At one point in Restrepo, a new documentary film about U.S. soldiers at a small combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, Captain Dan Kearney, the officer in command, is sitting in a shura with the Korengal elders he is trying to win over. A frail-looking man sits before the bullish captain and complains about the arrest of a local man. Kearney at first does not know who the elder is talking about. Then Kearney turns to his Afghan interpreter, or "terp," and in answer to the elder says: "You're not understanding that I don't fucking care."
The F-bomb is called that for a reason: It has power to explode a conversation and obliterate important points. But my main question after watching this scene, so similar to many I've witnessed while reporting on America's wars abroad, was: How is an interpreter, even a very good one, supposed to haul that statement into his own language? Translation is such an everyday act that it is routinely omitted from most discussion of strategy and success. But, badly done, it is fatally dangerous. And the messages lost through faulty translation in Afghanistan are sabotaging the mission there as badly as any physical enemy ever could.
U.S. troops rely on translators. There is no alternative. On the battlefield and in the shuras, young officers like Kearney, raised in the get-down-to-business culture of America and its military, often express themselves to their translators directly and with heaps of slang, roughly the way they might talk to a college buddy. The terp is then expected to decide not only how to translate the words but also how to bridge the gulf of propriety and custom. But although this colloquial language is informal, it is still complex. And unfortunately, it assumes even more common background and idiomatic understanding than a more formal diction would: Think of phrases like "man up," "freedom isn't free," or even "shoulder responsibility" and "build your nation." In the best circumstances, the most successful shuras, it would be unrealistic to expect all this meaning to pass intact to a group of old men from another world. Try filtering it through a translator who didn't attend college, was never your buddy, and didn't grow up surrounded by phrases Americans take for granted, and the chances for error or insult multiply rapidly.
This winter, I spent a month in the Pech Valley, next door to the Korengal, where Restrepo was filmed. There, and in other regions of Afghanistan, I met some pretty good terps who were able to develop the kind of rapport with the Americans that's crucial in understanding language and intent. Many, however, were only partially educated and only passable at their jobs. Quite a few were simply very bad. Language is far more than vocabulary and grammar -- it is culture. Often terps weren't familiar enough with either to understand what the Americans were saying or what it meant. And choosing candidates for this crucial job is often relegated to contractors. When I asked officers why they worked with bad terps, they claimed they didn't have much choice; translators are hired by private companies and bad ones are difficult to replace, partly because demand is so high and the vetting process is slow.