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If the Interpreter Could Talk…

If the interpreter could talk…that’s what everyone is saying about Marina Gross, the State Department interpreter who was the only U.S. representative other than President Trump inside the one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation.

Interpreters operating at this level, between two heads of state, are the peak expression of our profession. To get to that point, many years have to be spent learning and working and earning the express and wholehearted trust of the diplomats and officials. These leaders and policy teams must rely on her services to accurately convey the spoken communication so critical to solving the world’s most intractable human-made dilemmas and crises.

If there was an ever an appropriate use of the word “awesome” it would be this case, as this work is an awesome responsibility and requires the utmost tact and skill set.

There is nothing easy about this job. State Department interpreters such as Ms. Gross must be trusted to perform at the highest levels of the profession, producing target language with total fidelity to the tone, meaning and contextual fabric of the source language, simultaneously without hesitation, and without missing a single thought, inference and expression.

It will come as no surprise that during the contentiousness and confusion of the recently completed Helsinki meeting, the world wants to know what Donald Trump told Vladimir Putin during their face to face private meeting. They will want to know the nuances of President Putin’s attitude, his words, and the intention of his communication.

The only problem is… outside of a Congressional subpoena, Ms. Gross position requires absolute, resolute, non-negotiable and iron-clad discretion and the utmost confidentiality. There is no wiggle room, no compromise whatsoever. State secrets heard are kept to one self until death do you part. It’s the rule, and the oath of the civil service job she is duty bound and ethically bound to uphold.

That’s why subpoenaing Ms. Gross, as some have asked for in Congress, is totally unacceptable. Ms. Gross is not a head of state, she is an employee of the U.S. State Department, and she was not retained as a note taker or transcriber, aid nor assistant to the President in anything other than her role as interpreter. It is out of protocol to personally keep any notes she might have taken, as they must be either destroyed after the meeting or given back to her client, in this case President Trump. Interpreters who work at this level employ their highest intellectual capacity to deliver accurate, correct and complete language. There is little room for subject matter retention as the natural flow of human conversation is too fast and too much concentration is required in service to message conversion that her memory may not have accurately recorded the nuances and full detail of what was spoken.

Whether you agree with the individual heads of state or despise them, it does not diminish the necessity for confidential communications between presidents. We use words to avoid using weapons, and any attempt to chill that effort, and question the neutral space provided by the linguist, through subpoena and testimony in front of Congress, in the long run, is dangerous.

Better to ask President Trump what was said, or learn from Russian media what transpired in the meeting, and please, just let the interpreter do her job. It is hard enough without the added pressure of filling in the blanks for those of us not in attendance.