When Interpreters Get Caught Up in Politics By James Bruno
In late 2000, Bill and Hillary Clinton paid a state visit to Vietnam, the first for a U.S. president to that country since unification. I was political counselor at our new embassy. All embassy staff had a role in the visit, which was planned minute-by-minute down to the smallest detail many weeks in advance. But the planners made one HUGE screw-up. The State Department, which provides official interpreters for presidential visits, had no certified Vietnamese language interpreters; there was no need in the vacuum of relations following the fall of Saigon in 1975. State's Office of Language Services scrambled to recruit a Vietnamese-American whose only interpretation experience was at Arlington County's traffic court. Poor fellow was not up to the job of interpreting high policy discussions between heads of state. We packed him off on the next flight back to D.C. and managed to quickly enlist an American locally who was professionally fluent in Vietnamese to take his place. The visit, off to a rocky start, turned out to be a HUGE success - in no small part due to the high caliber of the linguists, Vietnamese and American, doing the interpretation.
The point is that when the stakes of discussions are high, as between nations' leaders, the language interpretation has to be top shelf. Just one misinterpretation on a nuanced point can lead to embarrassment or worse, as happened when Jimmy Carter's interpreter during his 1977 visit to Poland translated "I wish to know the desires of the Polish people for the future" to "I am happy to grasp at Poland's private parts." The Polish press rendered the faux-pas to a less graphic, "I want to have carnal knowledge of the Polish people." Still a disaster.
Which gets us to Marina Gross, President Trump's State Department-provided interpreter for his July 2018 summit meeting with Vladimir Putin in Hamburg. Gross is a veteran English-Russian interpreter, as good as they come. Ms. Gross has gotten caught up in the escalating political controversy enveloping Trump over whether he is under Putin's thumb. In each of his meetings with the Russian president, Trump has excluded U.S. officials, even notetakers. Not only that, he has gone to "extraordinary lengths" to hide the substance of these talks, including confiscating interpreters' notes, reports the Washington Post. He further instructed her not to reveal the substance of his discussions with Putin to anybody in the U.S. government. As suspicions grow that the president of the United States is a Manchurian Candidate of Moscow, questions arise as to why all the secrecy. Is Trump taking orders from his KGB case officer? Hatching plots with Putin to undermine our republic? With no written, or even oral, record of the meetings, the new Democratic majority in the House is making noises to subpoena poor Ms. Gross.
There's an unwritten rule of diplomacy: language interpreters are off limits when politics heat up. After all, the interpreters job is merely to process language. They are most comfortable blending into the woodwork. This is not to say that officials cannot ask an interpreter for some clarification on nuance following a meeting. We diplomats did this often when the notetakers were not exactly clear on a certain point or points. Often, we are fluent ourselves in the relevant language, but aren't sure whether our comprehension of an idiom or fine policy point was on the mark. The interpreter in the meeting would help us, consulting his or her notes.
Here's an unsurprising insider's insight on interpretation. Interpreters customarily polish their notes after meetings and retain them. Diplomats often act as pinch-hitter interpreters overseas for visiting congress people and executive branch officials. I was no exception, having had to interpret in several languages over the years. It's an exhausting, mentally draining effort. We hold professional interpreters in awe. I, as did many of my colleagues, polished my notes post-meeting and rendered them into official reports. Occasionally, when my notes got damaged by spilt coffee or were accidentally dumped into the classified shredder, I would sit down and reconstitute the official exchanges. And I retained my notes for potential future reference. Professional interpreters do this as a matter of course.
So, while I don't know Marina Gross, I assume she reconstituted the notes and filed them away, if for no other reason than to protect herself. Furthermore, I'll go out on a limb and posit that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators have already debriefed her. Next up are possible subpoenas to appear before Hill committees and testify under oath on that which was exchanged between Trump and Putin. One question I have is whether Trump dismissed her at any point and relied solely on Putin's interpreter.
Poor Marina Gross is caught in the political cross-fire. But compelling her to divulge what she knows is warranted given the growing suspicions over Mr. Trump's true loyalties. In this case, the interpreter should not be off limits. The stakes are too high.
James Bruno (@JamesLBruno) served as a diplomat with the U.S. State Department for 23 years and is currently a member of the Diplomatic Readiness Reserve. An author and journalist, Bruno has been featured on CNN, NBC’s Today Show, Fox News, Sirius XM Radio, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, and other national and international media.