DOES UNCLE SAM REALLY WANT YOU?

The commercial world of translation and interpreting can be a harsh taskmaster for the independent contractor. In this two-part series, we ask: Is the government any better? BY NINA BOGDAN

Part I: NCTA member Farah Arjang’s attendance at a U.S. Government/ATA-sponsored conference yields little more than questions.

Those who choose to work as freelancers may revel in a life of no bosses, no mandatory business attire (every day is casual Friday!) and the freedom to work at 2 AM, but they are also at the mercy of demanding agencies that care only about the bottom line and non-paying customers who disappear as soon as a job is delivered. Linguists also frequently find themselves to be convenient targets of misplaced blame (everyone knew that it was really that pesky diplomat who misspoke; not the interpreter), and of comments such as, “If you’re such a good translator, why do you need a dictionary?” or, my all-time personal favorite, “You’re a translator? That’s a pretty easy job, right?”

Government Recruitment Efforts

In view of such instability and lack of appreciation, when an entity as large and prestigious as the U.S. government puts out a call for language support, the hearts of many an independent contractor may well flutter in anticipation of steady work, a lovely lucrative contract, or even a regular salary. After all, why should Blackwater contract employees be the only ones to take advantage of government largesse?

The unfortunate reality is, however, that the U.S. government has made absolutely no progress in developing any kind of coherent federal policy that addresses the need for unified standards and, by extension, a reasonable application process for language-related jobs that would eliminate duplication of effort and streamline the process of creating a national professional corps of linguists. In addition, the government makes what can only be described as half-hearted and lackadaisical attempts to recruit linguists.

Every agency worth its salt now has its own website-the FBI, the NSA, the USDS and the NVTC. (The National Virtual Translation Center is an agency that hires contract linguists only, but does so in coordination with the FBI. NVTC’s hiring process is identical to the one for a permanent language specialist position in the FBI in every way although, as contract employees, NVTC linguists get no medical or retirement benefits, and have no job security whatsoever. The mystery also remains as to the wisdom of using the terms “Virtual Translation” in the title of this organization – after all, if I virtually translate something doesn’t that mean that I really didn’t?). When visiting these sites, hopeful linguists are met with heartfelt statements encouraging them to apply but if the process is, in fact, initiated, months may go by before there is any response or acknowledgement at all. Once started, the application process for any government linguist position is lengthy, intrusive, and grueling. This, perhaps, is a necessary evil given the work in question but government applicant recruiters are unforgivably coy when they are asked for clarifications.

Conference in D.C.

This fact was brought home to Farah Arjang, an English <> Farsi/Dari interpreter and translator, at a conference geared toward recruiting language professionals and held jointly by the U.S. government and ATA in Washington, D.C. in April of 2008. As an independent contractor Ms. Arjang was hopeful that such a conference would provide all the information necessary to help navigate the application process for winning a contract with a government agency, ideas on how to write proposals, or a discussion about the topic of working for the government on a contractual basis. After all, the FBI, NVTC, Department of State, District of Columbia Superior Court, U.S. Postal Service and the IRS were all represented. Unfortunately, information provided was limited to “the government telling the outside world, namely translators and interpreters in this case,” general information about the organizations themselves and “nothing beyond” what is already available on agency websites.

Questions about the application process frequently revolve around the issue of dual citizenship and how this affects the applicant’s chances in getting a security clearance. According to Ms. Arjang, discussion of this issue “was avoided even though it was brought up several times” and although the question was never answered directly, Ms. Arjang felt that it was clear that only people willing to give up other citizenship would have a chance of getting any work. Jeffrey Robinson, Director of the NVTC, said that for people with dual citizenship “opportunities [are] very limited.” Such an answer to what is really a very key and fundamental concern, begs the question-why encourage linguists to spend their hard earned dollars on travel, accommodations, and the conference to find out: exactly nothing?

As with many answers to questions being asked these days, the official response might be “national security.” The actual reason, with this conference as evidence, is that being vague attracts many more applicants than being candid. Then, when the stringent rules and procedures weed out the majority of unsuspecting candidates, the myth is born that only “the best” make it in. While there are undoubtedly many outstanding linguists working for the U.S. government, many excellent candidates are not hired for reasons that have nothing to do with their professional qualifications and many of those probably would not have even attempted the process, wasting time, money and effort, if they had any inkling of what it takes to negotiate the application maze. 

This reluctance to immediately clarify key issues such as those involving dual citizenship is puzzling only if one does not understand that the more dead-end applications an applicant unit receives, the busier they will appear to be. Even for someone who is familiar with government hiring practices, someone, say, like myself-a U.S. government employee for more than 23 years-my experiences  with the application processes for contract work with various government agencies since leaving my permanent position have been nothing short of Kafkaesque. 

This frustrating indifference, combined with the lack of coordination among agencies and lack of understanding or acknowledgement of what it takes to be a language professional makes an already cumbersome inefficient process torturous at best. Perhaps worst of all: although every government agency requires the applicant to pass a language test, no government agency acknowledges any other agency’s certification. In Part 2, we explore this issue further.

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