Afghanistan: Lost in translation

June 22, 2008

Guardian: Even interpreters have given up on language gap between US Airborne company and Pashtun elder

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Guardian: Even interpreters have given up on language gap between US Airborne company and Pashtun elder


Story Transcript

VOICEOVER: This is what happens in a rocket attack. We’re all in the command center. Charlie Company has been hit by nearly 200 Taliban rockets over the past 12 months.

SOLDIER: You got a problem with that.

SOLDIER: Once we are in the zone we will cover all three grids.

SOLDIER: Gunline! Cancel. Do not load.

VOICEOVER: The Americans are hitting back.

SOLDIER: Platoon! Cancel. Do not load.

VOICEOVER: This is where they think those rockets are coming from. This is ["MANG-grow-tay"], a small Afghan frontier village just a couple of miles from Pakistan. Taliban fighters sneak across the border and launch their attacks from here. The Americans are edgy as they approach—they’ve been ambushed here in the past. And the people who live here, they’re powerless and terrified, caught between America and her enemies. That’s why they’ve disappeared.

SGT. ADAMS: This is like every other town. Everybody disappeared.

VOICEOVER: The soldiers ask to speak to the village elders, but everything gets lost in translation.

SGT. ADAMS: They’re in their house? Where?

TRANSLATOR: Yeah, they’re—.

SGT. ADAMS: Where?

TRANSLATOR: In the house.

SGT. ADAMS: They’re sick? Is that what he said? What did you say?

TRANSLATOR: No, no. They are not sick. They are in the house.

SGT. ADAMS: Okay. Ask him to go get them. We want to talk to him.

VOICEOVER: As quickly as he appeared, the man is gone. He never returns. Sergeant Adams is desperate to speak to someone. Anyone.

SGT. ADAMS: So that guy, when he told me to get the elders, walked that way, and that kid walked that way. What’s the kid doing? He’s full of shit, that’s what it is. Pretty much just out of respect for the Muslim faith, we’re not supposed to go into mosques, unless they’re shooting from us—at us from. Then we’d go in. I don’t care how many come. I just want one that’s got some sense about him. Ah! That’s him. Yeah.

VOICEOVER: Finally, an elder appears in the distance.

SGT. ADAMS: That guy with the red beard, that’s him. Alright. Come over here. Sit down. Relax.

VOICEOVER: Again, everything here hinges on the translation, the subtleties of Pashtun English.

TRANSLATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Come over here and sit with us on this log.

SGT. ADAMS: Yeah. Take a load off.

VOICEOVER: The translators have become unexpected power-brokers in all this, but sometimes they just don’t translate everything they hear.

SGT. ADAMS: Tell him: how has things been here?


TRANSLATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): That is ok. How is the security here?

VILLAGE ELDER: There is no security.

TRANSLATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION: No – what I mean is how’s the security situation here?

VILLAGE ELDER: I just told you! There is no security here. We’ve yet to see any security around here.

TRANSLATOR (ENGLISH): We are fine. They have no problems here.

VOICEOVER: Is it any wonder that the Americans feel battled in these situations and the ordinary Afghans feel ignored?

VILLAGE ELDER: I agree with you on the cooperation; the Taliban are over there – not far away. I would like to tell them a story. In our country, we grow wheat and we have ants. There is no way we can stop the little ants from stealing the wheat. There are so many little ants it is almost impossible to stop them. I’ve told this story to help the Americans understand the situation in Afghanistan. Yes, the Americans built this road and they would do more to help us if we cooperate with them. Of course we know that! And we would like to cooperate with them. It’s just that we can’t!

TRANSLATOR (ENGLISH): Okay. He’s giving many examples. The main point is that, he said, if you want to get every ACMs [anti-coalition militia], they are behind this road—pardon me, sir, behind this mountain.

VOICEOVER: Adams wants to know when the village elder last saw the Taliban. He doesn’t receive the answer he’s looking for.

SGT. ADAMS: When was the last time they saw them?

TRANSLATOR (ENGLISH): I ask him. He says one year ago.

SGT. ADAMS: One, year? Oh, for fuck’s sake. Are you kidding me? Hey, hey, tell him he’s full of shit, first of all. One week ago, we took four rockets from a hilltop 800 meters from here. They didn’t see that? Didn’t hear it?

TRANSLATOR (ENGLISH): One week ago, sir?

SGT. ADAMS: Yeah. It was a week ago, right? What’d he say? What’d he say?

TRANSLATOR (ENGLISH): They are afraid. Two months ago they [the Taliban] came to our village and took all the young guys and started beating them.

SGT. ADAMS: Ask him if he’s got any guns here. I don’t want to take them; I just want to know why he didn’t shoot them in the fucking face.


SGT. ADAMS: Like shit. It’s the same thing again. You know, they’re afraid of the ACM, and no matter how many times you tell them or how you tell them, they don’t seem to want to understand that till they put their—. I mean, they’re allowed to have an AK per household. If they put an AK in dude’s face and shot him, knowing he’s a bad guy,[inaudible] an ACM, whatever you want to call it, they will stop coming here. And he won’t understand that. So they basically support the ACM by not supporting anyone.


SGT. ADAMS: What’s he saying?

TRANSLATOR (ENGLISH): I hate these people, sir! When I ask him something else, they give me wrong answer.

SGT. ADAMS: I fucking hate this town.


TEXT ON SCREEN: One week later

SOLDIER: The rocket hit the wire. Is it still standing?

SOLDIER: Oh, we just took two rockets that came up from the eastern ridge towards the Pak border.

SGT. ADAMS: About no more than—what? Eight hundred meters away from ["MANG-grow-tay"], the village we were at with the big, fat, red-haired, bearded guy? The guy’s full of shit. I feel like basically cleaning the town out. I don’t know.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.