Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Dealing with terps, the unoffical *true* version

"Every rotation does it."

"No one will ever know."

If you are working with an interpreter, and they utter either of these phrases, go ahead and punch them right in the mouth. More Soldiers have gotten into trouble listening to there terps than I care to count.

Before I get into this, I do need to make a distinction between military linguists, who are Soldiers who happen to speak a foreign language, contract interpreters, who, by and large, are native speakers of another language, and have somehow immigrated to the US, and local linguists who are, well, local nationals who speak enough english to get a job with US forces. My focus here is not military linguist - they are Soldiers and should be treated as such. I was lucky enough to work with one in Iraq and he was a tremendous asset. The picture at the top is of he and I at rest after a long week.

So back to the quotes above, I have heard both of these from terps in the past, and it is usually at the begining of the rotation. My experience has been that the suggestion they are making, is not for the benefit of my team. While it might be something we would enjoy (oh like, "we can cross the border and go party in Zagreb!" or "I used to sneak women on base for the last rotation all the time"), the motivation is usually something to do with the terp himself.

Fortunately, I don't have any good stories about guys sleeping with female terps, we were smart enough not to hire any and avoided that nonsense. But I suppose you could google all the pics Joe has posted on the internet. [;)

Sergeant Grumpy's Rules for dealing with Terps

You are in charge, not the Terp
I have been in a situation where a terp, who in fairness had been at the base we were working at a long time, said during a meeting when told to translate something, "No, we aren't going to do that, I won't translate it." Eventually, like a precocious puppy who nips all the time and doesn't get disciplined and eventually bites, terps start to think they know more than Soldiers they work for. This happens because people fail to manage terps like they do their subordinates. If this is happening, stop and re-set expectations with your terp, and make it damn clear. If the terp can't adapt, get rid of him if you can. The terp in this story ended up being sent packing after one month.

You must communicate with your terp
While terps are tools, they are not screwdrivers. You won't get the best results by just throwing them into a meeting at the last minute without warning. While OPSEC concerns must be respected, take the time to pre-brief him or her on what general topics you plan on covering, if there are any specialized vocabulary you intend to use, say you are going to discuss issues related to a water treatment plant, the terp might need to do a little research. And take this time to remind the terp, you work for me, translate just what I say, try to use my tone of voice, etc.

Then do a quick debrief while you review your notes, this is a chance for you to give immediate feedback to the terp to reinforce positive performance and demand improvement in weak areas. It also is a chance to ask for their help if there are areas in your notes that are lacking, or if something was said you didn't understand, but didn't want to break the flow.

You will check your terp
My experience tells me terps will get lazy in their use of language, and some have personal hang ups over using profanity, etc. You need to take the time to learn a few words so you can test your terp. If you find he hasn't used the word you are expecting, this has to be addressed immediately after the meeting. The easiest of course are to use the profanity which always seems to be the easiest to pick up. Another good tactic is to bring in a linguist who the term doesn't know speaks, of course this only works once, but puts him on notice.

You will treat your your terps like they are sources
Because guess what, they are. You terps will likely have many, many side conversations with all the important local nationals you visit with. And they will also talk to all the other terps on base, who are also talking to people all over town. Get it? Now, the other rules above will require you to take a tough line with your terp from time to time, but if you handle that professionally, and take the time and effort to actually build a relationship with them, you will gain access to a ton of information. Don't like your terp? Too damn bad, I'm not asking you to become domestic parnters, I am saying the terp better think you two have a good relationship. And never ever forget that the terps gossip and talk shit about each other and Soldiers on base, don't give him anything to say about you other than "he's a hard ass sometimes, but he's fair."

Corrallary: Do not treat your military linguists like terps.
They are god-damn Soldiers, not terps, so treat them like the rest of your Soldiers. Nuff said.


David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/08/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

"D" AKA CI-Roller Dude said...

OK Grumpy...good post! I have so many good war stories about terps...but, the sad stories are some of the soldiers who were less than useless and made the terp do all the meeting talking... while the soldiers usually fell asleep!
Ok, I'll write something after I'm through with my current train of thought--if I can remember what it is. I have CRS.

Anonymous said...

you left out a few. when the terp is a security risk (excessive drinker, thief or outright liar) make an immediate example of them by firing their ass.

and i know the truth in that picture, a long week yes but it was also a holiday and if any of us were sober i can't remember. actually, if any of us were sober i would be surprised. which was cool cause HIM was not there.

the dude

"D" AKA CI-Roller Dude said...

I have a different thought with working with any civilain contractor in a war zone...if they are that *&^% up, we should just be able to shoot them. We had a few in Bosnia and Iraq who were committing "Grand Theft- Pay Check" just by being there. They got paid a shitload of money, but either didn't want to work, or in fact had no idea how to be a terp, or were lazy and useless.

there were also a few KBR bandits in Iraq who were stealing a pay check and didn't want to work...

Sergeant Grumpy said...

David, thanks for still following me.

Dude, good to hear from you man, although I don't recall there being any spirits in iraq ?

"D", yeah man, don't even know where to begin on GT-Paycheck. I saw a lot of that in New Orleans too. The taxpayers and politicians pumped so much money in NO to make themselves feel better, but a lot of it was wasted.

majorwolf said...

hey grumpy, i used to be a terp i worked in fallujah with 13th meu, i was surprised by what you had to say , u probab;y met some fucked u terps , i received 2 recomendations while i was in iraq , the grunts n i are close frends, some of them even visisted me in lebanon after they left the corp,we were in the same shit 2gether man,

Sergeant Grumpy said...


that is great to hear - and yeah, I had some bad experiences, but you're right that it doesn't mean it's true for all - I had a great terp in the balkans and still have drinks with him from time to time - thank you for your service with the corps and be well.