They say that your most vital weapon in the fight for survival here in the French Foreign Legion is, in fact, French. Who would've thought it? A decent level of fluency in the language not only helps you avoid embarrassment (and the subsequent punishment) in misinterpreting a command, but can also open many interesting doors by way of career opportunities as well as post-Legion benefits. Becoming an N.C.O. and commanding a squad - while not requiring an enormous knowledge of the French language in order to beast a quivering "newbie" - does still demand a sturdy competency when engaging (as is now the case) with the French Army in either training operations or indeed, the real deal (as is now the case!!). Similarly, when one passes through the gates of Aubagne on that final day as a (serving) Legionnaire ("Once a Legionnaire, always.......well, you get the idea), it is entirely possible to do so as a fully converted French citizen. In order to gain citizenship, however, one must first pass substantially challenging written and spoken tests in the good ol' "langue de travail".
Little did I know that my first mission here in the long-running Afghan conflict would be to play the tactically critical role of translator! You see, upon arriving in Afghanistan all military personnel must first spend a period of administrative quarantine on one of the larger U.S. air bases before shipping onwards to their final destination in the countryside (normally a Forward Operating Base, or "FOB"). In our case, an eye-opening but well-paced transitional 48 hours were spent on the rather monstrous U.S. base at Bagram, just east of Kabul*. As well as collecting our protective vests, helmets and weapons during this stop-over, we also pased through little paper posts where we were ordered to sign here, there and everywhere on top of enduring several information briefings on the principal topics of Rules of Engagement (R.O.E.) and I.E.D. detection. It was during these routine classroom sessions that my nerves were given an unannounced early run-out.
My C.O. had only dumped the news on me the night before. I nodded consentingly, all the while thinking that SURELY there were already countless French officers on site with not only fluent English but also familiarity with the debriefings and therefore greater capacity to intervene as interpreter. Hilariously, I still suffer from these momentarily distracting delusions regarding French officers' willingness to actually earn their over-inflated salaries. And so the little private first class took to the stage in front of roughly 200 mostly higher ranking French soldiers (and the inevitable sniggering, piss-taking Legionnaires) to explain when one can and can't fire one's weapon here in Taliban Town. Fantastic!
Fortune shone brightly enough on my side in the form of Captain Crocker of the famed American 101 Airborne division. These boys dropped in to Normandy to help out the French not so long ago and now the two old allies find themselves reunited once more in the 21st Century's most notorious war. The Americans love the Irish, the French tolerate them, and so I felt relatively comfortable as piggy-in-the-middle on this occasion. The R.O.E. slide-show got underway and things went more or less smoothly. On a few occasions, naturally, some terminology crept its way in to the presentation that I found rather difficult to translate. At a loss, but accurately estimating the unimportance of the terms in question, (bloody U.S. Army and their cool, Hollywood-sounding abbreviations), I hastened to continue ONLY to find myself being calmly corrected by a female captain in the front row. She may have been sporting the bleu, blanc et rouge de la Republique but she still managed to translate for me in the corniest "Days of Our Lives" American accent I'd ever heard trickle across French lips. Once again, we find ourselves back at the French officers/disproportionate salaries slide (unfortunately removed from this particular powerpoint presentation).
At the end, Captain Crocker brought proceedings to a close in a very polite, articulate and well-scripted manner. The applause that broke out a few seconds after I shut my gob for the last time reassured me that I'd gotten the message across well enough. I, for one, was certainly moved and inspired by his words. Not content to leave it at that, however, the Captain then shook my hand vigorously and with his free one tore off his sleeve badges and handed them to me. Instictively, impulsively I imitated the gesture and slapped a big ol' velcro French flag on his arm, unable to wipe my ear-to-ear grin. Granted, it wasn't quite a co-ordinated air-strike on high-priority targets but nevertheless the feeling of successful cooperation was invigorating. Sarko's minions quickly surrounded the triumphant, glamorous anglophones and I suddenly found my hand being shook by bright shiny ranks of the French Army normally deemed a hazard to my eyesight. All in a day's work, I guess.
Later that day we switched over to I.E.D. training and being an engineer (added to the confidence gained from my morning translating debut) gave me the impetus to launch in to the afternoon sessions fearless and fully motivated. These classes were taken by the relatively warm but clearly no-nonsense Sgt.1st Class Washington. Hailing all the way from New Orleans (Crocker himself was a Texan), Washington's deep southern drawl had the French mouths on the floor trying to work out even 1 word in 10. Even my normally "instructive" captain from earlier that day found herself more than a little disorientated. Due to the majority of attendees sleeping for the duration of the class, it too mercifully passed without incident. Washington thanked me afterwards, saying how few of the previous French translators managed the briefing with such ease. I told him that explaining how shit blew up in the Legion was a speciality, hence the linguistic edge. Now, unlike the very proper Captain Crocker, Washington didn't tend to mince his words all that much. On handing out an information booklet at the very end, he stated rather factually:
"Na even if y'all don't understand a damn thang written down, maybuh the pic-chaws can help all y'all git thuh gist, alright?"
Snapping instantaneously in to my superior-pleasing diplomatic mode, I translated as:
"You may not understand every word in the booklet, but the corresponding images should indicate the desired message concernig the I.E.D.s."
A rather astute sergeant from the Legion camp treated himself to a laugh by pulling me up on it afterwards, having more or less understood what Washington had said. I didn't try to defend the gentle manipulation of words, and he wasn't entirely in disagreement with me. We both concurred that, as far as the French love/hate relationship with the English language goes, it was probably the wisest course of action, n'est-ce-pas?
* Let it be noted that from this point onwards, the blog embarks on a new chapter during which I am posted in Afghanistan. I am a serving member of the French Army participating in a NATO-led coalition force in the mission entitled "Operation Enduring Freedom". Any information disclosed in the superseding blog entries is in NO WAY classified, otherwise it WOULD NOT APPEAR HERE. Fin!