In a war zone, having translators can mean the difference between life or death for soldiers. In a public market, they might be able to overhear a snippet of conversation indicating that an ambush is imminent. They can establish relationships with the local populace and extract, crucial bits of information about nearby insurgents. If a soldier inadvertently causes a miscommunication, a translator can defuse the situation before it gets deadly.
Behind the lines, translators also serve a crucial role in logistics and diplomacy. If a congressperson or senator comes to visit, translators need to tag along to help communicate with local dignitaries. If a television station is hosting a news show critiquing U.S. military policy, translators may be invited in to help provide a counter-opinion. When the military needs to acquire supplies from a local merchant, a translator needs to help negotiate the purchase.
Of course, it's not all battles and high-level meetings. Translators are also needed to perform a wide variety of clerical work. The military often has translators listen to radio reports and skim newspapers to gather information about local affairs. Or they'll be asked to translate informational leaflets to be distributed to the local population.
The U.S. Army currently has 14,000 "soldier-linguists" stationed around the globe. To become a translator in the U.S. Army, applicants need to do one of two things. If they already speak a valuable foreign language, they need to prove their fluency by passing an exam known as the Defense Language Proficiency Test. If they don't speak a language the Army is looking for -- but they're really good at learning languages -- they can take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, a test designed to gauge an applicant's natural linguistic ability.
Of late, the U.S. Army has also been relying more and more on outsourcing its translation needs to private contractors. These contractors fly in translators from around the world, or they may recruit English speakers from the local population. It's big business: In 2007, one of the largest translation contractors in Afghanistan was paid $700 million to provide about 4,500 translators. That's about $150,000 per translator [source: Wartenberg]. But while translation may seem lucrative, it's also extremely dangerous. Translators may be killed by explosives or gunfire while on an operation, or, if they're members of the local population, they may be targeted by insurgents. In Iraq, one translating contractor had more than 200 employees killed in only four years of the war [source: Ressner].
One day, translators may never need to put themselves in harm's way. The U.S. military already has automated planes and automated trucks, so it would only be natural to assume that automated translators are just over the horizon. In April 2011, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued a call to tech companies to design a translating robot. For years, computer engineers have been working on devices to automatically translate spoken word, but DARPA wanted an instrument that would be able to translate written documents on sight and interpret local gestures.
It's a tall order -- and it's doubtful that soldiers are ready to delegate translation duties to a robot. But who knows? One day, the idea of language barriers in a combat zone may be as quaint as muzzle-loading rifles.