Tag Archives: translators

Telling real stories in translation


A guest post from Aaron Schachter.

Here’s a dirty little secret of foreign correspondents: We don’t do our own stunts.

Save for the linguistically-talented few — the late, great Anthony Shadid being among the most renowned — most foreign correspondents work in countries where we don’t know the language, let alone local customs, organizations or personalities.

So “fixers” and interpreters, often the same person, are vital to the work we do. Aside from a passing voice on the radio, you’d likely never know they exist.

I spent eight years reporting from the Middle East with the help of fixers. They translated interviews for me from Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish and Turkish. But just as importantly, they guided me through cultures that I couldn’t possibly have understood without their help.

Ayub Nuri (pictured above with Aaron Schachter in 2003) was one of the most memorable — and the most fun.

I can’t remember our first meeting for sure, but it must have been in the bustling lobby of Baghdad’s Sheraton hotel. The towering hotel was trendy in the 1980s, but much less so by the time foreign journalists, US military types, NGO workers and dignitaries rolled in after the 2003 invasion. It turned out the hotel had been disowned by the Sheraton chain soon after the 1991 Gulf War — yet it still sported all the logos, including Sheraton placemats in the lobby cafe.

Ayub Nuri at the remnants of Baghdad Zoo. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Ayub Nuri at the remnants of Baghdad Zoo. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)


Ayub looked to be about 20 years old. He was giggly and impish; I wasn’t in the mood for giggly and impish. It was July in Baghdad, meaning the temperature tops 100 degrees in the shade. I was sweating more or less nonstop, even in my supposedly air-conditioned hotel room.

And I was fairly terrified to be in a war zone.

It was not an auspicious way to begin my six weeks in Iraq.

But the thing about being anxious at work is that it helps to work with someone giggly and impish, especially someone like Ayub, who also possesses an incredible command of history and culture — not to mention a duffel bag full of Agatha Christie novels.

Like the soldiers we often covered, a good amount of journalists’ time in Iraq was spent waiting. Or travelling somewhere to wait. It turns out the novels of Agatha Christie are a good antidote to the boredom.

Ayub helped me understand how greetings are done in Iraq; the proper way to conduct myself in a restaurant — grab table, beeline for the bathroom to wash hands, then eat communally; and about a culture traumatized by life under a despotic ruler. When you have to keep your mouth shut and disguise your feelings for decades, it isn’t natural to open up when a foreign reporter shoves a microphone in your face. Coming from a culture of confession like the US — or Israel, where I was living — there was quite a culture shock.

Ayub, fed up with congestion at an especially busy Baghdad intersection, has jumped out of the car to direct traffic. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Ayub, fed up with congestion at an especially busy Baghdad intersection, has jumped out of the car to direct traffic. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Ayub was that he could talk himself into or out of any situation in a half dozen languages, including my native tongue. I don’t think we ever faced grave danger together, but I know that he’s worked with others, including our reporters from The World, where the decisions he made literally meant life or death. I was jealous of his ability.

Once, in the Kurdish area of Iraq where Ayub is from, our car was stuck in a traffic jam. Ayub told the driver to race down the opposite side of the street to get around the cars. It worked, but when we got to the next intersection a traffic cop ran up to the window and started screaming at us.

Instead of apologizing, Ayub started screaming right back. The cop got into our car, and when I asked Ayub where we were headed he said, “to the police station.”

“Aha!” I exclaimed to Ayub, triumphant. “Busted. You’ve finally been caught out. The first time.” Ayub just smiled.

When we got to the police station, the officer got out of the car, waved goodbye and wished us a nice day. “What happened?” I asked.

“I told him the reason we had to drive down the wrong side of the road was because instead of doing his job as a traffic cop, he was sitting on his behind, drinking tea and smoking,” Ayub says. “And I said we’d be perfectly happy to go with him to the police station so I could explain to his superior what an awful cop he is.”

Once again, Ayub had saved the day.

Aaron Schachter in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, across the street from the Sheraton. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)

Aaron Schachter in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, across the street from the Sheraton. (Photo: Aaron Schachter)


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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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Translating disaster and disastrous translations

In this podcast, Carol Hills and I pick a few stories that had previously passed us by. We dust them off and turn them into out Top Five Language Stories of the month.

5.Translating Iceland’s economic collapse into English. Iceland isn’t exactly an opportunity-rich environment for job-seekers — unless you’re an Icelandic-English translator.  There are a handful Brits, Americans and Canadians who live in Iceland, often married to Icelanders. Some are now extremely busy translating complex financial documents,  most of which make depressing reading at least as far as the Icelandic economy is concerned. The translators find themselves translating back into English expressions that in some cases had only recently debuted in Icelandic:  collateralized debt  obligation  (skuldavafningur, also known as skuldabréfavafningur), payment mitigation (greiðsluaðlögun), winding up board (slitastjórn) and other linguistic markers of a nation’s meltdown.

4. Bad translations rule.  So, outside of Iceland at least,  translation remains hit and miss — mainly miss, thankfully. Mexican President Felipe Calderon recently visited President Obama in Washington, but their joint appearance before the world’s media turned into a translation amateur hour. Calderon’s translator, apparently a sub for the regular guy, rendered Calderon’s clear Spanish into murky English.

In Shanghai, that murky English known as Chinglish is in danger of vanishing. Local leaders hosting Expo 2010 don’t want their city to be the setting for mirthful photo-exchanges of all-too-literally translated expressions. Beijing tried cleaning up its Chinglish ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Good thing there are so many other cities in China, and so much more Chinglish.  One Chinglish expert — a German as it happens —  told the New York Times that beneath the flowery craziness of Chinglish lurk clues about Chinese language and culture.

Above is a picture I snapped at Beijing’s (old) airport in 2006. Without  the documentation, this fine example Chinglish might have become extinct.

Another great place to find bad translations is at the Eurovision Song Contest.  This is the über-cheesy music competition that many Europeans hate to love.  Songs from each of the competing nations go up against each other, and an international panel of judges decides the winner.  The podcast has done segments on the Eurovision here and here. This time round, we focus on the magnificently mangled English coined by the lyricists of Moldova’s 2010 entry, as described here.

3. A language for communication with extraterrestrials.  Not English, not Spanish, not even Globish. No, none of these languages is good enough for extraterrestials. The thinking, or my excessively simplified version of it, is that the aliens, when they come are likely to be brainy. I mean, they will have actually made it here. So, we may need to put our best linguistic foot forward. Hence, a language of  electronic beeps that would indicate — in a more scientifically precise way than, say, English does — just what we humans are capable of.  That was the proposal of National Security Agency cryptologist Lambros Callimahos 40 years ago. Stephen Hawking, meanwhile, thinks that if aliens do visit, they might not be too friendly.

2. Arizona moves against accented schoolteachers. The state of Arizona’s  Department of Education is requiring that all schoolteachers teaching English Language Learning speak grammatically and without too heavy an accent.  That’s yet another controversial move in a state that is being cast as the most anti-immigrant place in America.

1. People with animal names. Costa Rica’s new president Laura Chinchilla is one of millions of people worldwide who after named after animals. Interestingly, chincillas do not live anywhere near Costa Rica: they are Andean creatures.  (just as people called Lion or Lyon don’t all come from sub-Saharan Africa). Still chinchillas are super-cute, for rodents at least. So, the name might have done its bit to get Laura Chinchilla elected. And yes, there is a facebook group for people with animal last names.

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Translators working overtime, silverfin aka Asian carp, and counting in Chinese

Dead catfish washed up on the Gulf coast photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bgjohnson/4577801797/

Translators are proving their worth twice in this week’s podcast: in New York, where they’re helping elderly Russian speakers fill out forms from the  US Census Bureau; and in Louisiana and Mississippi where they’re interpreting for Vietnamese-American fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by the big oil spill. The mind-sets of these non-English speakers are remarkably similar: they come from former communist countries where the government was a thing to be feared. Now they are confronted by a US government that is less invasive but, in its own way, just as confusing. Its announcements and forms are sometimes difficult even for native speakers to decipher. Bring on the translators, of whom — especially in the Gulf states —  there are not enough.  (See earlier blog post and podcast on Census Bureau efforts, mainly successful, to offer more outreach to non-English speakers.)

Which tastes better:  Kentucky tuna, silverfin or Asian carp? Well, they are one and the same fish. Attempts are underway to re-brand Asian carp, which has a nasty reputation as a bottom-feeding  invader of America’s waterways. In fact, Asian carp– or the variety that made it to the United States–  isn’t a bottom-feeder. It feeds on plankton; its meat, supposedly, is super-delicious. Worthy of a name like silverfin. The mouth waters. The price per pound rises. We’re all happy, right? Language is a beautiful thing.

And finally, a conversation about counting. Some languages are more numerate than others. If you’re a native English speaker, you may be in trouble. Words like eleven, fifteen, Thurday and August are not useful terms when it comes to mathematics. We might be better off with the less poetic-sounding ten-one, ten-five, weekday four and month eight. Mathematician-journalist Alex Bellos discusses this and other language differences in his book Here’s Looking at Euclid: A Surprising Excursion through the Astonishing World of Math (UK edition: Alex’s Adventures in Numberland). Bellos also recites the numbers one to twenty in one of the UK’s medieval dialects.

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