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Appendix B
Use of Interpreters


B-1. Whenever possible, interpreters should be US military personnel, or at least US citizens. In some operational or training settings abroad, Soldiers are not faced with the problem of selecting an interpreter; they are assigned one by the chain of command or HN government. In other cases, interpreters are chosen from a pool provided by the HN government. Finally, in many operational situations, interpreters are hired from the general HN population. Whatever the case, the following guidelines are critical to mission accomplishment.

B-2. Interpreters should be selected based on the following criteria:

  • Native speaker. Interpreters should be native speakers of the socially or geographically determined dialect. Their speech, background, and mannerisms should be completely acceptable to the target audience (TA) so that no attention is given to the way they talk, only to what they say.
  • Social status. In some situations and cultures, interpreters may be limited in their effectiveness with a TA if their social standing is considerably lower than that of the audience. Examples include significant differences in military rank or membership in an ethnic or religious group. Regardless of Soldiers' personal feelings on social status, they should remember the job is to accomplish the mission, not to act as an agent for social reform. Soldiers must tolerate local prejudices as a fact of life.
  • English fluency. An often-overlooked consideration is how well the interpreter speaks English. As a rule, if the interpreter understands the Soldier and the Soldier understands the interpreter, then the interpreter's command of English is satisfactory. A Soldier can check that understanding by asking the interpreter to paraphrase, in English, something the Soldier said. The Soldier then restates the interpreter's comments to ensure that both understand each other. In addition, interpreting goes both ways. Interpreters must be able to convey information expressed by interviewees or the TA.
  • Intellectual intelligence. Interpreters should be quick, alert, and responsive to changing conditions and situations. They should be able to grasp complex concepts and discuss them without confusion in a reasonably logical sequence. Although education does not equate to intelligence, generally speaking, the better educated the interpreter, the better he or she will perform, due to increased exposure to diverse concepts.
  • Technical ability. In certain situations, Soldiers may need interpreters with technical training or experience in special subject areas. This type of interpreter is able to translate the meaning as well as the words. For instance, if the subject is nuclear physics, background knowledge is useful.
  • Reliability. Soldiers should beware of a potential interpreter who arrives late for the interview. Throughout the world, the concept of time varies widely. In many less-developed countries, time is relatively unimportant. Soldiers should make sure that interpreters understand the importance of punctuality.
  • Loyalty. If interpreters are local nationals, it is safe to assume that their first loyalty is to the HN or ethnic group, not to the US military. The security implications are clear. Soldiers must be very cautious in how they explain concepts. Additionally, some interpreters, for political or personal reasons, may have ulterior motives or a hidden agenda when they apply for an interpreting job. Soldiers who detect or suspects such motives should tell the commander or security manager. Gender, age, and race.
  • Gender, age, and race can seriously affect mission accomplishment. One example is the status of females in Muslim society. In predominantly Muslim countries, cultural prohibitions may render a female interpreter ineffective in certain circumstances. Another example is the Balkans, where ethnic divisions may limit the effectiveness of an interpreter from outside the TA. Since traditions, values, and biases vary from country to country, it is important to check with the in-country assets or area studies for specific taboos or favorable characteristics.
  • Compatibility. Soldiers and interpreters work as teams. For interpreters to be most effective, they should become a psychic extension of Soldiers. The TA will be quick to recognize personality conflicts between Soldiers and interpreters. Such conflicts can undermine the effectiveness of the communication effort. If possible, when selecting interpreters, Soldiers should look for compatible traits and strive for a harmonious working relationship.

B-3. If several qualified interpreters are available, Soldiers should select at least two. This practice is of particular importance if the interpreter will be used during long conferences or courses of instruction. When two interpreters are available, they should work for one-half hour periods. Due to the mental strain associated with this type job, four hours of active interpreting is usually the approximate maximum for peak effectiveness. In the case of short duration meetings and conversations, when two or more interpreters are available, one can provide quality control and assistance to the active interpreter. Additionally, this technique is useful when conducting coordination or negotiation meetings, as one interpreter is used in an active role and the other pays attention to the body language and side conversations of the others present. Many times, Soldiers can gain important auxiliary information that assists in negotiations from listening to what others are saying among themselves outside of the main discussion.


B-4. Implied throughout the preceding points is the need for a careful analysis of the TA. This type of analysis goes beyond the scope of this appendix. Mature judgment, thoughtful consideration of the TA as individuals, and a genuine concern for their receiving accurate information goes a long way toward accomplishing the mission. Soldiers must remember that an individual from a farm or small village is going to have markedly different expectations than a jet-setting polo player.


B-5. As mentioned, it is safe to assume that if interpreters are not US military or US citizens, their first loyalty is to their country or ethnic group, not the United States.

B-6. The security implications of using local nationals are clear. Soldiers must be cautious about what information they give interpreters. Soldiers must always keep security in mind.

B-7. Certain tactical situations may require the use of uncleared indigenous personnel as "field expedient" interpreters. Commanders should be aware of the increased security risk involved in using such personnel and carefully weigh the risk versus the potential gain. If uncleared interpreters are used, any sensitive information should be kept to a minimum.

B-8. Interpreters must be honest and free from unfavorable notoriety among the local populace. Their reputation or standing in the community should be such that persons of higher rank and standing will not intimidate them.


B-9. Interpreters are a vital link between Soldiers and the TA. Without cooperative, supportive interpreters, the mission could be in serious jeopardy. Mutual respect and understanding is essential to effective teamwork. Soldiers must establish rapport early in the relationship and maintain rapport throughout the operation. The difficulty of establishing rapport stems most of the time from the lack of personal contact.

B-10. Soldiers begin the process of establishing rapport before they meet interpreters for the first time by doing their homework in advance on the people, nations, and areas to be discussed. Most foreigners are reasonably knowledgeable about the United States. Soldiers should obtain some basic facts about the HN. Useful information may include population, geography, ethnic groups, political system, prominent political figures, monetary system, business, agriculture, and exports. A good general outline can be obtained from a recent almanac or encyclopedia. More detailed information is available in the area handbook for the country, from the Internet, and from current newspapers and magazines.

B-11. Soldiers working with an interpreter should find out about the interpreter's background. Soldiers should show a genuine concern for the interpreter's family, aspirations, career, education, and so on. Many cultures place a greater emphasis on family over career than the United States, so Soldiers should start with understanding the interpreter's home life. Soldiers should also research cultural traditions to find out more about the interpreter and the HN. Though Soldiers should gain as much information on culture as possible before entering an HN, their interpreters can be valuable sources to fill gaps. Showing interest is a good way to build rapport.

B-12. Soldiers should gain an interpreter's trust and confidence before embarking on sensitive issues, such as religion, likes, dislikes, and prejudices. Soldiers should approach these areas carefully and tactfully. Although deeply personal beliefs may be very revealing and useful in the professional relationship, Soldiers must gently and tactfully draw these out of their interpreters.


B-13. Early in the relationship with interpreters, Soldiers should ensure that interpreters are briefed on their duties and responsibilities. Soldiers should orient interpreters as to the nature of the interpreters' duties, standards of conduct expected, interview techniques to be used, and any other requirements. The orientation may include the following:

  • Current tactical situation.
  • Background information obtained on the source, interviewee, or TA.
  • Specific objectives for the interview, meeting, or interrogation.
  • Method of interpretation to be used--simultaneous or consecutive:
    • Simultaneous--when the interpreter listens and translates at the same time.
    • Consecutive--when the interpreter listens to an entire phrase, sentence, or paragraph, then translates during natural pauses.
  • Conduct of the interview, lesson, or interrogation.
  • Need for interpreters to avoid injecting their own personality, ideas, or questions into the interview.
  • Need for interpreter to inform Soldier of inconsistencies in language used by interviewee. An example would be someone who claims to be a college professor, yet speaks like an uneducated person. During interrogations or interviews, this information will be used as part of the assessment of the information obtained from the individual.
  • Physical arrangements of site, if applicable.
  • Possible need for interpreter to assist in after-action reviews or assessments.


B-14. As part of the initial training with interpreters, Soldiers should tactfully convey that the instructor, interviewer, or interrogator always directs the interview or lesson. Soldiers should put the interpreter's role in proper perspective and stress the interpreter's importance as a vital communication link between Soldiers and the TA. Soldiers should appeal to interpreters' professional pride by clearly describing how the quality and quantity of the information sent and received is directly dependent upon an interpreter's skills. Also, Soldiers should mention how interpreters functions solely as a conduit between Soldier and subjects.

B-15. Soldiers should be aware that some interpreters, because of cultural differences, might attempt to save face by purposely concealing their lack of understanding. They may attempt to translate what they think the Soldier or subject said or meant without asking for a clarification. Because this situation can result in misinformation and confusion, and impact on credibility, Soldiers should let interpreters know that, when in doubt, they should always ask for clarification. Soldiers should create a safe environment for this situation as early as possible.

B-16. Soldiers should cover these points while orienting and training the interpreter:

  • Importance of the training, interview, or interrogation.
  • Specific objectives of the training, interview, or interrogation, if any. Outline of lesson or interview questions, if applicable.
  • Background information on the interviewee or TA.
  • Briefing, training, or interview schedules. The interviewer must remember that conducting an interview through an interpreter may take double or triple the amount of time needed when the interviewer is directly questioning the interviewee. For that reason, the interpreter may be helpful in scheduling enough time.
  • Copy of the briefing, questions, or lesson plan, if applicable. Special attention should be given to develop language proficiency in the technical fields in which the interpreters are expected to be employed. In general, a copy of the material will give the interpreter time to look up unfamiliar words or ask questions to clarify anything confusing.
  • Copies of handout material, if applicable.
  • General background information on the subject.
  • Glossary of terms, if applicable.


B-17. Soldiers select an appropriate site for interviews. They position and arrange the physical setup of the area. When conducting interviews with important people or individuals from different cultures, this arrangement can be significant.

B-18. Soldiers instruct interpreters to mirror the Soldier's tone and personality of speech. Soldiers instruct interpreter not to interject their own questions or personality. They also instruct interpreters to inform them if they notice any inconsistencies or peculiarities from sources.

B-19. Whenever possible, Soldier should identify cultural restrictions before interviewing, instructing, or conferring with particular foreign nationals. For instance, they should know when is it proper to stand, sit, or cross one's legs. Gestures, being learned behavior, vary from culture to culture. Interpreters should be able to relate a number of these cultural restrictions, which, whenever possible, should be observed in working with particular groups or individuals.


B-20. Whether conducting an interview or presenting a lesson, Soldiers should avoid simultaneous translations, that is, both the Soldier and the interpreter talking at the same time. Soldiers should speak for a minute or less in a neutral, relaxed manner, directly to the individual or audience. The interpreter should watch the Soldier carefully and, during the translation, mimic the Soldier's body language as well as interpret his or her verbal meaning. Soldiers should observe interpreters closely to detect any inconsistencies between an interpreter's and a Soldier's manners. Soldiers must be careful not to force an interpreter into a literal translation by being too brief. Soldiers should present one major thought in its entirety and allow the interpreter to reconstruct it in his or her language and culture.

B-21. Although interpreters perform some editing as a function of the interpreting process, it is imperative that they transmit the exact meaning without additions or deletions. Soldiers should insist that interpreters always ask for clarification, prior to interpreting, whenever they not absolutely certain of the Soldier's meaning. However, Soldiers should be aware that a good interpreter, especially one who is local, can be invaluable in translating subtleties and hidden meanings.

B-22. During an interview or lesson, if questions are asked, interpreters should immediately relay them for an answer. Interpreters should never attempt to answer questions, even though they may know the correct answer. Additionally, neither Soldiers nor interpreters should correct each other in front of an interviewee or class; all differences should be settled away from the subject or audience.

B-23. Just as establishing rapport with the interpreter is vitally important, establishing rapport with interview subjects or the TA is equally important. Soldiers and interpreters should concentrate on rapport. To establish rapport, subjects or audiences should be treated as mature, important human beings who are capable and worthy.


B-24. An important first step for Soldiers in communicating in a foreign language is to polish their English language skills. These skills are important, even if no attempt is made to learn the indigenous language. The clearer Soldiers speak in English, including using clear, correct words, the easier it is for interpreters to translate. For instance, Soldiers may want to add words usually left out in colloquial English, such as the "air" in airplane, to ensure that they are not misinterpreted as referring to the Great Plains or a carpenter's plane.

B-25. Soldiers should not use profanity at all and should avoid slang and colloquialisms. In many cases, such expressions cannot be translated. Even those that can be translated do not always retain the desired meaning. Military jargon and terms such as "gee whiz" or "golly" are hard to translate.

B-26. Soldiers should avoid using acronyms. While these have become part of everyday military language, in most cases interpreters and TAs will not be familiar with them, and it will be necessary for the interpreter to interrupt the interview to get clarification regarding the expanded form. This can disrupt the rhythm of the interview or lesson. Moreover, if interpreters must constantly interrupt the interviewer for clarification, they could lose credibility in the eyes of the TA, which could jeopardize the goals of the interview or lesson. In addition, if a technical term or expression must be used, Soldiers must be sure interpreters convey the proper meaning.

B-27. When speaking extemporaneously, Soldiers must think about what they want to say. They should break their thoughts into logical bits and say them a piece at a time, using short, simple words and sentences, which can be translated quickly and easily. As a rule of thumb, Soldiers should never say more in one sentence than they can easily repeat word for word immediately after saying it. Each sentence should contain a complete thought without verbiage.

B-28. Soldiers should avoid "folk" and culture-specific references. TAs may have no idea what is being talked about. Even if interpreters understand the reference, they may find it extremely difficult to quickly identify an appropriate equivalent in the TA's cultural frame of reference.

B-29. Transitional phrases and qualifiers tend to confuse nonnative speakers and waste valuable time. Examples are "for example," "in most cases," "maybe," and "perhaps."

B-30. Soldiers should be cautious of using American humor, since humor does not translate well between cultures. Cultural and language differences can lead to misinterpretations by foreigners. Soldiers should determine early on what their interpreters find easiest to understand and translate meaningfully.

B-31. In summary, Soldiers should--

  • Keep presentations as simple as possible.
  • Use short sentences and simple words (low context).
  • Avoid idiomatic English.
  • Avoid flowery language.
  • Avoid slang and colloquial expressions.
  • Avoid "folk" and culture-specific references.


B-32. The following are some dos and don'ts for Soldiers to consider when working with interpreters.


B-33. Soldiers should--

  • Position the interpreter by their side (or even a step back). This will keep the subject or TA from shifting their attention or fixating on the interpreter and not on the Soldier.
  • Always look at and talk directly to the subject or TA. Guard against the tendency to talk to the interpreter.
  • Speak slowly and clearly. Repeat as often as necessary.
  • Speak to the individual or group as if they understand English. Be enthusiastic and employ the gestures, movements, voice intonations, and inflections that would normally be used before an English-speaking group. Considerable nonverbal meaning can be conveyed through voice and body movements. Encourage interpreters to mimic the same delivery.
  • Periodically check an interpreter's accuracy, consistency, and clarity. Have an American fluent enough in the language sit in on a lesson or interview to ensure that the translation is not distorted, intentionally or unintentionally. Another way to be sure is to learn the target language so that an interpreter's loyalty and honesty can be personally checked.
  • Check with the audience whenever misunderstandings are suspected and clarify immediately. Using the interpreter, ask questions to elicit answers that will tell whether the point is clear. If it is not, rephrase the instruction differently and illustrate the point again. Use repetition and examples whenever necessary to facilitate learning. If the TA asks few questions, it may mean the instruction is not understood or the message is not clear to them.
  • Make interpreters feel like valuable members of the team. Give them recognition commensurate with the importance of their contributions.


B-34. Soldiers should not--

  • Address the subject or audience in the third person through the interpreter. Avoid saying, for example, "Tell them I'm glad to be their instructor." Instead say, "I'm glad to be your instructor." Address the subject or audience directly. Make continual eye contact with the audience. Watch them, not the interpreter.
  • Make side comments to interpreter that are not interpreted. This action tends to create the wrong atmosphere for communication and is rude.
  • Be a distraction while the interpreter is translating and the subject or TA is listening. Soldiers should not pace, write on the blackboard, teeter on the lectern, drink beverages, or carry on any other distracting activity while the interpreter is translating.

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