THE SAIS OBSERVER SAIS Students
A Mouthpiece for Peace First Year Sterling Jensen’s Experiences as an Interpreter in Iraq By Tania Hamod
First year Sterling Jensen (in camouflage) while serving as a contract linguist with the military in Iraq.
The responsibility of ensuring security and stability in Iraq falls upon the shoulders of Iraqi and American interpreters. They have played a critical role in the conflict, and without them, any U.S. military progress in Iraq would be virtually impossible. In 2006-2007 Sterling Jensen, a 30-year-old MA student concentrating in Strategic Studies, served as a contract linguist in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar. He was attached to the 1st Brigade 1st Armored Division where he proved to be one of the few extremely skilled interpreters in the region, gaining immense trust and credibility from local tribal sheikhs as well as from US military officials. Yet Jensen recounts stories from the ground that attest that not all interpreters were able to achieve such success. If interpretation sets the groundwork for common understanding and the promotion of peace, one can only imagine the terrible consequences that ensue when interpretations go wrong. The purpose of an interpreter is to act solely as the eyes and ears of those who are engaged in dialogue. Yet oftentimes, understanding another language is not enough to ensure success-
ful discourse; the ability to comprehend nuances and the capability to engage in higher negotiations while cognitively understanding the mission at hand are essential tools that interpreters need to carry with them. They need to acquire a high degree of trust with whomever they are working, whether that person is an American colonel or an Iraqi sheikh. However, finding that level of trust may be harder than one might think. Jensen worked closely with Ltc. James Lechner, deputy commander of the First Brigade, 1st Armored Division in Iraq in 2006 who dealt extensively with Iraqi and U.S. interpreters in Iraq. Lechner commanded 5,000 US troops in Ramadi and underwent extensive training of Iraqi security forces. Those forces included the Iraqi army, police, government and citizens. Jensen and Lechner saw eye to eye when asked about the obstacles that faced interpreters from accomplishing successful dialogue. Both men automatically mention the matter of trust. Lechner explains that since Iraqis have sectarian issues, particularly in Anbar, it often proves difficult to bring a Shia interpreter to a meeting with Sunni sheikhs. Yet prejudice
Despite sporting a silly moustache, Sterling (standing, left) came to be taken seriously as one of the military’s most skilled interpreters.
exists on the other end as well; those engaged in dialogue would often subdue their conversations if the interpreter was someone that they did not know. As a result, the essential details of a conversation may never be brought to light. Lechner said that he had never witnessed a single interpreter who was completely subjective in conversation. Jensen’s results were identical yet he also discusses the lack of US interpreters who are willing to go outside the wire. Many of these Americans know that they are in high demand and will most likely not lose their jobs. Consequently, they refuse to do what they are asked. The responsibility therefore falls on the Iraqi local nationalists who risk and lose their lives completing tasks that they deem necessary. When such deficiencies exist among interpreters, one can only wonder what goes wrong when they do not do their jobs correctly. A dialogue that has gone awry can result in the potential loss of an exorbitant number of U.S. dollars. Lechner says that in 2004, he once had an 18-year-old Iraqi local national assisting his team with locating hidden insurgent weapons caches. Normally, the American military pays cash incentives to reward such assistance. The young interpreter told the local who had reported the location of the cache that “the Americans have thousands of dollars to give you.” In reality, Lechner had only a few hundred dollars to spare. Instead of progressing with the mission at hand, Lechner had to spend time explaining the misunderstanding to the Iraqi who had aided them. Another instance of a failed negotiation occurred when the U.S. began to expand the Iraqi police force in Ramadi. The American troops were able to negotiate with Iraqi locals to discuss where they needed new police stations as opposed to locations depict-
ed in initial plans. Somehow the local police forces assumed that they were allowed to open countless police stations wherever they pleased. The U.S. military only had limited funding, yet numerous IP stations started appearing throughout the area. Lechner said that part of this was attributed to “Iraqi poker” and part of this was indeed a language barrier. Lechner explained how Jensen, however, was an interpreter who possessed all the essential tools to fully master a conversation. Although Jensen was not native speaker, he was able to pick up on the important subtleties by using his own words to express the situations at hand. Jensen single-handedly used his abilities to sustain stability and prevent violence from breaking out in Ramadi. At one point, Jensen explains how the essential process of recruitment into the Iraqi paramilitary was underway. A 19-year-old Sunni interpreter continuously rejected numerous Shia recruits because he claimed that none of them could read or write. Thus, all these men would be sent home, frustrated and feeling helpless. Jensen, noticing this frustration, warmly and confidently approached the men and put them at ease. Although somewhat timid at first, the men slowly proved to Jensen that they could in fact read and write. It turned out that the young Iraqi interpreter let a power trip get in the way of accomplishing an extremely important job of facilitating recruitment. Jensen and Lechner were elated to discover that the men could in fact join the Iraqi military. Needless to say, they were not elated with the Iraqi interpreter. When civilians became injured or lost their homes in Ramadi due to violent attacks, Jensen and other interpreters were able to go beyond offering simple explanations for the civilians’ losses. Lechner describes an instance when Al Qaeda cells were continued on page 11
Published on Mar 2, 2012
For more pics see page 12 Diversions 2 On Campus 4 Bologna Connection 5 SAIS Students 6 Arts and Culture 8 Op-Ed 9 November 2007 Volume 8 No...