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What The Interpreter's Code Of Ethics Says About Conversations In Private Meetings


What Donald Trump said to Russian President Vladimir Putin this week in Helsinki still remains a mystery since the only other American at the meeting between the two leaders was an interpreter from the State Department. Her name's Marina Gross. Democrats are now calling for her to testify on Capitol Hill about what exactly she heard. Even if she were compelled to testify, how useful would that be?

Here to help us answer that question is Barry Slaughter Olsen. He's an interpreter who has worked with the State Department. Welcome.

BARRY SLAUGHTER OLSEN: Thank you very much for having me.

CHANG: So why can't an interpreter simply tell people what was heard during a conversation he or she interpreted?

OLSEN: Because professional interpreters are bound by a strict code of ethics. And that...


OLSEN: ...Code of ethics includes secrecy, the strict secrecy of information that is referred to in meetings that go on behind closed doors.

CHANG: So it kind of operates like an attorney-client privilege.

OLSEN: Yes, that's a very good analogy. But I would add that you could also say it's similar to the kind of privileged communication that goes on between a doctor and patient.

CHANG: And this rule of ethics, it applies even if we're talking about a situation where the interpreter is interpreting a meeting that's not necessarily confidential, that's not necessarily attorney-client privilege. It doesn't matter what the situation is. The interpreter should not be disclosing the contents of the communication.

OLSEN: That is correct.

CHANG: So with that in mind, could an interpreter be legally compelled to tell what was said during a conversation where he or she acted as the interpreter?

OLSEN: You know, I am not a lawyer, but I will say that compelling an interpreter to do so in general is not a good idea.

CHANG: Why don't you think it would be a good idea?

OLSEN: Because it would undermine any confidence that people would have in interpreters. Whoever the statesmen or whoever the interlocutors may be, they have to have trust that that interpreter is not going to share the information that comes from a confidential encounter whether it is at the level of heads of state or it is in a medical clinic.

CHANG: We know that Gross was photographed with a pad of notes. Could lawmakers theoretically subpoena her notes instead of making her personally appear?

OLSEN: Again, I suppose they could subpoena those notes.

CHANG: Yeah.

OLSEN: But to be quite frank, the type of interpreting that was used in Helsinki for the presidential summit is consecutive with notes. When an interpreter is working in consecutive mode, they are operating in a mode of hyper concentration and listening actively to everything that is being said to pick up on every nuance and all of the detail of that passage. But the thing about those notes is this. The notes of an interpreter are specific to that interpreter. That note-taking system is hers and hers alone. And she couldn't hand them to me and then expect me to interpret from them. So it is in no way a stenographic record...

CHANG: Right.

OLSEN: ...Of what was said.

CHANG: Right.

OLSEN: Additionally, if you were to ask an interpreter a few hours, let alone a few days or a few weeks, give me detailed information about what happened in that meeting, and you go back and look at those notes, you'd say, well, I remember they talked about this I think.

CHANG: Right.

OLSEN: But it's not going to be some detailed report of what took place during the meeting. I think if members in Congress understood that those notes are for short-term memory when interpreting in a meeting, they would probably understand that the notes aren't going to help that much even if they're still around.

CHANG: Barry Slaughter Olsen is an interpreter and an associate professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif. He joined us via Skype. Thanks very much.

OLSEN: My pleasure, thank you.


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