Specialists Missing? Military Translations
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Specialists Missing? Military Translations

Specialists Missing? Military Translations

Blast Door SignMilitary translation is a very specific discipline, like medical or legal, that requires SME-level expertise in military science, military roles, strategy and tactics, armaments and defense techniques. Thorough knowledge of military terminology is a must for a military translator. The translator should be specialized in related technical and legal domains as well.

There are pages and pages of military documentation, and the volume has grown tremendously over the last century with the advent of typewriters and computers. I can see value in translating a lot of it; in some cases it would be imperative. 

What to Translate?

Several types of military communications are candidates for translation:

  • Intercepted military communications. This would have the most urgent need for translation (and in fact it is why military combat groups have dedicated translators and interpreters).
  • Communications, strategy and plans shared among allied forces.
  • Technical manuals that would teach soldiers how to use specific weapons, vehicles and systems.
  • Historical documentation, records, reports and the like, which are meaningful for the study of warfare, for social awareness and for historical education.

You can imagine military material would need to be translated accurately and quickly, and that a number of highly qualified linguists would need to be available to do this.

A military translator would and should feel a huge sense of responsibility. A wrong translation could lead to misunderstanding (at best), weapon misuse, and at worst…let’s not think about it. 

It is an interesting and worthy translation specialization, with many layers of complexity. Like what?

There Are a Few Challenges to Manage

There are at least four challenges within the domain of military translation that a translator has to work through.

  1. Know that military language evolves. Military terminology and language structure get more complex all the time, which is understandable considering there are various branches of military operating in dozens of countries.  Various terms evolve due to the rearrangement of military forces, the appearance of new types of weapons and military techniques, and new methods of warfare. A military translator has to keep up with the pace of change.
  2. Know your synonyms. Many military terms are known to have various definitions, depending on the context. For example, both ‘unit’ and ‘command’ refer to a group in a task force, an organization or an area under the command of an individual.

    Some standardization has been provided by NATO’s STANAG (STAndardization AGreement) document, which defines processes, procedures, and terms that the member countries of the NATO alliance would use so they can understand each other across a wide variety of communications and information systems.

  3. Watch out for abbreviations. Military abbreviations – numbering close to the tally of starts in the sky – are another trial for a translator. There are various dictionaries of military abbreviations which can help. (Though nothing will help you with the time it would take to know them all by heart).
  4. Throw some slang in there. After pointing out that military language has its own terminology and structure, you could argue that military English is its own dialect. But there’s more: slang and idioms. Back to specialization: A successful military translator would need to have familiarity with military jargon plus a propensity for creativity. Check out this humorous dictionary of terms that show the differences in terms between the US Army, Air Force and Marines.

Can Technology Help?

The military is betting on it. The Information Processing Technology Office in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the United States Department of Defense, is responsible for the development of new technologies for use by the military. Impelled by the recent focus on terrorism, the U.S. military has been investing huge amounts of money in translation technology, of two types:

  • Machine Translation. The military requires fast turnaround and has large volumes of content. When you talk translation speed and content volume with clients, many think of Machine Translation. So does the military.
  • Natural language engineering’, which involves generating spoken human language that sounds natural from a computer-built system / knowledge base.

It will be interesting – and important – to see how these technologies develop. 

Interestingly, the Rosetta Stone is incorporated into the crest of the Defense Language Institute. The decree etched in that granite tablet is written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Ancient Greek provenance of translation.

Where Are the Specialists?

Remarkably, when I search ProZ for ‘military’ I get zero hits. (Then I made sure I spelled it right). So, where are the specialists? I kept looking. 

I found one: Major James F. Gebhart, United States Army. He has an extensive background in Soviet military operations and Russian linguistics, and he specializes in military and military history documents. (He’s also a busy novelist; he has a list of books available on Amazon.)   

Based on my research, there is a clear lack of specialists for this important field.

Why do you think there is such a scarcity?