Virtual Translators and the FBI
Lost in Translation?
Not at the National Virtual Translation Center
The language skills of most 3-year-olds are limited at best. But we know one that speaks dozens of languages fluently...that can translate technical documents and recordings...and that helps prevent terrorist attacks and solve crimes. It’s the National Virtual Translation Center, based at FBI Headquarters.
The center, or NVTC, is an integral part of the national intelligence community. The FBI is its executive support agency, responsible for conducting the background investigations on new hires and testing language skills. We also provide space for its program office and other administrative support.
The center, which provides timely and accurate translations of foreign intelligence for U.S. agencies, isn’t organized like a typical government office. Most employees don’t report to the same building: They work out of secure government offices across the nation. Some work from home. They all receive their work electronically, putting the “virtual” in the center’s name.
“We need people with language skills where they are,” center Director Everette E. Jordan recently told reporters. “We can’t bring everyone to Washington, and we don’t want to.”
At a time when demand for language skills is high, that flexibility makes the center more attractive to recruits who may not want to move to Washington, D.C. NVTC translators can also work part-time as their schedule—and the center’s demand—allows. For some, that might be as little as a few hours a week. It also allows the center to respond more effectively to the fluctuating demand of the federal agencies it supports.
How does the NVTC operate? Federal agencies decide when to use the translation center. It’s almost like a federal contractor. As with most members of the intelligence community, the FBI relies on its own highly trained linguists first. We use the NVTC linguists when we face a critical overload of intelligence or a tight deadline or when we have documents in a language we don’t cover.
The material requiring translation is sent to the center, which scrubs of it any information that could identify which U.S. agency collected the information to avoid biasing the translator. Then it’s delivered to an appropriate linguist, translated, and returned to the center and then to the agency.
Who are these highly skilled professionals? They all:
- Are American citizens;
- Have passed a vigorous national security background check;
- Have passed a comprehensive language test;
- Come from all walks of life, including stay-at-home parents and career professionals.
The center also is working to establish an innovative program to help train future linguists by working with several colleges with translation programs. Schools will receive unclassified documents that need translating and have students do the work. Students will receive grades, school credit, and valuable experience. And the center will get more documents translated.
For more information about the center, visit its website.