Bad Translations Among Coalition Forces During The War In Iraq

Attempts to make friendships involving Americans and their international allies often fail over communication complications. Among the more unforgettable examples I’ve observed happened when I was in Major in Kuwait.

As a translator, I was invited to a retirement ceremony that also symbolized a change in command that was a critical component in the strategy to defeat Iraq. The functions included both U.S. and coalition fighters sharing a laugh and refreshments, most of the time, we didn’t speak each other’s language.

At some time, the U.S. general in charge gave a toast to the retiring commander from one of the coalition forces. His speech was full of compliments and appreciation, concluding with the hope that the commander would have ‘‘a wonderful flight home.’’ At that point, the leader left his dinner and stormed out of the room, followed by his staff.  Obviously there was some sort of miscommunication or bad translation that took place.

We Americans stared at one another in surprise and bafflement. It was a few hours before we were told that every Arabic speaking coalition soldier who could still draw a breath is always sent home on a transport ship. Just the dead are flown back.  It was a communication gaffe with significant consequences. While the general apologized a lot, relations between the two units remained frosty for many months and cohesiveness damaged.  Associations of all sorts depend on the means to convey ideas. Only if men and women can talk freely they just can’t really work together. However regardless of its importance, a lot of leaders give the communication process much less attention than it justifies. As Michael Ellicott discovered, ‘‘The largest issue in interaction is the impression that it has taken place.’’

Across cultures, the prospects for mangled dialogue due to bad language translation services are limitless. Confusion is so widespread even among friends. Visualize Britain and the United States. It’s a cliché that they are ‘‘two nations separated by a common language.’’ But, especially in commercial organizations, leaders on each side of the ocean tend to barge ahead, trying to get their messages across without constructing the personal connections that can link or transcend gaps in correspondence.

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