What Does an FBI Linguist Do?

A linguist employed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is primarily responsible for translating documents or audio sources from a variety of languages into English, though an FBI linguist may also act as a live interpreter or testify in court. Linguists for the FBI are experts in specific languages as well as the cultures in which those languages are spoken. These federal agents use their foreign language skills to assist in the investigation of federal crimes. An individual employed the FBI in this category provides language services to multiple FBI departments as well as other government agencies. Working as a linguist for the FBI can be a mix of travel and desk work.

The responsibilities of an FBI linguist may differ depending on the job title. 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 to create content summaries of written or audio sources in other languages. A contract linguist’s job entails word-for-word translation of documents or audio recordings from other languages into English. This type of FBI linguist may also provide translations from English to other languages in some cases. Contract linguists are occasionally required to testify in court about the materials they have translated for the FBI.

In some cases, the work schedule of an FBI linguist can be unpredictable. An employee in this position might work in an office setting for the majority of the week, preparing written transcripts or summaries of translated material. Some positions may require field work, which may necessitate travel on short notice to participate in an interview or interrogation. Due to his or her expertise in the language and culture of a specific region, an FBI linguist may be summoned to other federal offices to provide short-term assistance on a specific project.

In general, FBI linguists must be fluent in one or more of the languages considered critical to the country’s security, including writing, reading, listening, and speaking in one or more of them. These people usually put in at least 20 hours per week. Full-time FBI agents who specialize in languages are known as special agent linguists.