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The Strange, High-Pressure Work of Presidential Interpreters

When world leaders get together, they have plenty to discuss, yet they are often operating in different languages. We get news reports of the high-profile politicians present at such meetings, but the unsung, often anonymous heroes of the session are the interpreters. They are expected to be not only highly skilled at languages, but also intuitive, trustworthy, dedicated, and knowledgable in other  areas. Harry Obst has translated for seven U.S. presidents, and tells us about the job requirements.

“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.”

Like anyone else in a sensitive meeting, an interpreter must have high security clearance. He or she will also have received all the same briefing books as the president. That’s essential so that the interpreter can understand the nuances of the information discussed and knows the vocabulary. But it also means that the interpreter can serve as a crutch for the president, catching minor factual errors or slips of the tongue.

Translators smooth out cultural differences and often are relied upon to correct what the principle has said. But woe unto the high-level translator who makes their own errors. Read about the strange world of presidential interpreters at the Atlantic.  

(Image credit: The Kremlin)


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