Translators in Iraq Work with More Than Words
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Here's the story of some people who walk alongside U.S. troops in Iraq and share many of the risks. Arab interpreters working for U.S.-led forces do more than just translate. They educate their bosses on local traditions and serve as cultural attachés. U.S. soldiers call them terps. They do everything from translating constitutional law to smoothing tensions when U.S. officials commit social faux pas.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports.
JAMIE TARABAY: In the Middle East it's practically the universal sign for hey, take it easy - bunching you fingers up together at the tips with palm upward. But as Amin(ph), an Iraqi translator says, try explaining that to an American soldier at the wheel of a Humvee.
AMIN (Iraqi Translator): What does mean that? The American will understand. They know they cannot shoot him.
TARABAY: That gesture is included in the handbook provided to all U.S. troops serving in Iraq. But many soldiers rely on people like Amin, whose English is good, but not great, to guide them through simple yet culturally sensitive Iraqi and Arab traditions.
AMIN: When we go to a sheik's house and they make coffee with a small cup, you need a coffee. If you want to say enough, you will not say it with your mouth. You have to shake the cup. That means enough. And it's very funny when an American, he doesn't like to drink anymore. He doesn't shake it and he gets more and more and more. And it's a very strong coffee.
TARABAY: And then, as Amin explains, there is body language.
AMIN: When an Iraqi holds a man's hand, that means I like you. We are very close. We are friends. But an American also feels very strange about that.
TARABAY: But body language can also indicate danger.
AMIN: For example, one day, I was with this commander. He went to a sheik's house. And I just realized that something goes wrong just from the body language. I told the commander, we have to leave. There is something wrong. And when we left, afterwards some fighting began to arise. And it's not good for us to be there.
TARABAY: The intricacies of social etiquette here can flummox even the most seasoned Army officers, says Amin, who can only be identified by his first name for his own safety.
Halid(ph) takes the same precautions. He is originally from Jordan but now lives in the U.S. Halid says he started working as a translator here in part to help change the stereotypical image of Arabs in America that arose after the September 11 attacks.
HALID (Translator): I studied in United States. I have a lot opportunity with my family there. So, I think this is time to give something.
TARABAY: Halid says officers with years of experience in this part of the world can largely dodge offending Iraqis. It's the lower-ranking soldiers and civilians he says need better training.
HALID: I think a lot of people look to the American as a role model. So when a mistake happen it cannot be like that was any other country's mistakes.
TARABAY: Because they travel with the U.S. military and live on the base, they are better protected than local Iraqi translators. Still, Halid says he knows of nine translators killed in Iraq over the past six months.
HALID: Everybody knows there is a rumor: If you kill a translator, you have a $25,000 prize.
TARABAY: Yet without these translators, Halid says nothing in Iraq could be done. And the U.S. government should help those trying to leave.
HALID: They have to have a fair chance to come to United States and become a legal resident there. Because, actually, these people they took with us the risk and they compromise their life with us. And we have to be fair to them.
TARABAY: On Wednesday, the Bush administration agreed to increase the number of Iraqi refugees allowed into the country to about 7,000. And State Department officials say they're working on a plan to issue special migrant visas for those who've been working for the U.S. government in Iraq.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.
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