DEA memo: Ebonics translators needed

Effort isn’t official recognition of language, agency says

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The Drug Enforcement Administration said Thursday that it does not recognize Ebonics as a formal language, but it still may need translators for agents to understand drug dealers who speak it.

The DEA made that statement in response to questions that arose in the wake of a website earlier this week posting a DEA memo seeking contractors to provide nine linguists who can speak Ebonics.

The memo posted on the Smoking Gun has renewed debate in some circles about whether Ebonics is itself a language, a dialect of English, or neither, possibly described best as a collection of slang words.

DEA encounters many linguistic variations during the course of drug investigations,” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said in a statement. “A list of more than 100 languages, dialects, colloquiums, and idioms was compiled in which these variations were generically referred to as ‘languages.’ “

But nothing else on the list comes with controversy associated with Ebonics, also known as “African American Vernacular English.”

According to the memo, the DEA is seeking contract linguists who can “listen to oral intercepts in English and foreign languages and provide a verbal summary, immediately followed by a typed summary.”

The contract linguist will also be trained in what type of intercepted calls the government is authorized to listen to and which types it is not.

John Baugh, a director of African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, and a specialist on linguistics, praised the DEA for seeking the translators and said he wishes other government agencies “would have an appreciation of the linguistic consequences of the slave trade.”

Mr. Baugh said translators can be helpful because speakers of African American Vernacular English can easily be misunderstood by others, though misidentification of speakers could remain as a problem anyway.

It is unclear whether the DEA has ever used the services of an Ebonics translator. The DEA did not respond to an inquiry from The Washington Times asking whether it had.

Special Agent Michael Sanders told the Associated Press on Monday that he wasn’t sure if the agency has ever used people who understand Ebonics as contractors. But he did say some DEA agents already help translate Ebonics.

“They saw a need for this in a couple of their investigations,” he said of the memo sent to contractors. “And when you see a need - it may not be needed now - but we want the contractors to provide us with nine people just in case.”

The nine people would work in the agency’s Southeast region, which includes offices in Atlanta, Washington, New Orleans, Miami and the Caribbean. Mr. Sanders also told the AP he’s uncertain why other regions aren’t hiring Ebonics translators, but said there are ongoing investigations in the Southeast that need dedicated Ebonics translators.

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About the Author
Ben Conery

Ben Conery

Ben Conery is a member of the investigative team covering the Supreme Court and legal affairs. Prior to coming to The Washington Times in 2008, Mr. Conery covered criminal justice and legal affairs for daily newspapers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He was a 2006 recipient of the New England Newspaper Association’s Publick Occurrences Award for a series of articles about ...

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