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What Does an FBI Linguist Do?

By L. Whitaker
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The job duties of a linguist employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) primarily involve interpreting documents or audio sources into English from a variety of other languages, although an FBI linguist might also act as a live interpreter or testify in judicial proceedings. FBI linguists are experts in specific languages as well as holding expertise regarding the cultures in which those languages are spoken. These federal agents assist in solving federal crimes through the application of their foreign language skills. In this category of FBI employment, an individual provides language services that aid multiple FBI departments as well as other government agencies. Working as an FBI linguist can offer an unpredictable mix of travel and desk work.

Duties of an FBI linguist might vary depending on the job title. Four categories of linguist jobs with the FBI include special agent linguists, who are fully invested FBI agents with a higher security clearance; contract language monitors, who typically create content summaries of written or audio sources in other languages; contract linguists, who are on call to be contacted for special translation duties as they arise; and contract testers, whose primary job is the administration of phone-based exams to test others for language skills. A contract linguist is typically responsible for translating documents or audio recordings word for word from other languages to English. In some cases, this type of FBI linguist might also provide translations from English to specific other languages. Contract linguists are sometimes required to provide court testimony regarding the materials they have translated for the FBI.

The work schedule of an FBI linguist can be unpredictable in some cases. An individual in this position could spend the majority of the work week in an office setting, preparing written transcripts or summaries of translated material. Some positions could entail field work that requires the individual to travel at short notice in order to participate in an interview or interrogation. At other times, an FBI linguist might be summoned to other federal offices to provide short-term assistance on a particular project due to his or her expertise in the language and culture of a specific region.

In general, FBI linguists are required to exhibit fluent language skills including writing, reading, listening, and speaking in one or more of the languages that are considered important to the security of the United States. These individuals typically work at least 20 hours per week. Special agent linguists are full-time FBI agents who go on to become language specialists.

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