Business, Perspective


Whether it’s Uncle Sam, Big Brother or Scrooge who’s in charge, employment prospects for qualified language professionals are dim and getting dimmer. BY NINA BOGDAN

Last year, Translorial’s Stafford Hemmer wrote a two part story on the creation of the “Civilian Language Reserve Corps,” now re-named the National Language Service Corps (NLSC). In the article, Robert Slater, then the Director of the National Security Education Program, was quoted as stating that, “Compensation plans are still under development.” Currently, information on the NLSC website notes that when NLSC members are called to duty, they will be paid “based on scales used by the federal government.” The website also states that minimum requirements to be an NLSC Charter Member for their “Pilot Project” are: being at least 18 years old, a U.S. citizen, highly skilled in a foreign language, and having a desire to use that language in the service of others.

Clearly the implication is that patriotic professional linguists should not view compensation as a priority. Instead of drawing up a position description based on current and future needs and then researching the market to get a reasonable idea of what kind of pay would be commensurate with the responsibilities, the government seems to be indicating that insisting on knowing exactly how much an NLSC member would earn is, well, bad form. The entire tone of the website is geared more toward appealing to patriotic feeling than focusing on professional or educational criteria, and the creators have also (deliberately or not) made correlations with the Peace Corps (recruiting young idealistic men and women to make a better world).

This curious insistence that payment for language services should be optional seems to be widespread in government circles. Mr. Everette Jordan, the founding Director of the National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC) was quoted on its website as saying that the NVTC is participating, along with the Defense Department, in the organization of a database of language skills so that those professionals who have those language skills can “volunteer their time (my emphasis) or be hired for occasional assignments…”. What the…? One volunteers one’s services to non-profits or to assist the elderly, for example, not to government agencies that have multi-billion dollar budgets and administrators who are often paid a six figure salary. Recruiting professionals to “volunteer” their skills should be left to non-profits and charitable organizations. This is not, nor should it be, the government’s role. If one were to follow this logic and in view of our accruing government deficit, perhaps this idea of volunteering should be tossed into the ring for all government employees-perhaps FBI agents, or IRS auditors? The economy, after all, is in crisis-should we not all sacrifice at such a critical time?

$19 Million and counting

In a January 30, 2008, American Foreign Press Services article by John Kruzel, he writes, “Starting today, Uncle Sam wants skilled speakers of Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Swahili or any other of 10 ‘critical languages,’ to join a Defense Department pilot program designed to build a cadre of trained linguists. By 2010, the National Language Service Corps hopes to amass a pool of 1,000 civilian language experts, willing to volunteer their foreign tongues on behalf of the United States if an immediate national need arises.”

According to the current NLSC website, the Federal Interagency Language Roundtable Proficiency Guidelines will be used to determine eligibility and the minimum score is “3” in speaking, reading and listening both in English and the foreign language. Applicants will be asked to “self-assess” while “a number” of Charter Members “will be asked to undergo formal proficiency testing.” One could interpret this to mean that the U.S. government will take the word of certain applicants that they possess the skills they claim to have. This begs the question as to how the determination will be made. Reference is also made by Mr. Slater in an article in the Government Executive, dated August 19, 2008, about the care that must be taken when “collecting data on the American public.” With this reference Uncle Sam morphs into Big Brother as there seems to be an implication that the government isn’t asking for information about qualifications of certain applicants because, well, it already has it.

According to this article, the NLSC Pilot Program “was formed in response to a Congressional charge to explore the feasibility of a national language program that supports federal agencies in times of crisis.” This pilot project includes a $19 million contract awarded to General Dynamics Information Technology to create a “language and communication center, recruit corps members and provide personnel support.”

Mr. Slater states further, “We’re all very excited about getting under way later this year with the next phase of the critical component of the program – seeing how this actually works,” and “…the department hopes to assess whether it should make the language corps permanent by the end of 2010.”

The translation of all of this is that as of the end of 2008 the NLSC is moving on to the “next phase” without having recruited anyone yet in the first and presumably most important phase and is building an infrastructure that may well never be put to use at all because by the time it is completed the project may be terminated. In other words, the project funds will pay the salaries of government employees who are going to be to recruiting linguists (who are not paid until they are actually mobilized) but once these linguists are recruited, the project may no longer exist.

Nobody knew

“The concept of the language corps really appeared because there was a recognition that there’s simply no way the federal government … can ever plan and program their work force to address all the language issues that might come up,” Mr. Slater is quoted as saying in the American Foreign Press Services article.

“No way?” Really? So all those analysts hired since 9/11 and working for the CIA, the NSA and the FBI are doing what exactly? According to Thomas Fingar, the Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, in his address to the Commonwealth Club on February 14, 2008 (documented in the May 2008 issue of The Commonwealth), “The intelligence community as it exists today has been in place … for 60 years” and Mr. Fingar’s task, in a mandate handed down to him “to remake a major portion of the federal government” was to “make analysis better.”

Wouldn’t a priority of “making analysis better” (better than, say, not predicting the fall of the Soviet Union, whose ideology and actions pretty much single-handedly dictated the direction of US policy for, oh, about 45 years) be to assess international developments by region, forecasting possible scenarios 5, 10, even 20 years down the road? Should not foreign language knowledge be a core criterion for analysts working in any sector of government having to do with foreign policy? Even with leeway for inaccuracies or incorrect analysis the core language needs would be self evident. With this “better” analysis, along with information about existing human resources, projected turnover, and personnel retirement rates, it would seem that the U.S. government should be able to fairly accurately anticipate future language needs.

However, in making his key point that, after several years of reform, an intelligence report was produced stating that Iran had stopped building a nuclear weapon, Mr. Fingar, as previously stated, and I emphasize, the Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, in explaining his role in the process, said “…I [didn’t] know how many [analysts there were], where they worked, what they did, what they knew. I [didn’t] know the basis for their expertise, what languages they spoke … It wasn’t simply that I was ill-informed … Nobody knew.”


The consequences of a failure to hire and/or retain professional level linguists are serious and far-reaching, far beyond the scope of this article. However, an example of such consequences was recently highlighted in a Human Rights First report dated September 24, 2008 in which Anthony S. Barkow, an attorney for accused defendants who are to be tried at Guantanamo Bay, related on-going problems with interpreting during “military commission proceedings against five men facing capital charges for allegedly participating and planning the September 11 attacks.”

In all fairness to the interpreters, this version of events has been described by a defense attorney, who is not an unbiased participant. Yet Mr. Barkow does cite examples of his previous experiences with federal court interpreters, indicating that he is familiar with how the process should run, and quotes a Major Jon Jackson, another counsel to a defendant, who points to solutions of problems with the interpretation of court testimony that were implemented at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia-solutions that were obviously not even considered (or perhaps unknown) by the U.S. government for hearings that many rightfully consider to be the most important judicial proceedings in the history of the United States.

The fact is that the U.S. government is willing to spend billions of dollars to wage war in Iraq. This includes paying contractors $99 to do one bag of laundry (see Iraq for Sale, a Robert Greenwald film). Yet it  hesitates to put up the financial resources necessary to have a top-notch interpreting staff and/or a system that will be able to professionally and competently handle the tasks set before them in order that no shadow of doubt regarding the fairness of the U.S. judicial process mars the proceedings. The alternative reasons behind this failure may be that U.S. government agencies responsible for this situation either do not know how to make proper interpreting arrangements or simply don’t consider it a priority. Whatever the reason, the results may well become, as Mr. Barkow writes, a travesty of justice. NB