Wanted: Ebonics translators

Do you speak or understand Ebonics, which is also known as African American Vernacular English/African American English? Well the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) wants you. According to CNN.com, the DEA is looking for nine people to translate conversations picked up on wiretaps.  According to the article:

“DEA’s position is, it’s a language form we have a need for,” Sanders said. “I think it’s a language form that DEA recognizes a need to have someone versed in to conduct investigations.”

The translators, being hired in the agency’s Southeast Region — which includes Atlanta, Georgia; Washington; New Orleans, Louisiana; Miami, Florida; and the Caribbean — would listen to wiretaps, translate what was said and be able to testify in court if necessary, he said.

I remember during the 1990’s there was some controversy over the Oakland, CA School Board wanting to teach Ebonics to black students.

The term “Ebonics” — a blend of “ebony” and “phonics” — became known in 1996, when the Oakland, California, Unified School District proposed using it in teaching English. After the school board came under fire, it voted to alter the plan, which recognized Ebonics as a distinct language.

The revised plan removed reference to Ebonics as “genetically based” and as the “primary language” of students. The board also removed a part that some understood to indicate that African-American students would be taught in Ebonics, although the board denied such intentions.

My problem with teaching children Ebonics as their primary language is how will they function in the real world? With the exception of the DEA soliciting Ebonic translators, how many companies are looking to hire folks who speak Ebonics?  If you work in customer service how are folks suppose to understand what you’re saying?  Young blacks, especially young black males have enough strikes against them.  If you want to speak Ebonics in your home amongst family and friends who don’t have a problem with it that’s fine.  Not all black folks speak Ebonics.  But it’s a whole different world when you step outside your comfort zone.

Check out this video from Newsy.com which talks about the DEA controversy.  Thanks to Kyle from Newsy.com.

One response

  1. The DEA’s attempt to hire “Ebonics Translators” has set off a renewed debate about whether Ebonics is a language, slang or something else. To me, some of the television coverage of the government’s perceived need to translate Ebonics has been mocking. However, I urge those who are against crime, particularly drug crime to genuinely consider DEA’s appeal to hire “Ebonics Translators” for monitoring wiretaps. Seriously, these positions are needed.

    As a retired African American DEA agent I know that translations, at times, are necessary. In my days working the street I encountered numerous situations where my ethnic background and “bilingual” abilities were essential in furthering cases. Two examples are offered for illustrative purposes.

    One day, while debriefing an informant he brought up the fact that one of our targets had a “suitcase”. I knew what he meant, so I did not ask any follow-up questions. Instead, I sought to get at some of the more relevant information that he possessed. However, after repeated attempts by the other agent to bring the conversation back to the infamous “suitcase” I realized that we had a translation issue. All three of us enjoyed a chuckle when I advised the other agent that the informant’s reference to a “suitcase” was a street term for “law suit pending” and not a literal suitcase which could be used to store money or drugs. This type of error in communication may only cost a little confusion or time – but sometimes, critical decisions pivot on interpretation.

    On the night that I was in a hotel room with other agents monitoring undercover activity, the atmosphere was tense. The actions we took next hinged on what happened in the other room. Suddenly we were on alert that another player had slipped through our net and was already in or headed to the room. This was a problem because we did not expect anyone else. The looming question of “Is this a rip?” though unspoken, lingered. I was surprised, because I too had been intently focused on what was being said and no alarm bells were going off in my head relative to a new target. When someone asked about the newly introduced name of “Chief”, I immediately knew there was a decoding problem. I was quickly able to diffuse the unease by explaining that “Chief” in the context used was something like “Man.”

    Now, at 50 something, I admit to possessing less translation skill than during my earlier years. While I marvel at how my foundation permits me to comprehend words spoken by younger generations, I recognize the need for translators to help those seeking to understand who do not share my language experiences rooted in “Black English”.

    Ebonics Translators really are needed regardless of any debate about whether it is language or slang. To those who possess this skill, “go thú the green light” (which a great-nephew tells me is an Ebonics’ phrase of encouragement meaning “go for it”).

    June Werdlow Rogers

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