How to Become an Army Interpreter or Translator

By: Tristin Hopper

What languages are important to the Army?

The United States has troops stationed in more than 150 countries around the world [source: Department of Defense]. Whether military personnel are organizing joint maneuvers with the German Military or negotiating with Taliban commanders in Afghanistan, the U.S. Military always has plenty of language barriers to contend with.

Of course, the U.S. Army's translation needs change often based on the location of the conflict. During the Cold War, all branches of the U.S. military and intelligence services placed particular emphasis on learning Russian, German and other languages spoken within the Communist bloc. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1994, however, these Russian speakers suddenly had nothing to translate. Conversely, at the close of 2001, when the United States was ramping up operations in Afghanistan, it needed to scramble to fill its ranks with enough soldiers able to speak languages such as Persian and Pashto.


The Army's demand for translators also changes based on the type of war being fought. In World War II, the marching orders were pretty simple: Armies would move into a new area, and if they saw someone wearing an enemy uniform, they would try to shoot him. Translators were only needed to interrogate prisoners of war, interpret intercepted messages and negotiate with enemy commanders.

It becomes more complicated with wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan, where U.S. personnel are facing off against guerrilla armies without identifiable uniforms. Fighting off an insurgency requires developing a close and trusting relationship with the local population -- something that's very hard to do when the best you can do is to use hand gestures to communicate.

That's why, as a result of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, translators for Middle Eastern languages like Arabic and Farsi have been in such high demand. In 2011, the Army was offering bonuses of $10,000 for Middle Eastern translators to enlist -- and an extra $20,000 if applicants were ready to go to basic training within the next 30 days.

So, how do you become an Army translator? Read on to find out.