October 17, 2005

Things that are rarely better than they normally are

Matthew D. LaPlante is a reporter who has been "traveling in Iraq with Utah-based military units", and writing about it in the Salt Lake Tribune. Last week he contributed an interesting story about the shortage of translators, and more generally of Arabic-language skills, among Army units in Iraq: "Interpreters in high demand in Iraq."

The story is focused on the experiences of a "steely eyed sergeant" named Ozro Hamblin, who is "the only member of the Utah-based 222nd Field Artillery who speaks Arabic".

Hamblin is not, in fact, a translator by trade. A Middle Eastern studies major at the University of Utah, he has been learning Arabic for a few years. He speaks enough to get by, and, he hopes, to help Iraqi citizens confronted by his unit to feel a little more at ease.

He gets no special perks for his special skills. And when he leaves this unit, as he is hoping to do soon, there will be no one to take his place.

According to the story, "the Army didn't pay for [Hamblin's] training and, during pre-deployment training, would not offer him or anyone else Arabic classes."

"I honestly thought there would be a lot more people that would speak at least a little bit of the language, and I thought there would be interpreters," said Hamblin, who is on his second tour of duty in Iraq. "The first time I was over here we never had an actual interpreter the entire time. It blew my mind. You'd think the big Army could fix these problems, but they can't."

The Defense Language Institute has made a big investment in increasing its Arabic classes, though as far as I know they are still offering only Modern Standard Arabic, and the graduates are unlikely to wind up on the streets in units like Hamblin's. Eventually perhaps CASL will make a difference, but not quickly. I doubt that there are any quick solutions here, though I share with Hamblin a sense that the folks in charge ought to be working harder on the problem.

Meanwhile, I was taken aback linguistically by the third sentence of the article:

RAMADI, Iraq - Like greyhounds out of the gate, the soldiers spring from the armored doors of their Humvees, and pour down the road toward the approaching car.

Behind their ranks, a steely eyed sergeant named Ozro Hamblin jogs to catch up. It is rare, Hamblin knows, for these kinds of situations to end better than they normally do.

Now, the reporter might have had in mind a distribution of outcomes for such situations in which it's literally true that a very small fraction of the results are above the mean (or some other interpretation of the "normal" outcome). However, I don't think this is what he meant.

Instead, I think that this is a subtle instance of the average = bad confusion, involving equivocation between the statistical and moral interpretions of words like "better" and "normal". This was the basis of Garrison Keillor's little joke about Lake Wobegon, where "all the children are above average", and it was behind the complaint that "[t]he [No Child Left Behind] tests being used are formulated so that 50 percent of the test-takers will fall below the median score -- in effect setting school districts up for failure no matter how much preparation students receive."

In this case, I think the reporter meant that "these kinds of situations" normally end badly -- another instance of the military expectation of SNAFU -- and rarely end well enough to deserve being described as having ended "better than" this expected result. More simply, I suspect that he wanted us to know that the outcome of such situations is usually bad and is rarely good, and that Hamblin knows this.

Why didn't he just say so, instead of exposing himself to the Escherian complexities of the comparative construction? I don't know, but there may be a connection to the phenomenon of overnegation. This involves backwards interpretation of sentences with multiple negatives, some of which are usually negative words with phrasal complements, as in "No head injury is too trivial to ignore", or "Don't fail to miss this spectacular event".

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 17, 2005 10:16 AM