Diplomatic Interpreters are often seen with the Heads of State at all international forums, serving as their “alter ego” and bridge to communicate with another Head of the State. Be it an international Summit or a private one on one meeting of two Heads of State, the diplomatic interpreters play a pivotal role. They are the voice, the mouthpiece of the Heads of State, often unseen by the world.
The role of diplomatic interpreters rose into the spotlight after last week’s Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki, over which a furore arose as to what exactly was discussed in that closed door, private meeting. Only 4 people were present at that meeting: President Trump, President Putin, and two interpreters. The only other American present was the State Department Interpreter, Ms Marina Gross. Several politicians, like Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, and Representative Joe Kennedy, a Democrat, have asked that interpreter Ms Gross be called to testify before the Congress regarding what was discussed between President Trump and Putin.
The question arises whether an Interpreter can talk about what she heard during a meeting where she interpreted. As per the code of ethics that guide them, interpreters are bound by the strictest secrecy and are forbidden from sharing the privileged information. Any information they learn behind closed doors is not open to the public. Interpreters’ profession is respected only because they help to communicate most accurately and hold confidentiality as the cornerstone of their profession. I can’t imagine a Head of State able to talk freely in the presence of an interpreter if confidentiality and secrecy were feared to be compromised. It is very similar to Lawyer-Client, Doctor-Patient, and Priest-Confessor privilege. If interpreters are forced to disclose the facts they learnt at a meeting, they are betraying the trust reposed in them by the interlocutors and Heads of State. There is no precedent of an interpreter being subpoenaed to answer before the Congress and it should stay that way. We should not politicize the role of an interpreter and let them fulfil their role as true alter ego of statesmen.
(The author is a senior interpreter and interpreted for several world leaders)