How do you say “doh!’ in Arabic?
It was reported this week that five years after Arab terrorists attacked the United States, only 33 FBI agents have even limited proficiency in Arabic, and none works in sections that coordinate investigations of international terrorism, according to new bureau statistics.
Only 1 percent of the FBI’s 12,000 have any familiarity with the language, the statistics show. The agency instead relies on translators when investigators need them. The bureau has increased the number of translators proficient in Arabic from 70 in September 2001 to 269 in July, while the overall number of linguists has nearly doubled.
FBI officials told The Washington Post that it’s not crucial for agents working in the terrorism operations to know Arabic or other foreign languages because they rely primarily on documents or interviews already translated by FBI linguists.
It would seem, however, that relying on translators, even FBI-issue, leaves a lot more room for error. (Just like the game where a sentence is whispered, person by person, around a circle. When the last person utters the phrase aloud, it bears no resemblance to the original.)
Daniel Byman, a Georgetown University professor who heads the school’s Security Studies Program, said the FBI’s lack of Arabic agents is a “serious problem” that hurts the bureau’s relationships with immigrant communities and makes it more difficult to gather intelligence on extremist groups.
“With any new immigrant communities, they need these language skills, whether it’s Vietnamese or Pakistani or Arabic,” Bryant said. “It also often gives you extra cultural knowledge and sensitivity. It makes you more sensitive to nuance, which is what investigations are often all about.”
We suggest that the FBI track down the six Arabic-speaking Army linguists who were dismissed from the military in 2002 because they are gay. They are highly qualified; they just ran up against the military’s shoot-itself-in-the-foot “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Last year, as a treat for TV viewers during Ramadan, the Dubai-based satellite network MBC dubbed into Arabic 30 episodes of “The Simpsons” and showed them twice a day. Homer became Omar Shamsoon. Bart became Badr, etc. According to viewers, it was not funny. At all. Not because it was offensive. But because, somehow, the humor got lost in translation. Perhaps the FBI can pick up on the not-so-nuanced lesson that can be found there.