Translating a lucrative and sometimes scary proposition

  • October 30, 2011

By Robert Jordan
Staff Writer, Contra Costa Times

PLEASANTON -- Jen Shelby uprooted from Texas last year to move to the Bay Area, committed to learning Pashto. It is a language spoken by few Americans, and Shelby hopes it will reunite her with her husband, who works in Afghanistan.

Shelby, 28, is taking free, full-time training with Mission Essential Personnel in Pleasanton, the military's largest supplier of translators in Afghanistan, to become a Pashto interpreter.

The Ohio-based contracting company says its Pashto and Dari interpreters from the United States earn between $125,000 to $275,000 for a year's work with the Army in Afghanistan.

It's high pay and can be dangerous work. Since 2007, when it began providing translators in Afghanistan, 77 of the firm's translators have been killed there, 335 have been wounded and 10 are missing.

"Our linguists risk their lives to support the American mission in Afghanistan," said Jared Whitley, company spokesman. "They're heroes who are enabling human freedom."

Mission Essential Personnel has more than 7,000 interpreters in Afghanistan -- mostly native Afghans. So far, just over 700 have been trained in America.

The danger isn't lost on the U.S. students, the vast majority with Afghan backgrounds, who didn't want to be interviewed or photographed for this story.

Naz Fazli, the Academy director, said many declined for security reasons, and others are taking the class without informing their families.

"I am not (fearful) right now," said Shelby. "My husband has been over there a couple of years, and I've heard about his experiences, but I am not right now. That might be different when I get on the plane."

Pashto and Dari have become big business for Mission Essential Personnel. It opened the Pleasanton language academy in 2008 because of the area's concentration of Afghans and the Army's shift of personnel from Iraq to Afghanistan. It has since opened four more schools -- one each in New York and Virginia and two in Southern California.

The largest concentrated population of Afghan descent -- 6,400 people -- is in Alameda County, according to U.S. census data. There are an estimated 79,000 people in the United States with Afghan ancestry. The company estimates only about 3,300 of those would be eligible to work as linguists in Afghanistan -- due either to security or age reasons.

Since 2005, the company has earned just under $1.3 billion from government contracts -- the majority for translation work -- said Whitley, the firm's spokesman.

The company is one of five that train and supply civilian contracted linguists to the Army, said Lt. Col. Tim Beninato, an Army spokesman in Washington, D.C.

"In a wartime environment, the requirement is high (for linguists) because they actively engage with the local population," Beninato said.

The Army employs two types of linguists, those it recruits and enlists as soldiers -- primarily native Afghans in the U.S. on permanent legal status -- and private civilian contracts, said Lt. Col. Frank Demith, an assistant deputy for foreign language and culture for the Army.

Despite the government's need for Dari and Pashto speakers, there are only a few dozen places around the country teaching the two most common languages of Afghanistan. The Bay Area is home to two institutions that have offered courses in Pashto and Dari.

A Google search and an offer from friends living in Dublin first landed Shelby, 28, at Cal State East Bay taking a Pashto course. But the pace of the course gave her only six hours a week of training. At the suggestion of a classmate, Shelby checked out Mission Essential Personnel, which offers Dari and Pashto at a more intense level and at no cost.

The program is aimed at Afghan natives and descendants and offers eight-hour classes five days a week.

"I am treating it like a full-time job," said Shelby, a Boston native.

Cal State East Bay began offering Dari and Pashto last fall and offered an immersion course this past summer but lost its grant from the Department of Education due to budget cuts, said program director Valerie Smith.

Mission Essential Personnel students take an entry test to determine ability. They set their own schedule and attend classes three to five days week.

Zuhal Yusufi, 22, said she and her sister are taking courses and have told their parents, who are supportive.

"I had a job but I quit to do this," said Yusufi, who came the United States 14 years ago and speaks Dari. "Since I am a beginner (in Pashto) and need this job, I need to learn it as fast I can."

"I am definitely the minority," said Shelby about being the only student at the Pleasanton academy without Afghan roots or ties. "Everyone was surprised trying to figure me out at first, but everyone realized I was there for the same reason -- to help me attain a job."

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