Menu

Search

  |   Insights & Views

Menu

  |   Insights & Views

Search

Trump's interpreters for Putin meetings face ethical dilemma

0
comments

President Donald Trump met several times with Russian President Vladimir Putin while no other American was privy to the communication except for a State Department interpreter.

In July 2018, Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee had proposed to subpoena the interpreter and her notes to find out what was said in the meeting, but the motion was rejected by Republican committee members.

Now, reports allege that President Trump took possession of the interpreter’s notes at the end of at least one private meeting with Putin and instructed the linguist not to discuss the content of the meeting with anyone, including other administration officials.

Democrats, now in control of the U.S. House, are reconsidering a subpoena to the interpreter to learn what was said.

I teach M.A. students of translation and interpretation and work as a conference interpreter. Here’s a brief overview of the role of interpreters and the ethics of the profession regarding confidentiality.

‘Strictest secrecy’

The role of an interpreter is to facilitate communication between parties who use different languages.

Interpreters are not responsible for the content of what is said by either party. They are responsible for ensuring that everything that is said is conveyed accurately in the other language.

The code of ethics for professional conference interpreters states that they “shall be bound by the strictest secrecy, which must be observed towards all persons and with regard to all information disclosed in the course of the practice of the profession at any gathering not open to the public.”

Diplomatic interpreters are a subset of these professionals who must pass security clearances, and be mindful of diplomatic protocol and national interests. However, the ethics of confidentiality remains the same in diplomatic settings. Officials must be able to fully trust that interpreters will not reveal confidential information.

Diplomatic tradition has therefore respected the norm that interpreters should not be obliged to give testimony. I am not aware of any precedent to compel a diplomatic interpreter to testify about the substance of a meeting in which he or she was interpreted.

Taking notes

There are also practical considerations that could limit what anyone could learn from an interpreter’s notes.

Interpreter notes are systematic but vary greatly from person to person. They are designed to trigger the interpreter’s short-term memory, and provide an incomplete roadmap of what was said.

Sample of author’s interpretation notes. Laura Burian, CC BY

In some cases, the interpreter may take no notes at all for some portions of the dialogue. Or, the interpreter may be familiar enough with the subject matter that he or she only writes down items that are particularly taxing on the memory – like numbers or proper nouns. In other cases, the notes are a collection of arrows, squiggles, words and symbols that only the interpreter could decipher, and only when the echo of what was just said is reverberating in the interpreter’s short-term memory.

In other words, context matters.

Beyond this, the high focus and concentration required to faithfully convey the speaker’s message while juggling two different languages is such that recalling exactly what was said may be challenging even a few hours after a meeting is over, not to mention months later.

Given these ethical and practical challenges, compelling an interpreter to testify or provide interpretation notes may face ethical challenges and may not, in the end, prove useful.

  • ET PRO
  • Market Data

Market-moving news and views, 24 hours a day >

July 2 15:00 UTC Released

DKCurrency Reserves

Actual

449.6 Stale

Forecast

Previous

451.7 Stale

July 2 13:45 UTC Released

USISM NY Biz Conditions

Actual

50 %

Forecast

Previous

48.6 %

January 31 00:00 UTC 816411816411m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

January 31 00:00 UTC 816411816411m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

January 22 19:00 UTC 828231828231m

ARTrade Balance

Actual

Forecast

Previous

-1541 %

January 31 00:00 UTC 816411816411m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

January 22 19:00 UTC 828231828231m

ARTrade Balance

Actual

Forecast

Previous

-1541 %

January 31 00:00 UTC 816411816411m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

January 31 00:00 UTC 816411816411m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

January 31 00:00 UTC 816411816411m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

Close

Welcome to EconoTimes

Sign up for daily updates for the most important
stories unfolding in the global economy.