Interpreters' role in Iraq more important than ever

5 Aug 2003 | Pfc. Samuel A. Soza

With the bulk of combat in Iraq finished, Marine and Army units have started down the road to reconstruct the war-torn nation.

Along that road, however, are many communication and information gaps. And one of the many groups that are building the bridges are American and foreign interpreters.

Army Maj. Tom Kinton, 39, chief of the linguistics team of the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade of Norristown, Pa., currently oversees his group of interpreters in southern Iraq.

Kinton, a native of Ellicott City, Md., has been in Iraq for three months preparing for the transition from an American and British contingency to a multinational force.

One of the interpreters' important tasks is maintaining the existing relationships established between the coalition, led by the U.S., and the local Iraqi communities.

Officials base the importance of the interpreters' future role on past accomplishments.

"Incoming coalition forces need to have their own translators and interpreters," said Marine Cpl. Ali Abdelgawad, a driver who speaks Arabic and doubles as an interpreter with K Company, 3/12 Artillery Battery. "They are essential to ensure that the right messages are passed on,"

"When the people see someone who speaks their language fluently it creates an environment of trust and also facilitates their cooperation," he added.

A native of Queens, N.Y., Abdelgawad speaks Arabic, French, and Spanish and played his own role in the early parts of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was part of a group of interpreters instrumental to some of the victories during the war.

In addition to their language expertise, the linguists' knowledge of customs and culture are called upon as well.

"All across theater many conversations are going on and our interpreters need a broad background," said Kinton.

"They are chosen based on background," said Abdelgawad. Some of the native speakers never went to school for the knowledge they have of the culture and language, he said.

Now, however, their roles aren't as clearly defined with the incoming of multinational partners assuming responsibility of southern Iraqi provinces.

Interpreters' roles are going to change with the arrival of multi-national coalition and the many languages that will be spoken, Kinton said.

"They won't be dealing with native English speakers and it will be more complicated to get a correct understanding," he said.

One interpreter already on the ground is Magdelena Dybek, a civilian interpreter for the Polish force. She said the job would be challenging, but not impossible.

"The dialect will be different," Dybek said. "It's not all about language. You have to understand their thinking."

Dybek, a native of Nysa, Poland and her counterpart, Gabriela Piotrowska, native to Bialystok, Poland, both received scholarships to spend time in the Middle East where they received their cultural education.

According to the two interpreters, another thirty foreign linguists are expected to arrive in theater soon.

The First Marine Division and 358th have depend on a company called Titan Corp. to provide contracted linguists.

Titan, which based in San Diego, Calif., has worked with the U.S. military for 25 years providing linguistic support for the military, in places such as Bosnia.

"Titan will continue to provide support to U.S. forces wherever linguist support is needed," said Gordon Sinclair, 55, the firm's regional manager in southern Iraq.

According to Sinclair, a native of Orlando, Fl., Titan will continue to support what will be left of U.S. forces through the transition to multinational control.

Some American linguists hired by Titan work for the military but end up resigning due to the conditions. Contracted interpreters constantly move with units from camp to camp, tolerating constant ups and downs of their living conditions, said Kinton.

"Every time I go out to interact with the people I forget all the hardships and bad things," said Wedad M. Al-Akkad, one of the linguists employed by the 358th. Al-Akkad is from Stanton, Va.

This lifestyle often enough will test the interpreters' ability to keep up with the troops.

"The ones that are really dedicated stay," Kinton added.

In some recent incidents, Iraqi nationals hired as interpreters have been targeted by former regime loyalists for assisting U.S. forces.

"It's unfortunate because they're just trying to make a living," Kinton said. "Anytime the bad guys make it hard for us to do our job they make it hard for Iraq."

In spite of all obstacles, the linguists have continued to pass coalition's message of peace and hope to the people of Iraq.

"The beginning is a dangerous time," Kinton explains. "Now it's the beginning. How we use the translators now will prevent us from working harder in the future."