Don’t Shoot the Translator

by Stephen Bryen

Coleman Raphael, who died in Silver Spring Maryland April 16, 2016 at the age of 90, was a tremendously successful business and corporate leader as well as an author and lecturer. When he was at Republic Aviation he played an important role in designing the heat shield for the Apollo space vehicle.  When he joined Atlantic Research Group he grew the company from 300 employees and $17 million in revenue to 6,000 employees and revenues of $400 million.  After he retired as CEO and Chairman of Atlantic Research he became dean of George Mason University’s School of Business Administration and he went to China, sent there by the Department of Commerce to give lectures in China on American capitalism.   

Dean Raphael told me a story once that stuck in my mind.  Obviously, Raphael going to China was a big deal because his aerospace and defense background was extremely attractive to the Chinese.  Far less attractive, if attractive is the right word were Raphael’s views on American capitalism (although China became a state-backed quasi-capitalistic country and showed how a Communist state could be successful, unlike the Soviet Union which practiced extreme isolationism and never could get it right).  One day, when Raphael was patiently lecturing students at a Chinese university, he gave a rather long and a bit loving soliloquy on the virtues of capitalism.  “I talked for maybe forty minutes,” Raphael told me, “and then the translator put his remarks into Chinese.  But instead of 40 minutes, the translator wrapped it up in two or three minutes.  How was this possible,” Raphael wondered?  He asked the translator.  The translator replied: “Well, I said you gave the students a lecture on American capitalism.  But I told them that while you went on and on, there was no reason to go into details because we wouldn’t have believed any of it anyway.” 

Translators are always in a critical position in high level negotiations.  They have to listen and rapidly feed back in a different language exactly what was said.  The chance for error is very great, but the top translators seem to do their job in the background and do it well.  

In the latest talks in Helsinki, both President Trump and President Putin had their translators behind them.  Mr. Putin does speak a little English, but not enough for a sensitive negotiation (he sings some Fats Domino songs).  Mr. Trump is not known to speak any Russian.  But an effective translator can smooth over the bumps and create what might seem almost a natural dialogue.

Translators sit in a very sensitive position.  They are operating in highly confidential environments if the negotiations are in private; even when they do their work in public they must be careful and responsible.  All diplomats understand just how valuable good translators are, and how they respect and honor the responsibilities they have.  In fact their work is so important that the United Nations marks International Translation Day every year to honor the work of language professionals.  The UN even passed a Resolution the United Nations unanimously adopted  recognizing the role of professional translation in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development.

Translators should never be part of the policy process or be asked to provide information about anything they heard or did in a confidential setting.  It is this rule that some Members of Congress explicitly attempted to violate by trying to subpoena President Trump’s translator, Marina Gross, a longtime and respected civil servant.  There is no precedent for Congress to order a translator to appear.

According to CNN, “The impetus to call Gross to testify began with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire. “I’m calling for a hearing with the U.S. interpreter who was present during President Trump’s meeting with Putin to uncover what they discussed privately. This interpreter can help determine what @POTUS shared/promised Putin on our behalf,” Shaheen tweeted. 

Shaheen and her colleagues lost.  On Thursday, July 19 the Republican majority on the Senate Intelligence Committee voted down the motion by some Democrats to subpoena Gross.

There are both technical and policy issues associated with the attempted subpoena by Democratic Senators.  

Firstly, there is no precedent to subpoena a professional translator who usually is either a full time civil servant or, when one is not available a contract employee of the Department of State (or sometimes other government agencies).  Were any subpoena to be allowed, then translators would be full time Congressional witnesses which, if anything would have a chilling effect on the profession.  Demanding they testify is nothing more, or less than persecution.

Secondly, translators often make brief notes to help them translate back what was heard.  The notes are not verbatim, usually they are prompts and phrases and sequences to help the translator cover a statement accurately.  Often policy makers don’t pause speaking to help the translator, making the job especially challenging.  Typically the notes, such as they are do not contain enough information to reconstruct statements or arguments accurately at a future time.  In short, the notes of a translator have very little value, and the Congressional attempt to have the subpoena cover a translator’s notes has to have been a furtive and foolish idea.

Thirdly, the translator operates under extreme confidentiality if working at the policy level.  

Fourthly, translators often work for many different leaders and different administrations.  Their credibility and value is bound up in their ability to keep secrets and not to disclose anything they may have heard.  Otherwise they would not be useful and would not be trusted.

It is a terrible mistake to try and undermine the long tradition of professional translators, as some Senate Democrats have just done.  We don’t want to shoot the translators, do we?