Room for Interpretation

Each time we talk on the phone, I ask T what his day was like, hoping that I’ll be able to glean a nugget or two of information from his often vague responses. There are many things he can’t tell me, but I think he also sometimes forgets that I am a simple civilian who will never experience the things he is experiencing or see the things he is seeing. The tiniest details are fascinating to me.

For instance, the urinals on his post consist of lengths of PVC piping driven into the ground at a 45-degree angle. This is a point of interest for me. I’ve never peed into PVC piping.

And I hope I never have to.

To help quell my thirst for information, T has written me several illuminating emails about what it is like to work overseas. It seems there are more obstacles and barriers than you or I could ever imagine. Not least of which is the language barrier.

I’ll let you read it in T’s words.

(Please note that the nonsense words used in this story are meant to represent the use of a language not understood by the narrator and are not intended to be disrespectful of any of the languages used by Afghanis.)

 *          *          *          *

The assignment of terps (military slang for “interpreters”) is done from an agency that hides behind closed doors in a galaxy far, far away. Each of the terps come from a different background with different language skills and proficiency, and different attitudes. Just as in any American office, some are dedicated and hard workers and some are lazy and dodge real work at any opportunity.

The majority of the terps come from larger population centers where they have received a better education than the average Afghani, and certainly more of an education than those who live in remote areas. Unfortunately, many of them learned their language skills in a classroom populated by other Afghanis and with Afghan instructors. As such, their ability to understand English spoken by an American (accents and dialects included) is not all that it could be. In fact, we have one terp who needs to bring another terp with him to translate whenever he wants to speak with us.

The majority of the terps here speak Dari as their native language. Although they have some ability to speak Pashto, it is not their primary language, which makes for interesting conversations when they try to interpret for locals.

Most of the time we think the conversations are going along swimmingly. It is only occasionally when we find out the hard way that all is not well in our little world. Let me give you a few examples.

Not so long ago, some of our soldiers were having a conversation with the Afghan Police they were mentoring. The US Soldiers were inquiring as to patrols that the police were conducting in the area. The conversation went something like this:

US Soldier: I understand you are conducting patrols now along RTE X. Is that correct?

Terp: derka derka derka

Afghan Police: derka derka

Terp: He says thank you he works very hard to keep his weapon clean and is ready to fight whenever needed.

US Soldier: &%$!@*#^%$*!! (side note: That mess created a hyperlink??)

Another time, when talking with a local who had been wounded and then kidnapped by the Taliban, we were using a terp to get information regarding his captors and how he was released. That conversation went something like this:

Me: After you were blindfolded and taken from your house and family, were you put into a car, onto the back of a horse or donkey, or moved on foot?

Terp: derka derka derka

Villager (grabs his arm currently in a sling): derka derka

Terp: He says no, they didn’t torture him but they were rough with his wounded arm and it was painful when they moved him.

Me: Huh?? That isn’t what I asked! (repeats question in English)

Terp: Ah, I understand now, sir. (pause) derka derka derka

Villager: derka derka

Terp: He says his family doesn’t own a car, and that is why he couldn’t get here sooner to talk with you.

Me: &%$!#@*!!

*          *          *          *

Oh dear. Sometimes I’m sorry I asked. I mean, I laugh each time I read this…

…but if you really stop to think about it, it’s enough to give you nightmares.


5 responses to “Room for Interpretation

  1. Having lived overseas for 3 years, I totally understand! The language barrier can be hard. Laughter is the best way to handle it…even if it means laughing at yourself!

  2. Oh wow, thanks for sharing this! I too find the day to day life of soldiers in Afghanistan….fascinating?

  3. Maybe if they as the question instead like this:

    US Soldier: “derka derka derka”,

    The answer they would get back from the Terp would be

    Terp: Yes, the enemy is at coordinate XX XX and they have XX amount of men and guns and we can reach them by going XXX

    Be safe T.

  4. This is slightly off topic, but….
    When J was deployed, I always found not knowing what his surroundings looked like, where he slept, where he ate, the happenings of his day, etc even harder. He knew my life completely while he was gone, but it was difficult for me to picture where he was living. That’s a strange situation when one is so close with another person yet not much is known about their day to day. That part was hard so I often asked questions like you did, too. I must say…I never got such a detailed response, though! :) Funny story.

  5. LOL! I love the use of derka, derka in this post. That must be so frustrating to talk to those people. Sucks.

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