FBI turns to contractors for translation help

The FBI is hiring contractors to fill its critical shortage of Arabic, Farsi and Pashto translators. Since FBI Director Robert Mueller on Sept. 17 made a public appeal for American citizens who speak Middle Eastern and Asian languages, 15,000 people have applied via the Internet for the contract linguist positions, which pay $27 to $38 an hour and do not include government benefits. As of Wednesday, 70 new contract linguists had begun working for the FBI, putting in 20 to 60 hours a week, an FBI spokeswoman said. Many are working from home. The bureau hopes to bring on about 200 contract linguists in the next few weeks. Many of the linguists already on the job had previously been through background clearances. Clearances now must be sped through for the remaining linguists, who must also be U.S. citizens, submit to lie detector tests and renounce any dual citizenship. "We have had a language shortage for a period of time," Mueller said Sept. 17. "And we feel at this point in time we can use the additional manpower helping us with the language issues." The public appeal and the hasty outsourcing point to the FBI's lack of a deep talent pool of translators in high demand languages, particularly Pashto, a key language in Afghanistan. According to June 2001 statistics, the government has 708 full-time language specialists, 376 of whom work for the FBI. Most agencies also contract for sporadic translation services-the Defense Department uses 1,000 contract linguists and the FBI has long relied on contract linguists. Walter Bacak, executive director of the American Translators Association, said most translation work is contracted out by firms and government agencies, and that about 70 percent of the association's 8,200 members are self-employed. But among both federal employees and contract linguists, it's often hard to find people with the right skills. Translators need not only know a language, but must also be trained in translation techniques and must be familiar with jargon, slang and dialects. "There is a dearth of qualified translators in some of these languages," said Bacak. For example, of the association's 8,200 members, only one is qualified to translate Pashto, Bacak said. At a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing in September 2000, representatives of the FBI, CIA, State and Defense departments testified about their limited language capabilities. FBI Assistant Director David Alba said the bureau never has enough agents and linguistic specialists who speak Spanish, Farsi, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. "With the growing demand for certain languages, the work continues to back up," Alba said. "When we are talking about unaddressed work coming from critical national security-related investigations, the implications are very sobering." The FBI spokeswoman said Thursday that the bureau is using contract linguists for now to deal with the current surge of translation needs, but that the bureau will seek funding for permanent in-house linguists who speak the Middle Eastern languages. Luann Kollaja, director of human resources strategy for consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers' Washington office, said the FBI has to reach out and pull talent from wherever it can, because the bureau doesn't have time right now to go through a full-fledged hiring effort. And the bureau can't call on linguists from other departments because they're committed to terrorism-related efforts now too. "They don't have much of a choice at this point," Kollaja said. For the long term, the government should create a database of linguists, both government employees and outside experts, listing their competencies, specialties, locations and experience, Kollaja said. Agencies could then draw on the people in that database as they're needed, particularly in times of crisis. "You can put your best resources to where the most critical demands are," Kollaja said. "The government can create talent pools that are fungible and can be moved around where they need to go."
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