Wanted by the FBI: Employees January 6, 2009Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Random musings, Translation Sites.
NPR reports this morning:
The FBI has launched one of its biggest hiring blitzes ever. It needs to fill 850 special agent positions. It also has openings for more than 2,000 support staff. Officials say this is the agency’s largest job posting since just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The openings are largely due to attrition and a wave of retirements.
If you want to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a linguist, you need to be aware that it will take at least a year for the background check after you have completed the 12-page application and passed the testing process. You also must be a U.S. citizen. The linguist test is a battery of tests that includes oral and written comprehension as well as translation ability from the foreign language into English. The first part is a written test with multiple choice questions testing reading and listening comprehension and then the translation of several texts. Most of those who take it (70 or 80%) fail this test. If you have passed the written test you will be invited back for a 20-to-50-minute telephone interview. The telephone interview tests your listening and speaking comprehension in the foreign language. The interviewers rate you based on the linguistic content of your responses and not on your knowledge of the subject matter. If you are fluent I can guarantee that you won’t notice when the interviewers raise the linguistic register and will find the phone interview quite enjoyable.
Once you have passed the battery of language tests, you will then have to pass the polygraph and an audiometer (hearing) test. The polygraph is mentally and emotionally grueling. They ask you about anything you may have omitted on the application and questions that might preclude your employment by the Bureau and about your character. I was so mentally exhausted after the polygraph that I took a 1-hour nap when I got home. You may also have to submit to a drug test, especially if you are offered a language specialist position. As a contract linguist, the folks in Cleveland decided I didn’t need to take it, but I was more than willing to. If you are an upstanding citizen you will have nothing to worry about from the polygraph or drug tests.
Having passed the language tests and polygraph, they will then begin conducting your background check. The application has you list every address you have ever lived at and name one person who can attest to your having lived there for each address. I also had to include a list of all of my clients at the time. The FBI visited everyone listed on the application and asked them about me and my character. They even went door-to-door on my parents’ street (and I imagine the street I grew up on for 21 years) asking the neighbors about me. I was glad I had warned my clients that I was applying to the FBI, because the secretary at one agency called my project manager to tell her “there are people from the FBI here who want to speak with you” – not something you hear every day and not something a foreign national usually wants to hear .
I was a contract linguist for four years. It took them a while to finally start sending me work and even longer until they sent me to DC for training. However, it might have just been my field office and supervisor. I eventually got disillusioned and decided I no longer wanted to work with them. However, I know plenty of people who are contract linguists and enjoy the work. The texts I translated were indeed very interesting – Internet and banking fraud, letters rogatory, and extradition documentation. If you specialize in legal and financial texts this might be a good choice for you. If you are working at a field office as a contract linguist you will be expected to bring your dictionaries with you to the office. They never provided me with any dictionaries. Headquarters, on the other hand, has plenty of dictionaries. You will need to insist on having Internet access, because a lot of the things you translate and terms you encounter will not be found in a dictionary.
Contract linguists are paid by the hour, and the hourly rate is determined by language. As a contract linguist you would be self-employed and will not receive benefits. This means you will also be responsible for paying taxes out of the $34 or $35 an hour you are paid. You will keep a monthly time log and submit it at the end of the month in order to be paid. It is a nice little side job, but if you are chosen as a contract linguist you may or may not be given steady work depending on the needs for your language. Language specialists are considered full-time employees, and the assignments are rare. You may also be required to relocate or work from headquarters. Most people are contract linguists. Contract linguists may be given opportunities to travel (but assignments tend to require long stretches of time) or may remain in their city of choice and work from the local field office. Due to security concerns and the need to protect evidence, contract linguists must work in the field office instead of their own home or office.
The FBI does not distinguish between translators and interpreters, or between people who translate in one direction or another. The bulk of their work (perhaps 80%) goes into English, but a similar percentage of contract linguists and language specialists are non-native English speakers, so by definition most of their translators are working into their non-native language. Language specialists do not have the luxury of turning down assignments because it is into their non-native language or requires a skill set one may not have (such as interpreting). As a contract linguist you may have the luxury if there is a competent native speaker who can accept the assignment, but if you are in a language of limited diffusion you will most likely translate in both directions.
On a positive note, the FBI and other government entities are one of the few steady in-house jobs out there for translators. I have my fair share of gripes with them, but realistically it enabled several of my friends to keep freelancing until they establish a stable of regular clients. In-house jobs in the private sector are almost nonexistent, especially if you translate into English. You are also doing your part and helping your government in its dealings with other countries, which I really liked.
For even more information about working for the FBI and other government entities, I encourage you to read “Translating and Interpreting in the Federal Government” by Ted Crump. Many thanks to Corinne McKay for fact-checking, feedback and a couple additions to this post!