Thursday, June 01, 2006

Lost in Translation

As the Internet makes texts in foreign languages more easily available and widely disseminated, jihadist websites and chatrooms generate public discourses of terrorism that engage translators in the work of interpretation. Distributed networks allow this labor to be done by those outside the government, and an increasing number of independent "experts" are translating electronic documents from Middle Eastern languages.

This week the New Yorker has done a long profile piece on Rita Katz of the SITE Institute, "Private Jihad," which praises SITE for its rapid turnaround time translating documents but notes that its translations, as one CIA official puts it, are always "the most warlike." Certainly, the way that SITE feeds the twenty-four hour news cycle with e-mails to its subscribers creates possibilities for overreaction and hysteria. And, of course, Katz is also disseminating the terrorists' messages in this ironic structure of surveillance.

Katz herself is an Iraqi Jew, whose father was executed in a public hanging after being accused of spying for Israel. Her memoir Terrorist Hunter is a conversion narrative that describes her revelations about a jihadist enemy "almost in religious terms." She attends public events for extremist causes incognito, covered almost completely, and even wears a veil and headscarf in her photo in the New Yorker piece that obscures her face. She has criticized administration statements that terrorists are motivated by hatred for our freedoms but is circumspect about the issue of the Iraqi occupation.

The New Yorker article is somewhat incomplete, in that it doesn't present any competing model of an Internet-based non-governmental translation project, such as the International Crisis Group's work on "In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency." Furthermore, journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells uses the software term "open source" in the strange way that the administration has come to use it, as a synonym for intelligence information that isn't classified.

The Internet is a threat to the traditional intelligence community in other ways that can empower individual translators. This year's PEN Award to former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds of, who has been an active litigant on behalf of other whistle-blowers who are concerned about bias and inefficiency in the translation field, is perhaps representative of a larger trend.

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