Federal agents are seeking to hire Ebonics translators to help interpret wiretapped conversations involving targets of undercover drug investigations.
The Drug Enforcement Administration recently sent memos asking companies that provide translation services to help it find nine translators in the Southeast who are fluent in Ebonics, Special Agent Michael Sanders said Monday.
Ebonics, which is also known as African American Vernacular English, has been described by the psychologist who coined the term as the combination of English vocabulary with African language structure.
Some DEA agents already help translate Ebonics, Sanders said. But he said wasn’t sure if the agency has ever hired outside Ebonics experts as contractors.
“They saw a need for this in a couple of their investigations,” he said. “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 DEA’s decision, first reported by The Smoking Gun, evokes memories of the debate sparked in 1996 when the Oakland, California, school board suggested that black English was a separate language. Although the board later dropped the suggestion amid criticism, it set off a national discussion over whether Ebonics is a language, a dialect or neither.
The search for translators covers a wide swath of the Southeast, including offices in Atlanta, Washington, New Orleans, Miami and the Caribbean, said Sanders. He said 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.
Linguists said Ebonics can be trickier than it seems, partly because the vocabulary evolves so quickly.
“A lot of times people think you’re just dealing with a few slang words, and that you can finesse your way around it,” said John Rickford, a Stanford University linguistics professor. “And it’s not — it’s a big vocabulary. You’ll have some significant differences” from English.
Critics worry that the DEA’s actions could set a precedent.
“Hiring translators for languages that are of questionable merit to begin with is just going in the wrong direction,” said Aloysius Hogan, the government relations director of English First, a national lobbying group that promotes the use of English.
“I’m not aware of Ebonics training schools or tests. I don’t know how they’d establish that someone speaks Ebonics,” he said. “I support the concept of pursuing drug dealers if they’re using code words, but this is definitely going in the wrong direction.”
H. Samy Alim, a Stanford linguistics professor who specializes in black language and hip-hop culture, said he thought the hiring effort was a joke when he first heard about it, but that it highlights a serious issue.
“It seems ironic that schools that are serving and educating black children have not recognized the legitimacy of this language. Yet the authorities and the police are recognizing that this is a language that they don’t understand,” he said. “It really tells us a lot about where we are socially in terms of recognizing African-American speech.”
Rickford said that hiring Ebonics experts could come in handy for the DEA, but he said it’s hard to determine whether a prospective employee can speak it well enough to translate since there are no standardized tests. He said the ideal candidate would be a native speaker who also has had some linguistics training.
Finding the right translators could be the difference between a successful investigation or a failed one, said Sanders. While he said many listeners can get the gist of what Ebonics speakers are saying, it could take an expert to define it in court.
“You can maybe get a general idea of what they’re saying, but you have to understand that this has to hold up in court,” he said. “You need someone to say, ‘I know what they mean when they say ‘ballin’ or ‘pinching pennies.'”