They point to the code of ethics that binds their profession: Interpreters are “bound by the strictest secrecy” toward anyone and any information disclosed in an environment not open to the public.
“I hope this will remain just a desire expressed by some congressmen,” said Yuliya Tsaplina, 45, a freelance Russian interpreter based in Paris, who said the demands from American lawmakers had ignited heated debate and concern among several of her international colleagues. “We are only as valuable as we can interpret faithfully, accurately, and keep things in confidence. It will essentially destroy all trust in our profession.”
A government official with knowledge of current interpreting practices, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that even in an interpreter’s personal lexicon — symbols, doodles and words used to recall a thought or idea — the meaning can evolve from day to day. This makes it difficult for interpreters to recall chunks of thought. In addition, many interpreters often destroy their notes if a security official has not already requested them after highly classified conversations.
“They go into the garbage bin pretty immediately,” Ms. Tsaplina said of her notes. “Because they’re useless.”
The official said that the calls by Capitol Hill for Ms. Gross’s testimony were shortsighted on behalf of the lawmakers, who frequently use interpreters for their own private meetings. The State Department currently has 12 staff interpreters in Arabic, French, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian and 16 staff translators — who translate the written word — in Arabic, Russian, and Ukrainian, a State Department official said. The department also has three language specialist positions in Bulgarian and Polish, and often supplements staff with contracted interpreters.
Ms. van Reigersberg said that in her experience interpreting in Spanish, she was joined in one-on-one meetings or phone calls by an official note taker or a top security official. If she received permission by the official she was interpreting for, she said, she would often provide a summary to another official that could be corroborated by the note taker. The challenge came, she said, from recalling the big picture of the conversation after relying on short-term memory to interpret.
“Do you really believe a person who has worked that hard, that intensely in that sort of way for so long, can really remember every detail of what she has done?” she said. “You’re listening, you’re writing, you’re figuring out how to render it in the other language, you’re repeating it.”