Trump, Putin and Marina Gross – An Interpreter’s Dilemma
The recent controversy regarding American president Donald Trump’s private summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin has brought to the fore an interesting question: how confidential is information shared between the parties to a meeting in the presence of an interpreter. Under what conditions, if any, may the interpreter reveal the content of the conversations she translated for her client?
In this case the parties involved happen to be the presidents of the two nations with the greatest military & nuclear power on the planet, adding an interesting dimension to the question.
Since many American political leaders are clamoring for insight into what was said in that one-on-one meeting and what commitments President Trump may have made on behalf of the American government, the U.S. State Department interpreter, Marina Gross, who is the only accessible witness, and only other American present in the room, has become the focus of intense attention.
Can she share her knowledge or notes of what was said in that meeting with these officials?
To quote British actor and comedian Stephen Fry: “The short answer is, ´no´, the long answer is ´fu** no´”. The interpreter’s code of ethics requires the maintenance of strict confidentiality between interpreter and client. This relationship has been compared to the quasi-sacred “attorney-client privilege” relationship which prohibits a lawyer from divulging information shared by a client. I have even read comparisons to the absolutely sacred relationship between priest and penitent.
The requirement that interpreters sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) prior to working in any meeting or event in which sensitive information may be disclosed has become standard operating procedure. Any interpreter who works in meetings that are not open to the public has almost certainly been asked to sign such an agreement prior to participating in the event. Nonetheless, it is understood by all professional interpreters that, even in the absence of such an agreement, the information revealed in these meetings must be treated with the utmost confidentiality.
This is true for meetings in which the subject under discussion is merely commercial in nature. It is much more so for a meeting between the two leaders who control 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal.
In Article 2 of its Code of Ethics, The International Association of Conference Interpreters – AIIC clearly states:
Members of the Association shall be bound by the strictest secrecy, which must be observed towards all persons and with regard to all information disclosed in the course of the practice of the profession at any gathering not open to the public.
Members shall refrain from deriving any personal gain whatsoever from confidential information they may have acquired in the exercise of their duties as conference interpreters.
The text leaves no room for interpretation. Association members are bound by this commitment in all matters under their control.
The only defensible exception would be in a legal proceeding, in obedience to a legitimate court order.
Even in this case, it should be understood that the testimony of an interpreter may not be entirely reliable. It is actually common practice for these professionals to even destroy their notes at the end of a session, sometimes in the presence of the client, to avert any possibility that the information contained therein might fall – even accidentally – into the hands of anyone who was not a legitimate participant in the event.
The interpreter’s mental faculties, especially in the case of consecutive translations, are almost entirely focused on remembering the next phrase or statement long enough to repeat it to their client in the “target” language. This leaves little space for establishing the kind of long term memories that would enable the translator to recall details of a meeting afterwards, especially after months or years as might be the case in a legal proceeding.
The simultaneous or consecutive interpreter relies heavily on sensory memory to realize the task at hand. According to psychologists, this type of memory is poorly suited to the establishment of long term memories.
Sensory memory refers to the brief storage of sensory information. Sensory memory is a memory buffer that lasts only very briefly and then, unless it is attended to and passed on for more processing, is forgotten. The purpose of sensory memory is to give the brain some time to process the incoming sensations, and to allow us to see the world as an unbroken stream of events rather than as individual pieces.
From: Introduction to Psychology adapted edition is produced by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing through the eLearning Support Initiative. http://open.lib.umn.edu/intropsyc/chapter/8-1-memories-as-types-and-stages/
It is clear then, that for ethical as well as practical reasons; an interpreter’s commitment to confidentiality should be respected.
Marina Gross, the experienced State Department interpreter who is at the center of this maelstrom, should not be placed in the position of bearing responsibility of revealing the content of conversations that, by their very nature, were always intended to be private.Paul Brian Connolly, Conference Interpreter.
Experienced interpreter /translator, 30 years working in English & Portuguese. Extensive work in both US and Brazilian organizations equips me with a sound knowledge of the “real world” vocabulary of business, finance, taxation, IT, industrial and legal matters. Native American English acquired through upbringing, education and business experience in the United States.