Ahead of President Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday, some of the White House’s critics lamented the lack of experience among the Americans in the meeting. The group included was extremely small—just six people, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and interpreters. Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO under Barack Obama, tweeted, “Total government experience in the room?
Russia: 80+ years US: Less than 12 months.”
But Daalder overlooked one essential part of the U.S. team: the interpreter.
In any meeting with a foreign leader, the usually anonymous figures who facilitate communication aren’t just there to mechanically transfer words between languages. Interpreters can also function as failsafes, fact-checkers, and even as confidants—especially for inexperienced presidents like Trump.
“When you come in as a new president, you’re sometimes dealing with a leader who’s been in office for 10 or 20 years, who has been visited by other American presidents before,” says Harry Obst, who translated for seven U.S. presidents. Obst, a German native who eventually led the State Department’s Office of Language Services, is the author of a book about his own experiences and the art of interpretation.
The interpreters, however, are career State Department staffers, who often bring years of experience to a summit. Obst said that Lyndon Johnson, who ascended to the presidency suddenly when John F. Kennedy was killed, was particularly eager to tap interpreters’ wisdom.
“Johnson would caucus with me before the meeting, and he would say, ‘Look, do you know this person? What is he like? Is he devious? Is he straightforward? Is it best to raise a subject straight on or fish around it a bit?’” Obst says.
By the time an interpreter gets into a room with the president and a foreign leader, he or she brings in more than simply past meetings. The first, essential foundation is a wide range of general knowledge. White House interpreters are provided by the Office of Language Services, which tests would-be interpreters on general knowledge.
“To work at the very top, you have to have an incredible arsenal of general knowledge, because the president will get into every damn topic you can imagine, from nuclear submarines to agriculture to treaty problems to labor problems to God knows what, jellyfish in the sea,” Obst says. “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.”
One reason the Putin-Trump meeting was limited to such a small group was that the Trump team was reportedly concerned about the possibility for leaks, which have bedeviled this administration more than perhaps any other. The idea of limiting meeting sizes in order to control information tightly is not entirely new.
Obst recalls that Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who distrusted the State Department and had a rocky relationship with Secretary William Rogers, sometimes kept U.S. interpreters out of meetings, for fear that they would brief Rogers on what had been discussed. (This also meant that Obst sometimes found himself assisting Rogers in conversations with foreign leaders on topics about which the White House had kept him in the dark.)
But Obst said the Trump administration need not worry that the linguist will speak out about what occurred between Trump and Putin. “Our top interpreters will never reveal anything to anyone to anybody who was not a participant,” Obst says. If so, he or she might be the only staffer who isn’t leaking.
Read more here: The Third Men: The Strange, High-Pressure Work of Presidential Interpreters