Iraqi Interpreters

This piece first aired in July, 2009, as part of the show, “New Voices.”

Listen here.

    HOST: As anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows, it takes more than a good dictionary to become fluent. But even if learning a new tongue proves difficult, it pales in comparison to the other challenges military interpreters in Iraq face. Louis Katz has the story on one of the most dangerous- and essential- jobs in Iraq.

    LOUIS KATZ: Sam is an Iraqi in his early 20s. But even though he has been in the country for the entire war, it wasn’t until 2006 that the conflict hit home.

    SAM: My family, we used to be a wealthy family, a very wealthy family, we had three houses. And then the insurgents came to our houses and they threatened us and they told us to leave our houses. We lost everything. I told my dad that we need money. There is no options for any jobs, only this job, being an interpreter for the US military.

    LOUIS KATZ: Sam’s decision wasn’t an easy one for his family to accept. Being an interpreter is extremely risky. Because it involves talking to many Iraqis throughout the country, including suspected insurgents, interpreters can easily be identified. And because the interpreters are assisting US forces in the country, they are often targeted by terrorist groups.

    Interpreters respond to danger in different ways. Many use false names and some wear masks. Sam, for instance, won’t disclose his full name, and wore a mask when he was working near his home.

    Mazin is another Iraqi translating for the US military. He says that even when insurgents cannot attack the interpreters themselves, they find other ways of causing pain.

    MAZIN: They can’t really kill us because we most of the time we are being in the base and trying to avoid going to the places where we think people will know about us. The only way they figured out to punish us is to punish our family and get them hurt and that’s what they did to thousands of Iraqi interpreters who lived in Iraq.

    LOUIS KATZ: Still, some Iraqis are willing to take the risk. Sam signed up because of his family’s need for money and his own desire to get back at the insurgents. Mazin did so to help out the US mission that he supported.

    Thamir Mohammed used to work as an interpreter in Iraq. He joined because he believed his knowledge of English would be able to help Iraqis and coalition forces communicate better. But he says that good pay and a lack of required qualifications were the biggest factors in attracting recruits.

    THAMIR MOHAMMED: They pay really good amount of money. There is more different style job that’s probably you get more money than this but I think maybe it’s easier more than anything else. You need just talk.

    LOUIS KATZ: But he believes that the same low standards that attracted job applicants hurt the quality of interpretation in general.

    THAMIR MOHAMMED: I feel the interpreters are really sensitive issues need to be somebody really qualified more than just interpreting. They do not put any qualification, all the things they care about is just interpreting. And I think that’s not really help, you need to be educated.

    LOUIS KATZ: Mazin agrees. For him, translating is more than mechanically taking in one set of words and spitting out literal equivalents in another language. Interpreters must be sensitive to cultural issues as well.

    MAZIN: You’re being the negotiator between two different people coming from two different backgrounds and cultures. You’re being between the American guy and the Iraqi guy. And they both were raised and grew up in different cultures. So the Iraqi guy might say something, you know, and he doesn’t mean to offend the American officer. And then you can’t just translate that literally because, you know, it will offend him and then you will create a tension between them. You should translate it the way it will fit the culture, you know, the reception with the other counterpart.

    LOUIS KATZ: But on-the-job difficulties for interpreters don’t end at the actual interpreting. Mohammed experienced difficulty keeping up with the everyday rigors of military life.

    THAMIR MOHAMMED: There’s kind of technical difficulties, like you need to wear your armor, you need to know kevlar, you know all these equipments that basically the military use. And, unfortunately we are not trained to carry all these stuff, it’s not like the soldiers itself. So for me personally, I suffer from that thing.

    LOUIS KATZ: Moreover, the relationship between Iraqi translators and their fellow Iraqis is often defined by conflict. Sam says that Iraqis view interpreters as traitors for working with the US.

    SAM: The Iraqis hate us because we work for the Americans. One of the times I remember a Iraqi house. We went into the house and there were all the females and the female she started calling me a disloyal blahblahblah and she called me bad names. Leaving the house, she came right behind me, she had a knife with her. She wanted to stab me.

    LOUIS KATZ: But Mazin says his interactions with other Iraqis have been uniformly positive. He believes the insurgents are the only ones who hate interpreters.

    MAZIN: Average Iraqis, they didn’t have any issues with me, you know. They understand, I mean, I’m doing the job, they actually prefer that, they prefer having someone from their own country, one of them doing the job, instead of finding someone else who don’t care about them, who can’t relay the right message to the coalition.

    LOUIS KATZ: Regardless of what most Iraqi citizens feel about interpreters, it is clear that they’re often the target of violent extremists. So for many Iraqi interpreters, leaving the country after serving is the ideal path. Both Mazin and Thamir Muhammed have moved to the United States with the US government’s help. But life after coming here hasn’t been easy for the two of them.

    Though living in the US, both men have been attempting to get jobs with the military on tours to Iraq. Muhammad has had a hard time passing through heightened security checks.

    Mazin managed to get a job interpreting for the Marines and is planning to work with the Army next. He’s living with a Lieutenant Colonel he worked under in Iraq, and says he’s been treated like family. But while Mazin is happy with his situation, he has one complaint.

    MAZIN: It would have been much better now if the government was willing to help us find a job here or a life here. It was like, ok, here’s your visa, you come in here, you’re living here, there you go. You have your own life. Imagine that, you’ve never been here, you come in here to a different culture, a different society, you know – and now you have to start from zero to build your own life here, which is not easy.

    LOUIS KATZ: Sam still lives in Iraq, but he’s done interpreting. For now, he’s continuing his education, working towards a college degree. He still takes great pride in his past work as an interpreter.

    SAM: Iraqis, the Iraqi government and the American government and the American military, they can’t do anything without interpreters. So the American government, the Iraqi government, they have to mention the things we did.

    LOUIS KATZ: The work interpreters have done has been essential for the US military. But Sam’s concern remains: as the US turns it eye away from Iraq, will the sacrifices of interpreters be remembered? For War News Radio, I’m Louis Katz.