visited the United Kingdom when the Royal Navy gave him a presentation of the “Queen Bee”. That was a remotely controlled aircraft– a prototype the Royal Navy had developed for the gunnery to use as target practice.

“Admiral Standley was so impressed that when he came back to the United States, he got his men on it, and in homage to the Queen Bee, he chose the name drone.”

Marilyn Monroe as Norma Jean Dougherty (Photo: commons.wikimedia/David Conover

Marilyn Monroe as Norma Jean Dougherty (Photo: commons.wikimedia/David Conover

That’s according to Ben Zimmer, a linguist who writes the language column for the Washington Post, and the executive producer of vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus.

He recently discussed the origins of the word “drone” and its new use as transitive verbs.

To hear more about drones, and how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Marilyn Monroe and Ronald Reagan are all connected, take a listen.



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Join the Army, Speak a Language and Become a Citizen

Yoon Young Kim (courtesy Yoon Young Kim)

Yoon Young Kim (courtesy Yoon Young Kim)

Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Nina Porzucki

In 2009 the US Army piloted a yearlong program allowing immigrants with certain language skills or medical training to enlist in the military and receive citizenship by the end of basic training –that’s just 10 weeks. The program was a wild success, enlisting nearly 1,000 people with thousands more on the wait list.

The program has been brought back for a second trial period this October. Already, about 200 people have enlisted. One of them is Yoon Young Kim, a South Korean national. He joined the Army just a few weeks ago. He’s set to leave for basic training in April. By the end of summer 2013, he’s scheduled to raise his hand again to swear another oath, this time as a U.S. citizen.

When Kim came to the U.S. eight years ago to study nursing he never thought he’d be enlisting in the U.S. military. Certainly not at age 32. He worries about his English and keeping up physically with a bunch of 20-year-olds at boot camp.

“Mentally, probably I’m better than them but physically I’m weak,” says Kim. “So right now I’m trying to work on myself for push-ups, sit-ups and running.”

Before enlisting, Kim was getting frustrated trying to find a job in nursing. His visa was running out. That’s why he leaped at the chance at fast track citizenship with the U.S. Army.

Immigrants fighting for the American military is nothing new. Substantial number of people who have served in the military during wartime in past wars has been immigrants. While immigrants have fought in wars since 1775, things changed after 9/11. A new federal rule required legal immigrants to have a green card to be able to enlist. Suddenly the Army was forced to turn away thousands of qualified applicants.

“I would get calls from people in the military,” says immigration attorney and retired Army lieutenant colonel, Margaret Stock. They would say “‘hey, how come Tanya so and so just walked into the recruiters office and she’s got U.S. high school diploma and speaks three languages and has got high test scores but I’m not allowed to let her in because she’s not got a green card,’ and they’d call me to try and get her a green card.”

And then an idea came to Stock. What if the military took advantage of a legal loophole? Stock discovered the loophole in a statute passed by Congress. “They put an exception in the statute,” says Stock, “that a person who didn’t meet the normal criteria could voluntary enlist if the person’s enlistment was vital to the national interest.”

That loophole became the Military Accessions Vital to The National Interest—or MAVNI—program. The US military today has missions all over the world and recruiting men and women who speak the local language and know the local culture is vital. Yoon Young Kim hopes his Korean language skills might be useful in monitoring North Korea.

It turns out many other Koreans are as ready as Kim. While there are 44 desired languages on the MAVNI recruitment list from Russian and Hindi to smaller Filipino dialects like Cebuano or Moro, Korean speakers have signed up in droves. The force behind this swell of enthusiasm is James Hwang. If you have a question about the MAVNI program he’s the person to contact.

“I got almost more than 100 emails per day,” says Hwang who is a civilian. He always wanted to serve in the Army but when he visited a recruiter years ago without a green card, he was turned away. Then he heard about MAVNI and made it his mission to spread word about the program to other Koreans. He hosts info sessions in his home and fields questions on Facebook. He is even responsible for two MAVNI marriages. Why does he do it?

“There were many people before this program who were on a non-immigrant visa for many years,” says Hwang. “They didn’t really have very much hope for becoming a permanent resident because of the backlog of the US immigration system.”

Hwang’s effort has led to an overwhelming number of Koreans applying.

“The Korean community got so enthusiastic and mobilized about the program,” says attorney Margaret Stock, “that if we had let the program run first come first serve we probably would’ve ended up with 800 Korean language speakers and nobody from any other language groups.”

The Army ended up putting a quota on Korean speakers. Stock is happy that MAVNI is so popular. But she says the program shouldn’t really exist. What MAVNI really points out is a broken immigration system.

“If our nation had comprehensive immigration reform—if we had a legal immigration system that worked—we wouldn’t need a program like MAVNI,” says Stock. “We could just draw on the population of people living in the US with green cards.”

Yoon Young Kim, though, smiles at his good fortune. He was one of the last Korean citizens to enlist before the Korean language quota was met last month. Of course not everyone understood his decision to serve. When he told his parents in South Korea that he was going to join the Army they were shocked. In fact, they told him not to join. But Kim was determined. “I just said, ‘Mom and Dad, I’m not applying to the US military to die. I’m applying to live, to survive.’”



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America’s Woes From the Outside In

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback surveys the collapsed portion of I-35W Mississippi River bridge. (Photo: Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard)

Two people following the US elections especially closely are Lionel Shriver and Edward Luce. Both are writers.

Shriver is an American who lives in London. Luce is a Brit who lives in Washington DC. Both have one foot in and one foot out of America. They are each insiders and outsiders.

Lionel Shriver is author of We Need To Talk About Kevin and ten other novels. She has lived much of her life outside the United States—in Kenya, Thailand, and now, Britain.

Her annual trips home to New York have become a way of measuring America’s decline. When she drives the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, she sees what was once a serviceable highway now “completely rusted out.” The repairs “look as if they’re made with plywood.”

“You see this all over the United States,” says Shriver. “For visitors it’s quite a shock. Since I only go back every summer, I see this in juddering increments.”

Over time, Shriver has come to a stark conclusion about her homeland: “The United States is failing—and failing big time.”

There’s plenty of evidence to support that. The Pentagon recently commissioned a report on the nation’s defense-industrial preparedness—essentially, a compendium of the companies manufacturing key materials for the military.

Of the nineteen most critical industries servicing the US military, American companies led in all categories in the early 1990s. It now leads in just four of those categories.

That damning statistic was cited by Edward Luce, a Washington-based columnist with Financial Times, in his book called Time To Start Thinking: America and the Specter of Decline. (The US version subs the softer Descent for Decline.)

Luce spent time at the National Defence University, quizzing the kind of military people who he believes will be running the Pentagon a decade from now. He describes them as “panicked” about the disappearance of America’s manufacturing strength.

“They completely depart from Republican Party orthodoxy by saying that the first thing we must do is withdraw from the world,” says Luce. These officer-scholars believe that military strength “is based on economic strength.”

And so they have concluded that the Pentagon needs to slash its budget, freeing up public money for the domestic economy—primarily, education and infrastructure.

That may or may not be a solution. But will it see the light of day in the current political climate? Could such fundamental rethinking be adopted in today’s Washington? Luce doesn’t think so—and nor does Lionel Shriver. They think the country is too polarized.

For someone like Shriver who lives abroad, the gradual tribalization of political America into red and blue appears anything but gradual. It seems not just sudden but difficult to reverse.

Shriver recalls going to a party outside New York on one her recent trips back from Britain.

“Everyone agreed with everyone,” says Shriver.

“I had a conversation or two in which I indicated that I supported the Conservative Party in the UK, that was of course the wrong word.”

She says that made her a pariah. She calls this new-found tribalism, “political apartheid.”

“If you go to a party in the New York area you know that they’re all going to be Democrats. And if you open your mouth and say something that seems faintly Republican or even mildly pleasant about the other side, you’ll shock everyone,” says Shriver. “They will physically pull away from you.”

Writ large, that isn’t a great recipe for solving the country’s problems.

There’s plenty of despair in Shriver’s words—Luce’s too. It may be that they are chroniclers of America’s decline. But they are also passionate chroniclers, who believe that the country can yet learn from its missteps.



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The battle to own Bin Laden’s story

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, a new battle has begun: the rhetorical fight to frame his legacy. The White House got off to a bad start, with its initial claims about the circumstances of the killing. We offer two stabs at this story, one from the perspective of the US government, the other from a cultural point of view. There have been many other such stabs: I especially like this one in Slate. And here’s something on the inevitable memorabilia-exploitation of the moment (if not the man).

Here’s a great blog post on Language Log on how 9/11 changed The Pentagon’s language priorities. Which transitions nicely into the next item…

The Big Show’s Alex Gallafent tries out a couple of instant translation devices. This comes as The Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, prepares to decide on one or more devices to equip military personnel in combat and other field situations.  (This is the second of a two-part series on The Pentagon’s history of language training and interpretation. Part One is here).

Finally, a quixotic attempt by a retired government accountant to lighten up the lyrics to Peru’s national anthem. And these are some truly grim lyrics. Translated into English, the first verse –the only verse that’s usually sung– goes like this:

For a long time the opressed Peruvian
the ominous chain he dragged
Condemned to a cruel servitude
for a long time, for a long time
for a long time he quietly whimpered
But then the sacret shout
Liberty! in its coasts has been heard
the slave’s indolence beats
the humiliated, the humiliated,
the humiliated neck raised up,
the humiliated neck raised up, neck raised up.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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The butcher, the baker, and the cabbage gelder

As far as tedium goes, nothing competes with filling out a government form.  How best to relieve the tedium? Invent stuff. Not out-and-out lie, just get a bit creative  (OK, sometimes out-an-out lie: if I were to identify myself as a 90-year-old Azerbaijani woman or a Jedi knight, I would not be telling the truth).

Take the case of the Very Reverend Dr Peter Scrimshire Wood, late of Middleton in the English county of Norfolk. Wood was responsible for listing the job titles of his parishioners. In 1819, he described one of them as a “chopper of chips”, another as a “lamb gelder”, and a third as a “good workman”. He was back a year later with “cut throat of pigs”, “farmer and fortune hunter” and “cabbage gelder”. More are listed here, along with other details of the census research done by the University of Cambridge’s Peter Kitson.

Wood is my kind of man of the cloth– someone who makes the dull exciting, the drab colorful. Just think what he’d had done with the Bible, had he ever been entrusted to translate the Good Book.  He even came up with a wildly unconventional name for his daugher, born in 1815. She was christened Amelia Congress Vienna Wood, presumably after the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, which redrew the boundaries of Europe. Kitson, incidentally,  thinks that a “cabbage gelder” probably plied his trade as a market gardener or a greengrocer.

For more than 200 years, the Pentagon has been trying to gets its personnel to learn the languages spoken by friends and foes alike. For most that time, it’s been an uphill struggle, complicated by changes in geo-politics and exactly which languages are considered “critical”. During World War Two,  GIs were given foreign language phrase books with pronunciation transcriptions of key phrases.  So you might find yourself in the company of, say, a Portuguese fisherman. You might wish to ask him: “Where have the anti-submarine nets been placed?” Here’s how you should do it, according to the Portuguese phrasebook:  “On-deh seh lan-sah-rahn uhs reh-dehs ahn-tee-soob-mah-ree-nahs?” Could be a long conversation.

After the war, many new language programs were established, taught primarily at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. There are some magnificent archival films made by the Pentagon about this.   Check out two of them here.

More on this subject — and the future of language-learning in the military — next week.

After Alex Gallafent’s report on the languages at the Pentagon aired on The Big Show,  Stephen Payne, who goes by the title of Command Historian at the Defense Language Institute, sent us this note: “I misspoke. We taught Pashto during the 1980s and stopped teaching it when the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in 1989. We started teaching Pashto again after the September 11, 2001 attacks.”  In the report, Payne had said that it was Persian/Farsi, not Pashto, that had been suspended. In fact, Persian has been taught continuously for decades.

Also in the pod this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is not amused at a Colombian telenovela which has named a badly-behaved dog after him.  And the word “princess” gets a workout, and not all for the good.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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