January 3, 2012

Overcoming the Language Barrier

Translation Center at the Ready to Assist U.S. Intelligence 

The National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC) is an FBI-managed federal government center created to serve the U.S. government’s translation needs.

At the National Virtual Translation Center’s offices near FBI Headquarters in Washington, it feels like a mini United Nations, with linguists working in Chinese, Arabic, and other languages. The real global reach of the organization, however, is not its brick and mortar presence but rather the virtual capability reflected in its name.

Language specialists around the country—some working in secure government locations and others working from their homes—translate a variety of foreign-language material that aids the U.S. intelligence community and helps protect national security.

Established by Congress in 2003 with the FBI as its executive agency, the center—known by its NVTC acronym—is a collaborative government organization in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, but it functions more like a nimble private-sector company that can staff up to respond to its customers’ immediate needs.

Linguists working part time and full time on a contract basis may be called on to translate a variety of material—such as a 500-page technical document, an audio cassette, or a propaganda pamphlet—in any of 100 different languages or dialects. 

All NVTC linguists are U.S. citizens who have passed a thorough background investigation conducted by the FBI, and they come from all walks of life. They include students, business professionals, and even stay-at-home moms. Often, English is not their first language.

“We are an elastic workforce,” said NVTC Director Mary Ellen Okurowski, explaining that the center operates on a fee-for-service business model. “We support our customers in the U.S. intelligence community on their terms,” she said. “So we have to provide quality work on time or they will simply not come to us.”

Like many members of the intelligence community, the FBI relies on its own linguists for much of the organization’s translation needs. But when the Bureau or another agency is faced with too much raw material and too little time to translate it—or it needs language expertise it does not possess—NVTC gets the call.

The center’s linguists rarely know the agency they are translating for or the reason for the translation request. Doug Kouril, the center’s director of operations, noted that although NVTC language specialists may offer cultural perspectives with their translations—which can have a bearing on meaning—they do not collect or provide analysis.

During the past several years, the demand for NVTC’s expertise has increased significantly, according to the FBI’s Pamela Hobson, the center’s director of administration. In fiscal year 2010, for example, NVTC linguists translated nearly 209,000 pages and more than 1,000 hours of audio material, doubling output from the previous year.

Customers can efficiently request work directly from NVTC’s website, and the center’s sophisticated quality control program monitors the work at every step of the way. “Our potential for growth is strong,” Hobson added, “because we are always there when our customers need us.”

“NVTC is a living model of inter-agency collaboration,” Okurowski said. “We look forward to continuing to provide a high level of service to our customers. Our goal is to make NVTC an indispensible resource for the intelligence community.”

- Apply for a linguist job with the FBI
- Office of the Director of National Intelligence

An Opportunity for Linguists

Stock photo.NVTC has built a nationwide team of linguists and translators who provide the U.S. intelligence community with timely and accurate translations of foreign intelligence. But the center is always looking for talented people with the right language skills.

The center is attractive for recruits because employees can work from anywhere in the U.S. and have a flexible schedule that can be full time or part time.

Potential employees must be American citizens, undergo a national security background check, and pass a comprehensive language test. For more information about contract linguist positions at NVTC, visit their website at http://www.nvtc.gov/.