Translation Call Centres for Afghanistan?

Canada’s search for a portable voice translator for use by troops who don’t have access to an interpreter drew an interesting response and alternative from a participant at the Small Wars Journal (SWJ) discussion forum:

I understand the requirement for such a capability, however this ‘solution’ appears very short-sighted indeed and will not provide the sort of direct translation support that may be required, and will likely result in additional training etc for the deployed troops with little utility.

I would propose something far simpler and better which would meet all the current and several other potential requirements/applications. I propose that a call center be setup in Kandahar with native and english speakers, similar to the call centers that exist in India to respond to North Americans. Such a centre could act as an on-demand, real-time translation service supported through local cellular telephone capabilities, and supplemented by Army or satellite radio links where required. Soldiers could communicate directly with anyone they require regardless of language or sex. Such services could be further supplemented with laptop communications for web broadcast of specific messages and information – such as medical advice, notices , psyop, IO and CIMIC related materials etc tailored to the audience.

In addition, such a system would protect the translators as well, since they would not be revealing their identities to other Afghans. Local Afghans could staff some of these positions, and the centre could respond to a multitude of users and services such as 411 or 911 types of services.

An interesting proposal, but methinks not one that can be applied in all situations – this, from another SWJ participant:

I know how Canadians would respond if foreigners with guns made us speak via a handset to a strange, remote voice. It is hard to believe that Afghan reactions would be any more positive.


What do you think?

How Do You Talk to Afghans Without an Interpreter?

This appears to be a question being asked by DND, via this posted tender on MERX:

“This requirement is for the Department of National Defence (DND) to procure a portable Voice Response Translators (VRT). This device provides soldiers the capability to communicate basis (sic.) commands and phrases allowing them to conduct tasks proficient manner in the Contemporary Operating Environment and Future Security Environment.”

A little more, from the Statement of Work portion of the bid package (PDF downloadable from here):

“Experience in Afghanistan indicates that the language barrier between Canadian troops and Local Nationals (LN) can result in significant challenges that are extremely difficult to work around.  As a result there is a need for soldiers to have the ability to communicate with LN in their native languages.  This need is most acute when the services of a local translator are not available to unable (sic.) the task at hand.  A VRT will provide soldiers the capability to communicate basic commands and phrases, allowing them to conduct tasks in a more proficient manner.”

The most intriguing part of the bid package is the annex containing eleven pages of phrases the machinery has to be able to translate.  In addition to the usual commands for running a shooting range, giving orders to troops during operations and asking about medical conditions, here’s a few examples (apparently given in a “CF person says into machine – machine reads out” format):

“Begin Directing”: “I’m speaking to you through a device that translates select phrases into your language.  When I ask questions, please hold up one finger for yes, and two fingers for no.”

“Elite Forces”: “Attention!  Attention!  Attention!  You are surrounded by elite Government Forces.  Abandon your weapons, move out of the building into the open with your hands over your head and remain standing until secured by a Government soldier.  Do this and you will not be harmed.”

“No looting”: “Do not take anything from this house/vehicle or you will be punished.”

Apart from the typos (in red above, as well as this one):

Diffuse detonate?”: “Will the bomb detonate if we attempt to diffuse it?” (I think they may have meant “defuse”)

an interesting concept.  Two points come to mind for me:

1) I’d love to hear from anyone regarding whether 310 of these units (if the winning contractor fulfills the entire contract in this bid) would be enough.

2)  Why has it taken this long to get this sort of thing considered and bought?

Canadian Officer Faces Court Martial in Death of Enemy Fighter

This, from a Canadian Forces news release:

“Captain Robert Semrau will face a General Court Martial in relation to the shooting death of a wounded insurgent that occurred in Afghanistan in October 2008.Capt. Semrau was arrested on December 31, 2008, by the National Investigation Service and charged with Second Degree Murder while deployed in Afghanistan as Commander of an Operational Mentor Liaison Team. Capt. Semrau was released under conditions on January 7, 2009, by the Military Judge presiding over the custody review hearing at CFB Petawawa.

Following referral to the Canadian Forces Director of Military Prosecutions (DMP), Captain (Navy) Holly MacDougall, the original charge of Second Degree Murder, and three additional charges were brought forward or “preferred” to Court Martial.

The charges facing Capt. Semrau are:

  • Second Degree Murder – contrary to Section 130 of the National Defence Act, pursuant to Section 235(1) of the Criminal Code;

  • Attempt to Commit Murder (alternative to the Charge of Second Degree Murder) – contrary to Section 130 of the National Defence Act, pursuant to Section 239(1)(a.1) of the Criminal Code;

  • Behaving in a Disgraceful Manner – contrary to Section 93 of the National Defence Act; and
  • Negligently Performing a Military Duty – contrary to Section 124 of the National Defence Act.

The charges have been forwarded to the Court Martial Administrator who will convene a General Court Martial at the first available date and at a location to be determined.

A General Court Martial is composed of a military judge and a panel of five members. The accused is represented by a defence counsel designated by the Director of Defence Counsel Service.

The DMP considers two main issues when deciding whether to prosecute a charge at court martial:

– Is the evidence sufficient to justify the continuation of charges as laid or the preferral of other charges?

– If the evidence is sufficient, does the public interest require a prosecution to be pursued?

DMP continually reassesses these issues as new information about the case becomes available and has the discretion to bring forward, or “prefer,” the charge or any other charge based on facts disclosed by evidence in addition to, or in substitution for, the charge.

The DMP is a separate and independent authority for military prosecutions who exercises prosecutorial discretion within the military justice system, free of influences, and based on legal principles and criteria….”

A fair bit of back and forth on and Small Wars Council discussion threads.

Where’s the “Afghan” in Latest Afghan Fight?

It appears American troops were hoping more Afghan soldiers would come out to the party in the latest push in southern Afghanistan – check media coverage here and here.

BruceR, a former Canadian trainer/mentor of Afghan troops, noticed this, and has his own theory about why there’s not enough troops (or at least not enough troops in Helmand province).

My crassly oversimplified Reader’s Digest version:  because Afghan troops trained/mentored by different Coalition forces can be pretty hard to mix with different Afghan troops trained/mentored by different Coalition forces (each with different caveats, rules and approaches).

BruceR’s “start of an essay” is well worth the read.