October 06, 2010
Crikey's reposting of Ingrid Piller's piece about this ABCNews report on dodgy translators in Afghanistan reminded me of this quote from Clive Stafford-Smith's book over at Antipope:
Early in his captivity the US agents questioned him with the assistance of a translator who used a dialect of Arabic in which the word zalat means money; in Yusuf's Saudi dialect it means salad, or tomato. Yusuf reconstructed the interrogation as best he could remember it.A Christian Science Monitor report, also cited by Ms Piller, mentions cut-price interpreting that lead to misdirected mortar rounds, making Mr Stross's line about the possibility of Yusuf's 'intelligence' resulting in drone attacks on greengrocers seem decidedly unfanciful.
"When you left Saudi Arabia for Pakistan, what zalat did you take with you?" demanded the translator, suspecting that the money must have come from al-Qaeda sources.
"What? I didn't have any zalat when I went to Pakistan." The 14 year-old was confused. He had been through a difficult time since his seizure by the Pakistanis. He was prepared for any trick the Americans might spring on him, but all this talk about tomatoes was beyond him.
"Of course you had zalat. What do you take me for? An idiot!" The translator flared into hostility.
"I didn't! Why would I?"
"Of course you did. Now tell me, where did you get the zalat you took with you?"
"I didn't take any zalat with me. I didn't!"
"Aha! So you got zalat in Pakistan when you arrived?"
"Well, yes, what zalat I wanted, I could get there. That's natural." Yusuf was trying to be conciliatory, though the conversation continued along this strange line.
The translator seemed suddenly excited. "Where could you get zalat in Pakistan, then? I want a list of places. Details. Descriptions, places. Details."
Yusuf wanted to keep him in a good humour. Trying to remember Karachi, he began to discuss places in the market where one might buy salad. With each description of a market stall the translator turned to the American interrogator, who took careful notes.
That evening Yusuf ... talked through his bizarre interrogation with other prisoners, turning over each of his recollections.
Finally one of the older prisoners solved the puzzle: "You were talking about tomatoes. They were talking about money. That's what it must have been."