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Why Interpreters Are Lousy Witnesses

Why Interpreters Are Lousy Witnesses

Leer/Escuchar la Nota en español.

Us, interpreters, are a rare breed. We walk all corners of the globe and work in a myriad of scenarios and situations.

Diplomatic Interpreters

Due to the nature of our work, diplomatic interpreters are, perhaps, the most discreet of all interpreters. These last few weeks, however, we have been forced into the spotlight by some who not only seem to ignore the nature of our work but, more worryingly, that of international relations.

Often, most of what is said and written about interpreting focuses on our skills and how to obtain and achieve them. A lot is also often said about confidentiality and professional conduct. However, trust and its importance seem to be a less discussed matter.


My clients are usually powerful people; experts in their fields used to walking with their heads high and to dictating the terms and the way things get done in their realms – they are also usually men. Yet, there they are, standing in front of this 5.05 feet tall female interpreter on whom they depend to communicate, get their message across, and achieve their goals. I think it would be fair to say (and understandable, too) that they do not welcome this state of temporary vulnerability with open arms.

As a diplomatic interpreter, I am fully aware of the need to gain my clients’ trust and reassure them that their message is going to be honoured and conveyed in its full power, intention, nuance, and meaning. High-level diplomatic interpreters are not listed in Craigslist or the classified ads and I know my clients do not find me through a random Google search. We are vetted, tested, and have proven our worth. When I greet a client for the first time I know that I am doing so thanks to trust transfer, as they trust their team and their team trusts me or the person who recommended me or my previous work for their organisation, and so on.

I also know that I have but a few minutes to earn the universal trust signal: seeing everybody in the room lean back against the back of their chairs as I start interpreting and working my magic.

Let’s suppose for a moment that the law puts its foot down and does away with all and any Code of Ethics and Professional Behaviour interpreters are bound by and finds a way around the non-disclosure agreements we so often sign: What would happen if every single interpreter became a potential snitch? How could we ever win our clients’ trust? How could we even begin to do our job? And how, please how, could international relations continue to even exist?


Ironically, even if we were summoned to testify and wanted to help, we would not be able to, as we simply would not remember.

This is what the US Senators seem to fail to understand: the very nature of what interpreters do when we interpret.

(I am going to be quite simplistic here so, please, bear with me.)

When I am interpreting simultaneously – that is in a conference or when whispering into a head of state’s ear – my brain, much like a computer, combines two levels of processing. What is said and I translate remains at a more superficial level, barely scraping the surface of my brain while, in processing the message and translating it, I retrieve knowledge and information from the depths of my brain (a.k.a., what I have studied in preparation, general knowledge accumulated during the years, read on the papers, and more). This means that the message, what is actually being said, is rarely saved in my brain and, therefore, cannot be retrieved later on. Let us just say that it is temporarily stored in my RAM memory and that it is gone once I clear my cache or turn my brain off when I sleep (my brain is never actually off but that is another story).

I read somewhere this week that these US Senators also wanted access to Ms Gross’s notes. Do they even know what interpreters’ notes look like and how they work?

Interpreting note-taking is not minute taking or transcribing. An interpreter’s notes are an aid and a trigger to his or her memory and not a direct transcription of the original message. Again, the bulk of the information is temporarily committed to the interpreter’s RAM and is gone and forgotten a few minutes later. We remember the gist of what was discussed or the most random detail but once we utter the message in the opposite language, it is gone, it is no longer ours. The truth is, it never was.

Why not

Summoning interpreters and forcing them to testify is not only dangerous but also (I dare say) useless.

Should they go ahead and succeed with their request, the US Senators would be setting a terrible precedent, endangering an entire profession that pursues no other goal than helping to bring down barriers, build stronger bonds, and help people to communicate as well as the entire diplomatic system. The worst part is that it will probably be all for nothing as, most likely, Mr. Trump’s interpreter will not be able to remember what was said, at least not with the detail and precision the US Senators are probably hoping for.

It is true diplomatic interpreters work in the shadows. Our clothes and physical appearance are as discreet as our demeanour and as serious as our professionalism. We are privy to history in the making – sometimes, we are privy to lots of boring stuff, too. We earn the trust of those who do not always trust easily and we do our best (and sometimes more) to serve them, their message, and the people they represent well.

We are not the protagonists, but we do keep the ball rolling.

Let us not drop it.

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CeciliaĀ Lipovsek
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Iā€™m a diplomatic interpreter, author, British-LatAm communications expert, and the creator of the Slot and Flow Systemsā„¢. My commitment to you is that Iā€™ll always keep it simple and practical.