Agencies have much to translate, but not enough translators

Federal agencies need to get a better handle on their foreign language shortfalls, according to a new General Accounting Office report. As more and more foreign language material has been flowing into agencies, and as more languages have gained significance in law enforcement investigations, diplomacy and military actions, federal officials are finding they don't have enough of the right people with the right language skills, GAO found. "Many agencies have experienced reductions in their workforces, limited hiring, and a growing number of employees who are eligible for retirement. These conditions have contributed to gaps in foreign language skills that agencies are beginning to address," said the GAO report, "Foreign Languages: Human Capital Approach Needed to Correct Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls" (GAO-02-375). "In light of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the subsequent U.S. response, agency efforts to address such gaps have taken on increased importance and urgency." GAO found language shortfalls across government. At the Army, 44 percent of translator positions for five key languages were unfilled at the time of GAO's review, with 50 percent of Arabic and 68 percent of Persian-Farsi positions vacant. The Commerce Department's Foreign Commercial Service didn't have staff with proficient foreign language skills in 55 percent of positions in six hard-to-fill languages, including a dearth of Chinese, Russian and Japanese speakers. At the FBI, a majority of the bureau's 1,800 special agents with language skills spoke at an elementary or limited working level. Because of problems with its personnel databases, the State Department did not know how many Foreign Service officers lacked the language skills that their positions required. The estimate ranges from 16 percent to 50 percent. The language shortfalls have hurt operations across government. FBI officials said that slowdowns in translation into Spanish are jeopardizing health care fraud prosecutions in Miami and hurting efforts to curb gang violence in Los Angeles. A backlog of foreign language documents sits untranslated at the FBI and in intelligence agencies, officials said. In addition to relying on staff translators and foreign language speakers, federal agencies employ thousands of contract linguists. But there is no central information source that agencies can turn to when they discover a language shortfall. That problem forced the FBI to issue a public plea for Arabic, Farsi and Pashto contract linguists after the Sept. 11 attacks. The FBI was able to meet its translating needs after issuing the plea, officials told GAO. The agency is also developing a database called the Law Enforcement Interagency Linguist Access database, which will list 1,000 contract linguists by specialty, language proficiency and security clearance. The database will first be accessible to agencies within the Justice Department and eventually to all intelligence agencies, FBI officials told GAO. In a report accompanying the 2002 intelligence authorization bill, the Senate Intelligence Committee last year instructed the FBI and intelligence agencies to consider developing a National Virtual Translation Center, an online resource that agencies could use to coordinate their foreign language needs. The GAO recommended that all agencies with foreign language shortfalls use workforce planning strategies to address them. Workforce planning requires agencies to identify their strategic goals, determine the skills they need to meet those goals, figure out what skills they have and don't have and then develop a plan to fill the skills they don't have. "Without a specific strategic direction and a related action plan that effectively implements the strategies these agencies intend to use to correct shortages in foreign language skills, it will be difficult for the agencies to fill current and projected shortages," GAO said. Officials at each agency agreed they need to use workforce planning strategies.
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