This must be a priority to all interpreters worldwide.

June 8, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:


September 11 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks in the United States that shook up the world and ushered an era of war and armed conflicts in several regions of the world. This year the date will mark the end of NATO’s military occupation of Afghanistan. The departure of the armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands closes a sad chapter of the 21 Century which lasted twenty years; it also shows a vow of confidence in the Afghan authorities, expected to govern the war-torn country on their own (with minimal foreign support) and unfortunately, simultaneously it opens the door for the Taliban to return to its fanatic, inhumane practices, bringing back the terror suffered by the people of Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.


These conflict zone and military interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers are our colleagues. They aided Western armed forces in military operations risking (and often losing) their own lives; they helped NATO forces and international organizations in their efforts to bring peace to cities and villages throughout the country; translated intelligence-packed documents and everyday paperwork; provided language support to contractors in charge of developing infrastructure and construction works that benefitted many soldiers, marines, and civilians (some your family members perhaps); they accompanied Western governments and international organizations’ representatives during campaigns to improve the health, education, administration of justice, and welfare of millions of Afghan citizens. They did the same work you do back in your countries. They just did it under death threats while watching how fellow interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Taliban.


The Taliban has clarified it: they will retaliate against our colleagues after the West leaves on September 11. They will be declared “traitors” and many will be executed. This is not new. It has happened throughout history. Interpreters and translators have been targeted for killing in every war, everywhere. Even when they never held a weapon, even when they did not share ancestry or ethnicity with their victimizers. Even today, after 500 years, many Mexicans refer to Malintzin, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, as a traitor, and they use the term “malinchismo” (Malintzin-like) to describe a treasonous act. This, even though Malintzin was not of Aztec descent, and her own people were enslaved and oppressed by the Aztecs. Fortunately for Malintzin, Cortés won the armed conflict and was never abandoned by the victorious Spanish empire, even after the war ended.


Some question the motivation that drove Afghan interpreters, translators and cultural brokers to work with the West. Undeniably some did it because they needed the income to provide for their families devastated by the years of Taliban rule; others joined because of the adventure, and even hoping to move to the West at some point; others did it because they were tired of the injustices committed by Taliban authorities, they wanted to end discriminatory practices affecting their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters; others were angry with the way their religious beliefs were hijacked and distorted by those in power, and frankly, others did it because their sympathies were with the West. It does not matter; motivation aside, these courageous men and women risked their lives and their families’ to provide a service needed to protect our friends, neighbors, and family members deployed in Afghanistan. They provided their services knowing of this tremendous danger because the West, our governments, promised them protection. They worked understanding that at some point, if they were still alive, when the Allied Forces left Afghanistan they would take them, and their families, with them. This counts. We have to see them as fellow humans.


Some of these conflict zone colleagues have made it to the West, very few, and it has not been easy. Red tape, political posturing, policy changes, and lack of interest, have made it a nightmare, and have caused many dead colleagues, killed while waiting for a piece of paper, or an interview, or a policy change. If not for the pressure exercised by civil society, many more would have died. It is thanks to the efforts of some organizations, especially thanks to Red T and its allies, and the drive and inspiration of its leader (my admired) Maya Hess, that governments have acted. Most NATO members are currently planning and processing the evacuation of many of these interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families. That is great, but it is not enough. Some are slipping through the cracks. And they are running out of time. September 11 is less than 100 days away and there is much to be done; so much, that some of us fear many colleagues will be left behind.


This can be done. There is precedent. The United States did it in Vietnam on April 30, 1975 with the “Saigon Airlift.” Just like now, many Vietnamese who helped the American government and contractors were evacuated and taken to Guam, a United States Territory, for processing. A similar action could take place. Instead of living them behind, and risking a travesty of justice, questionable individuals could be transferred out of Afghanistan for processing. Those cleared shall be admitted to the Western nation they worked with, and those rejected, because the possibility of infiltration exists, shall be dealt with according to the law.


Time is running out and not one of us can afford to be a spectator. We must support our colleagues. If you are or were in the military you know how important these individuals were to your safety and success; if you have a friend, neighbor, or family member who was or is in the military, consider that perhaps your loved one came back because of one interpreter, translator, or cultural broker; If you, a family member, or a friend work for a contractor in Afghanistan, think that maybe your friend or relative had a job that allowed them to feed their families because of the work of a conflict zone linguist. Contact your president or prime minister; your secretary of defense; your legislative leaders, your private sector, and tell them about these folks; ask them to write to their representatives. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper, share this information with war veterans’ organizations in your area. We should all participate. It will take a few minutes of your life, and you will be helping to save lives and defend our profession. Every year, Every September 11 we remember those who died because of a despicable act of terror. On the 20th Anniversary of this day of remembrance let’s not forget our fellow interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers who helped us for twenty years.

We must come together as a profession on this issue.

September 17, 2018 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Imagine having to support a family when you are unemployed, poor, desperate, living in a country torn by war, ruled by a despot.  Then one day, somebody tells you that, because you speak a foreign language, you can become an interpreter for a foreign army. You are told that you will be paid for that service, and after the war, this foreign government will take you and your family to their country where you will be safe from retaliation, and will live a better life. Those of us living in a western nation cannot even imagine that situation, much less the ray of hope it means to many humans who live in that reality. This is the story, and the dilemma, of a conflict-zone interpreter.

You just noticed that today’s post is about interpreters in conflict zones. Please do not go away! I know most of you access this blog to read and debate topics related to conference, court, healthcare or community interpreting. Today please read this post from beginning to end, show your determination to defend the profession, and do something that will make you feel good as a human.

Throughout history, explorers, conquerors, traders, religious missionaries, and all others who found themselves in a foreign land where they did not understand the local language have used interpreters to accomplish their mission. Often, these interpreters have been local individuals who spoke both, the foreign and domestic languages, and with no formal training, but armed with their natural skills, and some powerful motivation, provided their able services even when it meant risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones. From Malintzin to Squanto, Boubou Penda to Luis de Torres, these interpreters, our colleagues, have contributed to the history of civilization providing a bridge that made communication possible when peoples did not speak the same language.

These interpreters have been essential in all armed conflicts: invasions, liberations, occupations, and peace negotiations. Many in recent history, like the Navajo Code-Talkers who serve the United States armed forces during World War II. Others, anonymously participating in conflict zones like Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, and the Bosnian War.

Western nations have benefited, and still do, of the services of interpreters in conflict zones who assist military forces and civilian contractors in places like Africa and the Middle East.

From the start of the war in Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, western nations participating in those conflicts scouted those two countries looking for local women and men who spoke the local language and that of the western country. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, and others, recruited bilingual individuals, often with a professional education background (doctors, teachers, engineers) who had no employment due to the armed conflict or because of their political opinions, ethnic group, or religious beliefs. Some had openly opposed the local regimes and were personae non gratae in the eyes of the despot in charge of government, others quietly disagreed with the way their countries were governed, afraid to say anything the authorities could perceive as treacherous. Others’ sole motivation was to feed their families.

All these courageous humans knew what they were risking by helping the West. Besides the tremendous danger of being in a theater of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan where they could be killed during a fire exchange, and ambush, or by an improvised explosive device (IED), they knew the consequences if caught. Their execution, and that of their immediate family members was a reality they faced every day the worked with the foreign armed forces and independent defense contractors in their countries.  These were (and are) brave and courageous individuals. They also knew that all armed conflicts have a beginning and an end. They recognized the dangers they would face after the foreign troops left their countries. They knew their families, even if not involved in the armed conflict, would face the same consequences. To stay behind after the Western armed forces left would be a death sentence.

The United States and all of its allies were aware of this reality. They knew the only way to recruit much needed interpreters and translators was promising they would not be left behind. These conflict zone interpreters got assurances from the western governments they served that when the time to withdraw their troops came, they, and their immediate families would be taken to their countries to start a new life free from death threats and other retaliatory actions. In other words: conflict zone interpreters agreed to provide their services and the western nations promised they would take them to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, and all other countries to use interpreting services for military and civilian personnel.  As we know, the troops withdrew from these countries, but many interpreters continue to wait for an entry visa to the country that promised to take them. Interpreters have been admitted to these western countries, but it has been a fraction. Many of those who have moved to their new countries endured a lengthy and cumbersome process. During this time, as expected, many conflict zones interpreters, and their family members, have been executed as traitors back home while waiting for a visa.

These interpreters, our colleagues, did their part, they rendered the service facing tremendous risk and unimaginable working conditions. They were essential to accomplish a mission; through their work they saved many western and local lives.  The West has not honored its word.

This is not a political post, and I am not arguing for or against the admission of refugees in any country. I understand there are very solid arguments for and against admitting refugees. I am not endorsing or condemning the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq either. Solely this post invites you all, interpreters and translators worldwide, regardless of your political persuasion, religious beliefs, or immigration stands, to join to protect the profession by supporting our conflict zone colleagues, just like attorneys help each other, as Marines leave no one behind. We need to raise our voice and tell the governments of those western nations who made a promise to these interpreters when they needed them, to walk the walk and deliver. We need them to know that we know, and we need to push for an expedient visa issuance system for these colleagues. Countries who break promises look bad and lose credibility. Interpreters who believed their promise continue to die while government authorities drag their feet motivated by politics instead of integrity.

Through my work as a civilian interpreter with the armed forces and defense contractors, and as an interpreter trainer, I have met several military and conflict zone interpreters who have served in different places. I have heard from them some horror stories of killings, kidnappings, rapes, and beatings. I have gotten to know many as friends and colleagues. I have met their families. I have also heard the tales of those less-fortunate still risking their lives while they wait for an answer from the West.

I also recognize the amazing, tireless, work of Red T, its compassionate and courageous CEO Maya Hess who I have the privilege to know personally, and the professional associations that support its efforts and share its values: The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) The International Federation of Translators (FIT) and many of its member organizations; The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI); Critical Link International, The International Council for the Development of Community Interpreting (CLI); and the World Association for Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI). Some time ago during the IAPTI Congress in Bordeaux France, I had the opportunity to hear Maya’s passionate description of their efforts to raise awareness and to get a United Nations declaration of legal and physical protection for translators and interpreters in conflict zones. On that occasion, she was joined by another fighter for protecting these colleagues: Linda Fitchett, Chair, Conflict Zone Group, AIIC. Just this Spring I had the opportunity to hear Maya once again, this time in Zaragoza Spain during ASETRAD Congress where she spoke before a big crowd of interpreters and translators, and was joined by some conflict zone interpreters for a round table discussion. On that occasion, ASETRAD conferred honorary membership to Red T. To learn more about Red T and to support their campaigns, please visit: www.red-t.org

My motivation to write this post at this time has to do with the Congressional elections in the United States this November. On November 6, Americans will vote to elect one third of the members of the U.S. Senate (according to the U.S. Constitution, the Senate renews its membership one-third at a time every two years) and for all the members of the House of Representatives. Political campaigns just started last week and all candidates will visit your hometown, attend townhall meetings, debate their opponents, pay attention to your phone calls, and read your mail.

This is the time to tell your senators and representatives running for office that as a professional interpreter or translator, and as an American who values your country’s word and promises, that you want them to pass an increase on Special Immigrant Visa numbers (SIV) for conflict zone interpreters and their families, and to expedite the visa processing times, at least to comply with the nine-month limit in the books which has not been observed. During the last 2 years the number of SIV approvals has declined and the process has seen considerable delays. The official argument is the security background checks. It is understandable and desirable that the government carefully review case by case, but it is also necessary that authorities consider previous background checks and past performance. Remember, these interpreters already worked with members of the U.S. Armed Forces and risked their lives to do their job. Please call the candidates’ campaign headquarters, your Senate and Congressional Offices back home and in Washington, D.C., and support our colleagues. I guarantee you will feel better afterwards.

Regardless of where you live, contact your U.S. Representative. Remember: They are all up for reelection. Please contact your Senate candidates if you live in these States:

Arizona

California

Connecticut

Delaware

Florida

Hawaii

Indiana,

Maine,

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Montana

Nebraska

Nevada

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Dakota

Ohio,

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Vermont

Virginia,

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming

To contact the U.S. House of Representatives, go to https://www.house.gov/representatives

To contact the U.S. Senate, visit: https://www.senate.gov/reference/

If you do not leave in the United States, please contact the office of your President, Prime Minister, or Head of Government. You can also visit Red T to sign the petitions.

Remembering that no political debate will be allowed, I now invite you to share with you your experiences as a conflict zone interpreter, or your ideas on how to press Congress and foreign governments to live up to their promise to our colleagues: the conflict zone interpreters.

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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