Concrete and Baklava: Translating at the National Virtual Translation Center

By Michael L. Gallagher

So, what’s it like to work at the National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC)? The following story is a composite of several scenarios, interspersed with more information about the NVTC, created in an effort to help the reader gain a better sense of the complexity of the work involved. I’ve consolidated several linguists into a single character who I’ll call Connie.
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“What are you working on today, Connie?” I asked, stopping by the linguist’s cubicle.

“Concrete.”

I doubted how exciting this could be, but my job is to motivate not dampen, so I mustered up some curiosity and asked enthusiastically, “What do you know about concrete?”

“The cracking behavior of a concrete structure depends on its flexural tensile strength,” Connie answered, pointing to an online article. “It’s pretty interesting.”

Interesting? Maybe. But Important? Actually, it’s quite important, especially considering this information is critical in determining the vulnerability of a concrete barrier or fortification.
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The NVTC is mandated by Congress to provide and facilitate timely and accurate translation services of foreign-language material to members of the intelligence community.1 Its main objectives are to help intelligence officers identify and fill critical holes in America’s knowledge associated with potential threats, help planners complete operational plans for counterterrorism and military activities, and help policymakers guide our nation.2 The topics covered by translators at the NVTC are as assorted and voluminous as the facts and fiction available on Wikipedia. It’s not uncommon for linguists at the NVTC, who are typically generalists, to research aspects of a new topic while completing a translation. For example, the NVTC managed the translation of the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends: Paradox of Progress,” a strategic assessment that addresses everything from cyber terrorism to the environment.3

The variety of topics is not surprising given the range of missions assigned to the NVTC’s principal customers: the 17 agencies and organizations comprising the U.S. intelligence community. The NVTC translates text, audio, and video material gathered from all over the world for such entities as the military, federal law enforcement, and occasionally other federal government organizations.
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“Did you hear what happened last night?” asked one of our team leaders.

“No,” I responded, wondering if I would be dealing with a plumbing leak or a security leak.

Sensing apprehension in my voice or seeing it on my brow, she smiled, “This story has a happy ending.”

“Tell me.”

“Yesterday, an army non-commissioned officer had an urgent translation requirement. He found a crumpled NVTC business card in his desk and called us. The translation was required to support an operation scheduled to occur the next day. Today!”

“Wow! That’s interesting,” I said. “We don’t get too many tactical force protection requests.”

“We worked with the language technology team to modify the material into a usable format and passed it to a project manager,” the team leader explained.

“Sounds complicated.”

“True, but the teams’ efforts came together in time to get the material to a linguist by five.”

“So, someone is working on it today?”

“No, Connie completed the translation and delivered it to the army last night.”

“I’m impressed,” I said.

Although it’s rare for the NVTC to receive tactical requirements of this nature, the manner in which the teams came together and the linguists worked voluntarily into the evening was commendable.

The next day after returning from a meeting on the other side of town, I brushed the snowflakes off my coat and rushed into the conference room.

“Okay, let’s get this meeting started,” I said.

“Roger that. I’m bringing Connie up on the screen now.”

“Connie, what are you doing in Monterey?” I asked.

“Enjoying the sunshine, boss.”

“Thanks for the public service announcement. Let’s go around the room. What’s going on?”

The team leaders summarized the key activities of their teams. The last team leader concluded, “We just finished the quality review of the translation of the ISIS propaganda video.”

“Thank you everyone. Let’s get back to work.”

“Wait,” Connie chimed in, “There’s one more thing. Did you hear about the positive response to the chirp?”4

“No. Tell me about it.”

“Well, the day before the solar eclipse someone asked, ‘How do you say the word eclipse in Spanish?’ We decided to eChirp translations of the word eclipse to the community in every language that we could. Our chirps created quite the buzz.”
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While many of our linguists work in Washington, DC, we have linguists in government facilities in Monterey, California, Salt Lake City, Utah, and dozens of other government offices. The NVTC will consider part-time work under certain circumstances.

Our linguists, project managers, customers, and partners use an automated workflow system. The system enables our customers to upload source material from virtually anywhere in the world, which allows us to manage thousands of requirements in dozens of languages to support of hundreds of customers.

We provide a positive environment for our linguists to work and leverage human language technology and tools. To join the NVTC team, you must be a U.S. citizen and qualify to obtain a top secret clearance, pass a polygraph examination, and demonstrate proficiency in the language required. The NVTC also considers the test results from several organizations to assess language proficiency, including:

  • ATA certification
  • FBI language tests
  • Defense Language Proficiency Tests
  • American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Proficiency Assessments
  • Court certification
  • Language certification from other federal agencies

If your language proficiency has not been tested, the NVTC might be able to assist. Linguists interested in more information can contact the NVTC at nvtc-jobs@nvtc.gov. The NVTC will facilitate the processing of the application, which is processed by the FBI on behalf of the NVTC.
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I bumped into Connie in the hallway a week after the last meeting.

“Connie, what are you working on today?”

“I’m using this computer-assisted translation tool to translate a daily command brief.”

“How’s the tool working for you?”

“I was initially reluctant—no, I was outright skeptical. Now I’ve found that I can translate the brief two or three times faster since I can leverage translation memories and termbases,” Connie opined.

“Show me.”

I followed Connie to a workstation. After completing the demonstration Connie logged off the computer and asked, “Are you coming to the potluck?”

“I wouldn’t miss it.”

We walked into the lunchroom and queued up for the multi-cultural feast.

“You must try the baklava,” Connie said enthusiastically. “It’s the reason I come to work.”
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Although intelligence assessments are not always as sweet as baklava or as firm as concrete, they always depend on material translated from a foreign language. Connie will soon translate another epiphany or seemingly innocuous article that will reinforce or modify a U.S. government assessment of a foreign action, a foreign policy, or a foreign threat.

For more information on NVTC, please visit our web page, http://bit.ly/Virtual-Translation-Center.

Notes

  1. U.S. Government Publishing Office, http://bit.ly/US-Publishing-Office.
  2. Visit the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s web page for information on how the intelligence community integrates intelligence to make our nation stronger and safer (www.dni.gov).
  3. Global Trends: Paradox of Process (Office of the Director of National Intelligence), www.dni.gov/index.php/global-trends-home.
  4. eChirp is a Twitter-like capability on the unclassified and classified intelligence community networks. For more information see: Peterson, Andrea. “U.S. Intelligence Agencies Have Their Own Twitter. It’s Called eChirp,” The Washington Post (November 1, 2013), http://bit.ly/US-Intelligence-eChirp.
About the author

Michael L. Gallagher is an employee of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on assignment as the director of the National Virtual Translation Center. Prior to ODNI, he served in and retired from the U.S. Marine Corps. Contact: mlgallagher@fbi.gov.

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