by Robert L. Bateman, CCJ Contributing Writer
Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Bateman is currently stationed in Washington, D.C. He was a Military Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and has authored two books: "Digital War, A View from the Front Lines" (Presidio: 1999) and "No Gun Ri, A Military History of the Korean War Incident" (Stackpole, 2002). These opinions are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government or the Armed Forces.
Although it is not easy to tell, there is a significant difference between a translator and an interpreter. In Iraq, those differences are crucial, though I cede that our troops use the words interchangeably.
The real difference is that while both types of people speak two languages, one of them is fluent in two cultures as well. Thus, a translator can convert your English words into Iraqi Arabic, but because he may not quite understand either your unstated sub-text, or the historical and cultural context of the listener, your precisely translated words may unintentionally send exactly the wrong message.
An interpreter, on the other hand, is a jewel. He knows you, he knows American culture and history, but he is also intimately familiar with the host country. He understands that when you make a reference to, say, our main heavy artillery piece (which is called the “Paladin”) that he better not use the direct Arabic translation of that word, which might as well be a synonym for “Holy Christian Crusader,” because that would send exactly the wrong message. Instead, he interprets what you mean to say, and puts that in the proper context. He does the same in reverse for you. A good interpreter is worth his weight in gold.
For all intents and purposes, it may be better for journalists to consider themselves “interpreters” rather than reporters. A good journalist does not merely transcribe, he understands the broader context of what he is seeing and hearing and explains that in the context proper for his audience to understand what happened. Local reporters and editors do this all the time, using the AP feed to develop a story for their local audiences. But even then the process is not simple, though the best of you make it look that way. It is even more difficult the more dissimilar the two groups, those being written about and those who will read the story, are from each other. It is nearly an impossible task to accomplish well if the journalist is not even aware that there is a difference in cultures at play.
Now every self-selecting profession has a special language all its own. Physicians and surgeons, lawyers and police, all are specialized and most periodically get frustrated when a journalist gets the details wrong. The normal journalistic response, and I have heard this dozens of times over the years, is generally dismissive. Along the lines of “all specialists complain when you get the slightest little detail wrong, but they’re missing the big picture, the story overall was about X...” In my profession, of course, bad reporting, even of those details, can have somewhat more serious consequences. When one misreports a story of a new medical procedure for gall-bladder operations, you might annoy the subject of the story and lose some credibility with the handful of physicians who can spot the mistakes. When one misreports a story on the military, the results can be much more traumatic. Moreover, there are an estimated 27 million veterans in the U.S., who will usually find the "Snafu." Which brings us back to cultures, sub-cultures, and the importance of knowing what you are seeing.
The military is not monolithic. Just as there are in Al Anbar province, Iraq, in the U.S. military there are major tribes, sub-tribes, and even sub-sub tribes. Each has a culture which generally adheres to the outlines of the larger culture, but which is still unique. Doing journalism with multiple tribes means understanding those differences.
If one does not, they run the risk of misinterpreting what they are seeing and hearing. The simplest way to explain this is in the form of a joke, the idea of which depends upon the idea that each of the services hears the word “secure” to mean different things.
If you tell a Marine officer to “secure the building,” but give him no more instruction, he will plan an assault. His troops will come in from two perpendicular directions, preceded by mortar and artillery fire, with F-18s flying close air support overhead. They will rain destruction on the structure, and then under the concealment of smoke, move into the building with two platoons, clearing each room of the building with grenades and bursts of small arms fire. When every room has been cleared they will go to the roof and raise a flag. Then the Marine officer will return and declare that the building has been secured.
If you tell an Army officer to “secure the building,” he will lead his men to the building, they will enter it and start knocking out the windows. Filling each opening with sandbags, they will surround the structure with barbed wire and claymores (these are directional command detonated mines). He will personally emplace his machineguns in the best locations to cover the “likely avenues of enemy approach,” and after 24 hours the structure will be fit to hold off an attack from a force three times the size of the Army unit inside. He will then report that the building has been secured.
If you tell a Navy officer to “secure the building,” he shuts down the computers, spins the dial on the lock of the file cabinet, turns off the lights and locks the front door.
If you tell an Air Force officer to “secure the building,” he looks it up on Google Maps, gets his contracting agent, and heads down to the local real estate agent where he takes out a 20 year lease with an option to buy.
(Somewhat obviously, this joke is retold mostly by the Army and Marines.)
The differences, subtle and not-so-subtle, take some time to discern.
Experience is the only obvious corrective, though CCJ contributor Ed Offley has published a book which goes a long way towards helping the interested journalist navigate the pinnacles and pitfalls of covering the military. His 2001 book Pen and Sword, A Journalist’s Guide to Covering the Military is a de facto “How To” manual which is about the best single source for a journalist just starting on the military beat, or even one assigned to a single military story. On the CCJ homepage type in “Offley” in the search box for a selection of his recommendations. (Search results here). The book itself can be found here.
ConcernedJournalists.org hosts several tools related to war reporting in addition to Offley’s which can be found here.
You can write to LTC Bob at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com.