DEA Searches for Ebonics Translators to Aid Investigations

Seal of the Drug Enforcement Administration
DEA Searches for Ebonics Translators to Aid Investigations
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ATLANTA (CBS/AP) The Drug Enforcement Administration is looking to hire nine Ebonics translators in order to help interpret wiretapped conversations involving targets of undercover drug investigations.

Special Agent Michael Sanders said Monday that the DEA is focusing their search for translators in the Southeast, Atlanta, Washington, New Orleans, Miami and the Caribbean, in hopes of finding Ebonics experts outside the agency.

"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."

Unfortunately, the DEA is being scrutinized for its decision to enlist these types of translators because there is a debate surrounding Ebonics and whether or not it should be considered its own language, dialect, or neither.

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.

Because Ebonics evolves so quickly, linguists say it can be difficult for those not acquainted with it to translate its true meaning.

"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.

Despite the apparent need for translators, there are critics of the DEA's plan who feel it is unfair for authorities to say they do not understand Ebonics, without recognizing it as a legitimate language.

Ultimately, Sanders maintains that the difference between a successful investigation and a failed one could hinge on proper translations.

"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.'"