The Challenge of Translating Afghan Government Issued Documents

The Challenge of Translating Afghan Government Issued Documents
on January 6, 2016 No Comments

Translation has become more of a daily need for Afghans than a rare challenge that they would have faced in the past years. The war has dispersed Afghans across continents where they have to prove their identity. In this post we will review the challenges of translating Afghan government issued documents which lack coherence and uniformity.

What is the Problem with Translating Afghan Government Issued Documents?

There are numerous problems with the documents issued by the government in Afghanistan and to begin with, they are all handwritten, none are digital and there is no uniformity of any kind between the government issued citizenship ID documents and so forth. The only document that is somewhat predictable is the Afghan passport. Among other things the documents brought by Afghans to the west for proving their identity and background are hard to read, sometimes written by local elders in an informal language and in some cases fraudulent as anyone can create them in their current form.

The problem is exacerbated when such documents are presented to a foreign agency as proof of identity who, in turn, submits these documents to translation agencies for translation. At Afghan Translation Service, we receive hundreds of tazkiras (identity or birth certificates) that need translation. Some are in such bad shape that anyone can tell that they are forgeries and contain conflicting information. The challenge for authenticating such documents is an issue for the agencies requiring to translate them.

Decoding the Handwritten Text in Afghan Documents

This post is not a rant but an explanation of what a translator or anyone reading an Afghan document really thinks about it. Majority of the Afghan documents come as template forms, typically typed up but filled in with handwritten text. Most Afghans are bilingual and speak, read, and to some degree, write in both Dari and Pashto languages. However, with the official documents coming from Afghanistan it is very common to see that the template form is in Pashto and the handwritten text is in Dari. This presents a major problem for a translator who is Pashto speaker and does not specialize in Dari and requires the use of multiple translators for both languages to work on one document.

Additionally, Afghan officials and people in general have developed immense interest for the cursive style of Dari or Pashto handwriting, which has taken the form of illegible scripts. The idea behind these documents, which are legal and binding, is that the readers understand the purpose and parties identified in them but it has become almost impossible to read some of these documents because of illegible handwriting. On top of that these documents are plain papers, folded in people’s pockets and by the time they are scanned and presented to a translator, they have lost another 30% of their clarity.

One Paragraph. One Sentence.

It is not uncommon to fill an entire paragraph, or sometimes an entire page, with one continuing sentence. For example, in affidavits we often see that the author has squeezed all the contents of the page in one very long sentence. The translator will have to read the entire sentence to get an idea of what the author wanted to say and to formulate a legible translation. What is even worse is that some people who demand translation of these documents into English request that these documents should follow the original style and have the same number of sentences, which basically renders the translation to be a word for word conversion of the source Dari or Pashto document.

On top of that the people issuing orders or approval of such documents do not respect the integrity of the document and write anywhere they like, sometimes overlapping the content of the document, making both texts illegible. There is also a complete disregard for spelling or punctuation by the officials.

Signatures, Stamps, Seals and Fancy Ranks

Afghan government documents are not simple to read and some contain over 20 different types of stamps and seals in all different colors, with the stamps being identical. Additionally, every person placing their signature on a document writes the date in solar calendar year and writes a very detailed description of their rank or position. Translating the stamps and seals are not an issue but when the same stamp appears multiple times, it becomes somewhat of a problem. Additionally such stamps and seals overlap the content of the documents making them hard to read, which affects the suitability of using such documents for official business.


Let’s agree that documents coming from Afghanistan are not easy to decipher, read or translate and requires a special skill to translate and present it in a meaningful fashion. If you require such documents to be translated, find a translation partner who specializes in the languages of Afghanistan and more importantly have the translation verified. Give us a call if you need our opinion on translation quality or the legibility of an Afghan document.

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