"Our goal is the fastest translation possible, because sometimes there is real urgency, but quality is also important," said Everette Jordan, the executive director of the center, which was set up in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The translation gap has been a problem for years.
..."We've had to build this from scratch, and it was a new concept," said Jordan, a Russian linguist who worked for 22 years at the National Security Agency.
"It's a more flexible approach, using secure computers, and the translators can work at this as piecework."
The translators must be U.S. citizens and pass FBI background checks.Many even get clearance to handle classified material.Those requirements limit the pool of potential recruits, but competitive pay and the support of translator associations have helped, Jordan
About 600 linguists are "in the pipeline now," he
...As a student of language, Jordan said, "nuance is crucial to good translation," knowing whether a speaker is literal or sarcastic, uses flowery terms or slang, or mixes his dialects.
The assignments come into the center labeled by priority.Agencies often use computerized programs to give a quick analysis to tapes and documents, looking for key words and phrases.
Even in work that appears innocuous, "our translators have found some surprises, information no one knew was there, that has been helpful to investigations," Jordan
There's a "critical mass" behind more language proficiency throughout the government, Jordan
The Army is recruiting native speakers as linguists, and the Pentagon has launched a broad effort to promote language skills and may even require officers to have some proficiency in a second language. Jordan
, 45, learned Spanish and French growing up in southern California, then learned Russian in the Army, lured by a posting in Europe.That led to his
career with the super-secret NSA, which conducts surveillance and data collection on a massive scale. Jordan's
interests are varied.He studied Hebrew and Arabic and earned a master's degree in theology while at the NSA and briefly as CIA Director George Tenet's foreign-language adviser.He also served on the staff of the congressional investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks. His
job is dominated by the short-term urgency to find more translators, but Jordan
also takes the long view of a language proselytizer. He
notes that the United States has entered a difficult, long-term struggle with Islamic extremism and is trying to promote democracy in the Middle East at a time when U.S. colleges, as recently as 2003, awarded a total of six degrees in Arabic.
"There is finally a recognition about the importance of languages, whether it's for defense, the economy, education," Jordan