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What Translators Can Learn from Presidential Interpreters

July 25, 2017

          The Atlantic recently had a fascinating article about a book called White House Interpreter by former U.S. presidential interpreter Harry Obst, who writes about the uniquely difficult and high-stakes task of presidential interpreters. 


          Even though interpretation involves some very different skills than translation, learning something about what they do inspired me to think about my own craft as a translator.


In this light, here are some thoughts that might be helpful for new translators or important reminders for experienced ones:


1. Knowledge of your languages is only the beginning


          Obst tells us that his job required, "an incredible arsenal of general knowledge," to such an extent that "If you don’t know how an airplane flies, if you don’t know how a nuclear reactor works, you’re going to make mistakes." Thankfully, translation work (as opposed to interpretation) usually allows time for us to look up information we do not already know, but it is very important that we have a solid understanding of our subject matter.

          For instance, I was reading an article which mentioned the Italian word infamante, which can be translated as disgraceful, scandalous, or libelous. If a translator approaches such a text using the lens of conversational English they may be strongly inclined to choose one of the former two based on the context, but within a legal document (or a document that focuses on legal issues) libelous is actually the appropriate word. 


2. Always ask yourself what the client meant, not just what they said (or wrote)


          Obst wrote that one U.S. secretary of state in particular “had a very crazy knowledge of the English language. He would not say what he really meant to say.” This represents, for me, an ongoing challenge with translation; a challenge which makes the job extremely interesting. We as translators are constantly trying to get at the exact meaning of what our clients write (rather than the mere words) by using our creativity to re-word sentences so that they convey this deeper meaning accurately in the target language, but we also do not want to fall into the trap of unintentionally distorting the author's intended meaning just because she did not word something the way we would have.

          So to what extent do we "correct" our clients? According to this presidential interpreter: “'The interpreter will help the principal if he wants to be helped',” Obst says. “'Usually you say, Mr. Secretary, did you really mean to say such and such? Then he has a chance to correct himself'. ” Indeed, if the meaning of a certain sentence of concept is not clear, it is a good idea to ask. I have not yet experienced a client who has gotten upset with me for asking a question every once in a while about their text. Seeing as most of my clients are academics, I suspect they would be upset if I failed to ask.


3. It is important to maintain a willingness to learn from others


          Obst tells us that such high-level interpretation is unforgiving work and that an interpreter who makes a serious gaffe will not last long, but thankfully, there are other professionals who are willing to help." Obst began working as an interpreter after just six months of training, and was helped out by the kindness of his more experienced counterparts. 'If I would make a minor mistake, they would just not react at all, because it was not important. If I would make a serious substantive mistake, they would stare at me and raise their eyebrows..."'

          Sometimes we are tempted to give in to our pride and dismiss advice because we think that taking advice means that we aren't skilled at our craft. The above story is a good reminder that even those who serve the highest offices in the world still learn new things while on the job. In fact, Obst likely would have missed out on the opportunity to translate for three additional U.S. presidents if he had failed in this instance to listen to more experienced interpreters.


          Translating and interpreting for world leaders is delicate and exceptionally challenging work. Thinking about how these professionals remain at the top of their field can also help us do our best work.



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