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“Contract Linguists Using Language Proficiency and Cultural Expertise in the FBI” (Martin Mirza)

11/23/2016 4:53 PM | Thais Passos Fonseca

Martin Mirza, “Contract Linguists Using Language Proficiency and Cultural Expertise in the FBI”

By Abigail Wright


Closing out the 13th Annual MATI Conference was Martin Mirza, Supervisory Foreign Language Program Coordinator at the FBI. Mirza gave an overview of the role of contract linguists in the FBI and the rigorous selection process to become one.


The first major expansion in the FBI’s contract linguist hiring came at the end of the Cold War, when various countries that had conducted government business in Russian while part of the USSR promptly reverted to their own native languages, thus increasing the need for linguists in those languages. Since 9/11, the Bureau has seen a second revolution in language needs, and it now employs hundreds of linguists who work in the various dialects of Arabic and the various languages of Afghanistan, among others.


Mirza explained that contract linguists work on a part-time, as-needed basis, with the possibility of eventually becoming full-time “language analysts.” Like FBI agents, their mission is to defend the USA. Language analysts work on the 6th floor of the FBI, which Mirza referred to as the “Tower of Babel,” characterized by the sounds of many different languages and the fragrances of various cuisines.


Mirza enumerated the manifold duties of an FBI contract linguist: analyzing and translating audio, interpreting crucial suspect interviews, testifying as to the accuracy of information in investigations, monitoring live wiretaps, and providing agents with cultural knowledge based on their lived experience. Mirza regretted he could give no examples, but promised that, should any audience members join the FBI, they would be rewarded with many. He did relate one particular challenge contract linguists face, which is that FBI agents sometimes lack the cultural knowledge needed to even identify the language for which they require assistance. For example, Arabic linguists have been summoned to lend their expertise, only to discover that the language the subjects are speaking is actually Farsi.


The requirements to be an FBI contract linguist are stringent. According to Mirza, they are lucky if three out of every 100 candidates they evaluate prove to be suitable. To serve in this position, one must be a US citizen, have lived in the US for three of the last five years (unless employed by the US government overseas), and be willing to undergo language proficiency testing and a background check. Immediate disqualifiers include a felony conviction, default on a government-backed student loan, drug test failure, drug use, low language proficiency, limited availability of work in the applicant’s language, and an unwillingness to travel and work a minimum of 30 hours a week.


While contract linguists are assigned to one office, they may have to travel to another to assist there, particularly if their language or dialect is scarce in that region. Mirza gave the examples of Chicago, which has a greater number of Iraqi Arabic linguists, and Boston, which has more Lebanese Arabic linguists. They assist each other regularly.


The application process is intense and costs the FBI approximately $50,000 per applicant. With at best only three successful applications out of every 100, Mirza joked, “Is it any wonder why we don't have money?” Further complicating matters, the process can take years, at the end of which, even if a candidate is offered work, he or she may not still be free to accept it. Mirza himself waited three years for hiring approval.


Applicants who make it through the process and accept the offer receive six months of training, including a two-week class at Quantico and, if needed, further language instruction to improve the linguist’s Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) conversation level. When dual citizens become FBI contract linguists–or join the FBI in any position–they are required to surrender their non-US passports to the FBI for the duration of their employment.


Upon Mirza’s conclusion, the audience was immediately full of questions, and if the long line surrounding him at the post-conference reception was any indication, also full of aspirations. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, we may see familiar faces at the FBI table at ATA.


Abigail Wright is a freelance Spanish-to-English translator. She is a 2016 graduate of the Master of Arts in Translation and Interpreting program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and recently started her own company, Wright Translations, LLC. She has been a MATI member since 2015.



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