Exclusive: Whistleblower Claims Many U.S. Interpreters Can't Speak Afghan Languages



"It's simply a matter of dollars," he said. "All the interpreters I have spoken to know … what's going on. It's money. It's money for meeting those requirements."

The result, he said, and American war veterans confirmed, is that many of the interpreters are simply unable to perform the delicate work of interpreting conversations between Americans and Afghans. The problem predates Mission Essential's arrival on the scene in Afghanistan.

Genevieve Chase served as a Pashto-language-trained US Army Sergeant in Afghanistan in 2006 in Bagram and Lashkargah, Helmand Province. She told ABC News it was not unusual to encounter interpreters who were unable to speak Pashto, or had limited English. At times, she said she believes the failure to communicate has put soldiers lives at risk.

"Somewhere along the line somebody is doing something they're not supposed to be doing," Chase said. "It is not difficult to pick out somebody who can't speak Pashto. In fact, for me it was rather simple to isolate those people."

Chase said Army units quickly identified interpreters who could not do their jobs. She recalled odd exchanges where Afghan elders would speak at great length and the interpreter would turn to the American soldiers and translate, "He said, 'Okay.'"

She said it was common for units to simply hand off bad translators to other units, rather than carry the risk of relying on one themselves.

John McHugh, a British journalist who was embedded with American troops, said he spoke enough Pashto to realize the interpreter with his unit was not giving correct translations. He was so alarmed by the disparities he began filming an exchange between an American soldier and an Afghan elder.

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"At one stage you can see in the film where the elder talks about the Taliban coming into the village and the fact that the villagers are helpless to do anything about it. And the translator essentially says, 'the Taliban are behind that hill, if you want to find them, they're over there.' Which wasn't at all what the elder had said," McHugh recounted in an interview.


Mission Essential officials said the translator in the footage is not one of their employees.

After the incident McHugh returned to London and hired a translator to go over his tapes.

"We went through a huge amount of the footage and there were massive differences in what was translated and what was actually said," McHugh said. "And I'm not talking about slightly shortening sentences or phrasing in a succinct way. I'm talking about huge amounts of information simply being left out and at times, pure mistranslation."

McHugh said he believes unskilled translators take on the jobs, and the risks associated with them, because they are so lucrative. American citizens serving as translators can be paid annual salaries that top $200,000. Afghan nationals who are hired locally are paid less, but still in amounts that vastly exceed the typical pay for someone in that country.

"They are quite keen to make money," McHugh said. "One of them described himself to me as the rock star of his village, because the money he made was equivalent to a rock star's money."

Trouble with translators has also been observed by Afghanis.

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