DEA wants to hire Ebonics Translators

By: Carol Cratty, Ashley Hayes and Phil Gast

Wanted by the Drug Enforcement Administration: Ebonics translators.

It might sound like a punch line, as “Ebonics” — the common name for what linguists call African-American English — has long been the butt of jokes, as well as the subject of controversy.

But the agency is serious about needing nine people to translate conversations picked up on wiretaps during investigations, Special Agent Michael Sanders said Tuesday. A solicitation was sent to contractors as part of a request to companies to provide hundreds of translators in 114 languages.

“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.

“The concept is right and good,” said Walt Wolfram, distinguished professor of English linguistics at North Carolina State University. “Why wouldn’t you want experts who can help you understand what people are communicating?”

“On one level, it’s no different than someone from the Outer Banks of North Carolina who speaks a distinct brogue,” he said. “The problem is that even the term ‘Ebonics’ is so controversial and politicized that it becomes sort of a free-for-all.”

And Ebonics is no longer spoken only by African-Americans, Sanders said, referring to it as “urban language” or “street language.” He said he is aware of investigations in recent years in which it was spoken by African-Americans, Latinos and white people. “It crosses over geographic, racial and ethnic backgrounds,” he said.

“[African-American English] is linguistic defiance being reinforced by hip-hop,” said professor John Baugh, who leads the public relations committee of the Linguistic Society of America.

The DEA’s recruiting “has it half right,” Baugh said.

Although having translation help is a good law enforcement tool, Baugh said, the term “Ebonics” may be counterproductive because “the social positions of speakers have been the object of ridicule.”

The Washington University professor also is concerned about racial profiling resulting from assumptions made from a speaker’s dialect.

While the DEA wants to have the translators available, it may not need to call upon them, Sanders said. He did not know how much it would cost to have the translators available.

“I can’t say it’s spoken all the time, like Spanish and Vietnamese,” Sanders said. “But there are people trying to use this to evade detection” while trafficking in drugs, he said.

Asked whether agency currently has agents who can translate Ebonics, Sanders said some who have worked on local police forces can help pick out words on wiretaps.