Diplomatic Interpreting: Misunderstood and little known.

July 18, 2018 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

During the last month we have seen plenty of diplomatic activity around the world, most of which involved the president of the United States. First, president Trump met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore; next, he met with several heads of state in Europe during the NATO meetings, and after his visit to the United Kingdom where he needed no interpreter, he met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

Through current 24-hour news coverage around the world, these encounters and press conferences have put diplomatic interpreters on the spotlight in an unprecedented way. Diplomats and politicians have always known the role of the diplomatic interpreter in these events, but journalists, social media users, and TV viewers are just discovering the importance and complexity of this essential function needed in all diplomatic exchanges when the parties share no common language.

The interpreting profession is growing all over the world, but most of its expansion is coming from the legal, healthcare, and community service fields; therefore, diplomatic interpreting is also new to many interpreters who never had an opportunity to do it.

Many of our colleagues seized the opportunity to highlight the difference between translating and interpreting by constantly bombarding all social media with entries correcting the term used by journalists and lay people, and making it crystal clear that (at least in languages with different words to describe interpreting and translating) those accompanying the presidents were interpreters, not translators. Many of their social media comments showed they knew little about diplomatic interpreting. Look at these remarks found on social media and interpreter forums and chatrooms: “…the interpreters working the summit hopefully demanded team interpreting…Did they consider that North Korean is a different dialect when assigning Trump’s interpreter?…Did they tell interpreters that Kim Jong Un has a Swiss accent?…Kim Jong Un speaks English, but they needed an interpreter to clean up Trump’s remarks…interpreter better watch diplomacy if president does not…Who would want to interpret for Trump?…I bet these interpreters will write a book after the summit…; or this one: “…Why would a woman interpret for Putin and Trump?…

Diplomatic interpreting is a very specialized field. It requires the same skills needed to interpret in other fields, plus other technical, cultural, ethical and diplomatic knowledge and abilities, and self-confidence, courage, stress control, and refraining from showing personal emotions and opinions. It includes a broad range of elements and factors that make communication possible at presidential level, ministries, international organizations, and international military organizations.

Besides all modes of interpretation used in all other settings, diplomatic interpreting requires impeccable consecutive interpreting that goes beyond memory, note taking and visualization; it also needs of the interpreter’s insights, observations, impressions and readings derived from discreet but careful eye contact with the source and target, which must incorporate body language, gestures, and intonations to convey the most accurate rendition, this while walking on eggshells  in a world where nuances are extremely important. Often working with no equipment, diplomatic interpreters must project their voice so they can be heard by the target.

Diplomatic interpreters must possess an excellent simultaneous delivery with the right decalage and comprehension of the issues discussed to provide the right meaning in those topics being addressed at the meeting or conference. They work in the booth like all conference interpreters, but they also constantly interpret simultaneously performing chuchotage escort interpreting for the head of state. This requires additional skills not always needed in the booth, such as extreme concentration to isolate the voice of the source during a state dinner while many others are speaking. Interpreters must master this discipline so their voice can be heard by their target with clarity, while taking care of their voice so they can continue to work as interpreters. “The ability to express ideas clearly, and above all great familiarity with the different cultures is a must…good voice projection and especially modulation are assets which seem to acquire even more weight… because whispered interpretation is commonly required…” (Maria Rosaria Buri. “Interpreting in diplomatic settings”. https://aiic.net/page/7349/interpreting-in-diplomatic-settings/lang/1)

Both, consecutive and escort diplomatic interpreting are rendered at an unprecedented level of stress and pressure.

Sometimes, the job goes to somebody not qualified to be a diplomatic interpreter and the consequences can be ugly. This was the case during Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s visit to the White House in 2010 when he addressed president Barack Obama about pending immigration policy and legislation in the United States. In Spanish, Calderon’s comments were straightforward and clear as he spoke to the common values and principles that united the United States and Mexico. A halting and grammatically incoherent English rendition by the Mexican interpreter followed. The interpretation was so difficult to understand that the American delegation ignored the rendition and used a written translation instead. The Mexican delegation blamed its own translation, and from that point on, president Calderón spoke in English until another interpreter joined his team in Ottawa where his trip continued after Washington, D.C. The Mexican government indicated that the interpreter had come with the presidential delegation, but apparently this individual did not regularly interpret for Calderón. (NBC News. Copyright 2010 Associated Press. (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/37238436/ns/world_news-americas/t/calderon-visit-marred-poor-translation/)

Those who are chosen to work as diplomatic interpreters must have broad knowledge and keep up to date with world political, social, and economic affairs. Keeping abreast of international developments and the issues at stake is essential for interpreters working in any language mediation setting.  Diplomatic interpreters must be familiar with dress codes, etiquette, demeanor, the correct form to address dignitaries, tact, and savoir-faire, the principles of being discreet and of not censoring. However, sometimes they must use harsh language when the source does so. In December 1983 then vice president George H.W. Bush went on a secret mission to El Salvador in a civil war. Stephanie Van Reigersberg, when head of the interpreting division of the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State was assigned to accompany him. Bush was there to deliver a warning to a group of military commanders about the government’s death squads. Secret Service agents recommended the vice president call off the meeting, but he refused. “Basically, he cursed them out” Van Reigersberg said. “…having a woman interpreter using that kind of language really got their attention”. After the meeting, she realized that she had been so concentrated on her work she had lost any sense of danger until Bush remarked: “…well, I almost got us both killed, didn’t I?”

Each country has its own internal policy and criteria to select and appoint diplomatic interpreters; for security reasons, most nations choose staff interpreters vetted and cleared as ethical, professional individuals worthy of their nation’s trust. Some others select independent contractors then subjected to rigorous background checks and assigned a security clearance level, with only those with the highest level being assigned for top diplomatic interpretations. Finally, many countries have a mixed system where staff interpreters are used for the most common and widely spoken languages, while independent contractors with top security clearance are retained to interpret in less common languages. In the United States, interpreting for White House and State Department officials is provided by the Office of Language Services (part of the U.S. Department of State). The Office’s “…diplomatic and conference interpreters (are on its) staff, and conference interpreters (are on its) contractor rosters…” (https://www.state.gov/m/a/ols/c57124.htm). Often, the diplomatic interpreter accompanying the head of state is the highest interpreter in their home country. Dr. Yun Hyang Lee, who interpreted for president Donald Trump during the meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, is the current head of the interpreting division of the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State (Time. Eli Meixler, Mahita Gajanan. June 13, 2018)

A diplomatic interpreter is not just selected from an interpreters’ association directory on line. They are trusted, vetted, and tested professionals recognized for their skill and field of expertise. Thoroughness is essential in this work, it is never a matter of finding an equivalent or substituting a word; the interpreter must understand the thought expressed and its underlying meaning to interpret. Interpreters must know the specialized jargon and background information. You cannot interpret what you cannot understand. It is crucial that interpreters have all needed knowledge for each assignment. Sometimes they are privy to the same briefing the president gets; often, because of the delicate matters to discuss, information is subject to secrecy and interpreters only get it at the right moment, but always with time to be prepared for the job. Words are so important in diplomatic interpreting that sometimes they can set the mood for a negotiation: During a U.S.-Soviet summit in Washington, D.C. in December 1987, president Reagan welcomed his cold war rival Gorbachev to the White House to discuss peace. During the official welcoming ceremony, Reagan stated that: “…today marks a visit that is perhaps more momentous than many…because it represents a coming together not of allies, but of adversaries…” The U.S. interpreter on that occasion was Dimitry Zarechnak, and the Soviet interpreter was the legendary Pavel Palazhchenko. When it came the time to interpret the speech, Zarechnak told National Public Radio (NPR) in 2001 he was “…agonizing over the word adversaries” because the Russian word for “adversaries” protivniki, sounds similar to a word that means “disgusting”: protivniy. “…In English, you can have a noble adversary. In Russian it sounds terrible…” he added. Instead of repeating the word “adversaries”, Zarechnak used a Russian word for “competitors” which Gorbachev liked. This same word was used by president Trump this week when he was asked if president Putin was his enemy and he replied that “…I have always said he is (my) competitor…” (National Public Radio NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/11/611734103/the-pressure-of-being-an-interpreter-at-a-high-stakes-summit)

Occasionally, interpreters are indirect recipients of a tense internal relationship within a government structure. This can affect their work and their preparation.  During the Nixon administration, president Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger distrusted the State Department and had a less than friendly relationship with secretary of state William Rogers, sometimes they kept the U.S. interpreters out of the meetings for fear they would brief Rogers. This meant that sometimes the interpreters would assist in meetings between the secretary of state and foreign leaders on topics about which the White House had kept the interpreters in the dark. (Harry Obst. “White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation”. ISBN-13:978-1452006154).

Some say that these interpreters participate in making history. This is both: a privilege because they get to be eyewitness to some events that will be in the history books of tomorrow; and a burden because it means more stress and pressure which translate in tremendous responsibility. Interpreters like the ones who accompanied president Franklin D. Roosevelt to Yalta, or like Irene Bruno from the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State who interpreted for president Barack Obama during his visit to Havana in March of 2016.

Diplomatic interpreters are constantly studying and fine tuning their craft. They have great flexibility. On October 23, 2000, Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of State under president Bill Clinton, met former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Albright had the services of U.S. Department of State Senior Korean interpreter Tong Kim. Albright’s mission was to persuade the regime to abandon its long-range missile program. To prepare, Tong Kim learned arms control jargon, reviewed top-secret briefs, and read a dozen books on nuclear bombs. Kim later stated that he “…kept…reading every article in newspapers and academic journals…” He says that when he began interpreting he “spoke like a South Korean, and they did not seem to appreciate it…” so he perfected a North Korean accent and dialect: “I picked up their language, their intonation, their dialect…and that gives them some trust…” (National Public Radio NPR (https://www.npr.org/2018/06/11/611734103/the-pressure-of-being-an-interpreter-at-a-high-stakes-summit)

Due to the nature of the task, these interpreters often work alone and for many hours. Although team interpreting may be feasible for the conference work in the booth (usually a press conference where the second interpreter may not need to have the same level of security clearance, even though they usually do) long consecutive and chuchotage are generally performed by the same interpreter throughout the encounter. This requires that diplomatic interpreters have great stamina and good health. An important point because it takes many years of practice and study to reach this professional level, therefore many diplomatic interpreters are not very young.  Add the stress factor, generally present in these events because of the importance of the issues being negotiated, the bilinguals in the room who may think they have a better way to say something, and the constant feeling that if something goes wrong, interpreters could be blamed, even if the mishap was not entirely their fault.

Diplomatic interpreters develop an important working relationship with their source. This relationship takes many shapes and forms; sometimes the source is quite detached, and other times they rely on the interpreter for more than interpreting. We are their cultural advisors and sometimes their local history and geography consultants. For example, Harry Obst, who interpreted for seven U.S. presidents during his career, and was the head of the U.S. Department of State Office of Language Services, recalls how President Lyndon Johnson, who ascended to the presidency suddenly when president John Kennedy was killed, was eager to tap interpreters’ wisdom: “…Johnson would caucus with me before the meeting, and he would say, ‘Look, do you know this person? What is he like? Is he devious? Is he straightforward? It is best to raise a subject straight on or fish around it a bit?’” (Harry Obst. “White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation”. ISBN-13:978-1452006154). During the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki we could see the different relationship that each president has with his interpreter, while president Trump’s interpreter, Marina Gross from the Office of Language Services of the U.S. Department of State, sat on the chair already positioned for her a few feet to the right of the president, president Putin’s interpreter walked on stage, grabbed his chair and put it next to Putin, just a few inches away.

Sometimes diplomatic interpreters working under such pressure make a mistake; they are humans. During a discussion on an open skies proposal between the 41 president of the United states, George H.W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, Soviet interpreter Igor Korchilov said the word “verifying” in English, instead of the correct term “verified”. Everybody in the White House Cabinet Room looked at him, including Gorbachev who quickly said: “No, no. I never said that…” On an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, Korchilov remarked: “…To this day, I still feel extremely embarrassed…” On his memoir, Korchilov wrote: “…At the moment I wished the earth could swallow me up…” He then addressed president Bush to apologize, and the American president replied: “…Relax, the good news is that you didn’t start World War III…” He then apologized to Gorbachev who said something all interpreters need to remember: “…Oh, don’t worry, Igor. Only those who do nothing make no mistakes…” (Korchilov Igor, “Translating History: 30 Years on the Front Lines of Diplomacy with a Top Russian Interpreter).

Igor Korchilov made a mistake, but he was a great interpreter who worked as Gorbachev’s interpreter from 1987 to 1990.

Great interpreters make mistakes like everyone else, they just make them on a world stage and everybody finds out, as it happened in the well-publicized case of the joint press conference of U.S. president Barack Obama and king Felipe VI of Spain at the Oval Office in 2015. At the time, Spain was facing an independence vote in Catalonia that could end up in a political and economic crisis for the kingdom. On his remarks, president Obama stated that the United States wanted a relationship with a strong and united Spain (“una España fuerte y unificada”) but the interpreter’s rendition was: “a stronger and united relationship with Spain” (“una relación [cada vez] más fuerte y unida [con España]”) (“El Mundo”. Sept. 2015. http://www.elmundo.es./enredados/2015/09/16/55f9477022601da52a8b45a0.html ) The king, who studied in Georgetown University and speaks English, immediately looked at his delegation and made sure that the Spanish press got the correct presidential statement and not the mistake. Moreover, since interpreter renditions into the foreign language (in this case Spanish) are not shown on American media where they broadcast the president’s remarks in English, nobody noticed the mistake on the American media, but it was big news all over Spain. Once again, this interpreter had faced tougher situations many times.

I hope this gives you all a better idea of what diplomatic interpreters do, who they are, and how they work. I leave you with a quote from David Bernet and Christian Beetz press release for their documentary “The Whisperers”:

“They appear in the shadow of the mighty…the interpreters. They have been around forever or, at least, ever since different languages and cultures have met. The discretion that goes with their job makes interpreters very inconspicuous people. But behind the cloak of professional neutrality, one can discover a cast of fascinating characters who dedicate themselves to their craft with the utmost passion” (David Bernet and Christian Beetz press release for their documentary “The Whisperers” http://www.gebrueder-beetz.de/en/productions/the-whisperers-2#uebersicht)

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§ 13 Responses to Diplomatic Interpreting: Misunderstood and little known.

  • Lionel Bajana says:

    Hello Tony, very timely article. Very timely because today I read that the Interpreter who worked in Helsinki for the Presidents Trump and Putin may be subpoenaed to reveal the content of the conversation between the two leaders. Are diplomatic interpreters subject to the confidentiality canon? Is there a possibility of legal consequences like it happened with Mohammed Yousry if any wrong doing transpired during the private conversation? It is a disturbing issue.

    • Dear Lionel, thank you for your comment. For an interpreter to testify before Congress, other constitutional issues would have to be resolved first: Separation of powers and executive privilege come to mind. We have to remember the presidential interpreter is an agent of the president. We have to understand that when we are talking about national security and the U.S. constitution, there are other considerations bigger than an interpreter oath. You are right, this is a disturbing issue.

    • Tom Hoar says:

      Lionel, I offer my comments based on my extensive work with diplomatic interpreters under TS/SCI clearances, which Marina Gross is likely under considering the context of the Helsinki meeting. You mention, “the confidentiality canon,” as though there is only one. There are many codes of conduct and confidentiality agreements for commercial work and and trade association. Simply put, none of them apply in this context.

      With TS/SCI clearances, secrecy is a higher standard than confidentiality and it’s defined in the Secrecy Agreement that all TS/SCI holders must sign. The world of TS/SCI is very restrictive for all those who hold it, not only interpreters. Its restrictions govern every aspect of life. People, including Gross, choose that lifestyle; it is not thrown upon them by surprise. Even today, over 20 years after leaving that world, I have information in my head that does not belong to me, and that I must hold under my Secrecy Agreement. Do you know the old joke, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you?” That is not true. If I told you, I go to jail and I don’t want to go to jail.

      The big question here was a congressional subpoena. I agree with @Tony. There are many issues related to national security, separation of powers and executive privilege that I’m not qualified to answer. Therefore I’ll describe a lower, more practical course of action. If a committee issues a subpoena, she must appear before the committee. If she’s a no-show, she goes to jail. Her answers, however, must follow the guidance she receives from the State Department legal department in accordance with the Secrecy Agreement. If the committee hold closed-door sessions typical for classified testimony, she must appear and she still must follow legal guidance. I don’t know what that guidance would be. However, if the committee doesn’t like her answers, the issue will escalate to the top level for approvals. It’s ultimately the President’s decision. I can’t imagine that decision will be to disclose anything. That’s when the higher issues of powers and privilege kick in.

      @Tony is also exactly right that this interpreter is an agent of the President… not the USA, not the State Department, but the President. The International standard (convention/law?) is that diplomacy occurs between heads of state. An ambassador and all State Department (Foreign Ministry) employees are personal representatives of the Head of State, not the state itself. Thailand’s ambassador to the USA represents the king, not Thailand, not their parliament, not their Prime Minister. France has a President who is Head of State and a Prime Minister who governs the country as Chief Executive. The USA President is the USA’s Head of State, Chief Executive, and Commander In Chief of the military.

      I do not find these disturbing. Finland most likely certified and granted diplomatic carnet’s for the 4 parties in Helsinki and they were covered under the umbrella of diplomatic immunity. Let’s say that one or all diplomats committed egregiously illegal acts under Finland’s laws. The only thing that Finland can do is expel the diplomats. The interpreter is bound by the Security Agreement. Again, this is a life choice. If you find them disturbing, then don’t choose the life under TS/SCI.

      • liobaj says:

        Hello Tom, thank you for the very thorough explanation on this issue. Very interesting on how all this works. From a distance, in the state courts, it does seem disturbing that an interpreter may be subpoenaed. Its been a couple of weeks and no more news on that. I will not be choosing a life under TS/SCI, I am actually closer to living under a pension so no disturbing moments in my near or far future.
        Thanks again.

      • Tom Hoar says:

        You’re welcome, @liobaj. The last I heard, a House Committee called a vote, it lost the motion, and no subpoena was issued. In my opinion, the politicians who called for a subpoena knew it was a dead end, and they were grandstanding media attention leading up to mid-term elections.

  • Loved your blog posting Tony. I am fascinated by the diplomatic interpreter profession. I wish I had known about it when I chose the college specialization I chose (hotel administration) many years ago. As step-granddaughter of one of Mexico’s ambassadors to Spain and having been so close to the diplomatic core both as that and as admin. asst. to the Embassy of Mexico in Sweden meeting Nobel laureates. As certified medical interpreter I am not at that level but at 55 the us not a lot for me to do. Thanks again. 🙂

  • Mark Willan says:

    Hi Tony. I have worked as diplomatic interpreter on various occasions, mainly in French, for French and Swiss government delegations in Singapore and Malaysia, but also for Italian government delegations and for German state visits.
    Things are very different in Europe, and political/diplomatic interpreting forms the mainstay of work at EU institutions across the continent and many many people do a great deal of it. Maybe in the US most work is legal, but in Asia, in my experience the vast majority of the work is commercial and financial. Each diplomatic event I worked on had its own features: sometimes, as with a European Defence Minister visit, there was a press briefing where I interpreted everything, followed by a closed-door session where the visiting minister showed a command of English that was not far short of my own as a mother tongue speaker! The interpreter was just “insurance” in case something untoward was said that needed to be retracted without any awkwardness. Sometimes I was given a booth and a partner to work with, but most of the time it was in circumstances similar to the ones in the picture shown, whispering SI in the ear and then trying my best at consecutive with no access to a notebook or any equipment. Once, a strategic multilateral defence congress’ security clearance was required 2 months in advance.

  • Marylou says:

    Thank you for exposing, explaining and defending our ever more difficult profession

  • maria herminia alonso says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these true insights, as usual.

  • Catalina says:

    Hola Tony! Yo fui diplomatica por 15 años y mi último destino fue Turquía. Durante un concierto organizado por mi embajada, uno de los músicos dijo: “soy un apasionado de la cocina turca, tan apasionado que la promociono donde quiera que voy. Merezco que me paguen un sueldo por ello”… La traductora ( que no era traductora ni interprete, era filóloga) se quedó tiesa por el comentario tan altisonante y no supo que decir; allí me dí cuenta cuan difícil era su trabajo. Y también decidí cambiar de carrera y estudiar traducción. Con mucha suerte, nos veremos en Valencia este mes de septiembre! Saludos!

  • […] e interpersonali (per maggiori informazioni sulla figura dell’interprete diplomatico, si veda questo articolo di Tony […]

  • As a former English>French interpreter at the ministry of foreign affairs in the Benin republic, I am well aware of the complexity of the job and necessary skills and care to avoid diplomatic mishap.
    I therefore appreciate the way the issue is analysed to enable outsiders as well as future diplomatic interpreters have an insight in this type of interpretation.

  • Tony, what an outstanding piece! Thank you for bringing awareness to the world on what we do and how we do it.

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