The interpreters, however, are career State Department staffers, who often bring years of experience to a summit. Obst said that Lyndon Johnson, who ascended to the presidency suddenly when John F. Kennedy was killed, was particularly eager to tap interpreters’ wisdom.
“Johnson would caucus with me before the meeting, and he would say, ‘Look, do you know this person? What is he like? Is he devious? Is he straightforward? Is it best to raise a subject straight on or fish around it a bit?’” Obst says.
By the time an interpreter gets into a room with the president and a foreign leader, he or she brings in more than simply past meetings. The first, essential foundation is a wide range of general knowledge. White House interpreters are provided by the Office of Language Services, which tests would-be interpreters on general knowledge.
“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.
Once in the meeting, typical protocol calls for a principal to speak, followed by an interpretation by his or her interpreter—so, for example, Trump would speak, and then his interpreter would pronounce what he said in Russian. That helps insulate the principal from factual errors, but it also helps avoid problems of idioms lost in translation. American presidents might be tempted to discuss “punting,” a football metaphor that would make little sense to a non-native English speaker; likewise, a European leader who referred to the “89th minute,” as in the final moments of a soccer game, would only confuse an American counterpart.
“The interpreter will help the principal if he wants to be helped,” Obst says. “Usually you say, ‘Mr. Secretary, did you really mean to say such and such?’ Then he has a chance to correct himself. ”
A figure like Trump, who sometimes mangles the English language and offers his own array of peculiar phrasings and usages (sad! bigly!) can present a different set of challenges for an interpreter.
“People misspeak, and some very frequently, people like Alexander Haig,” Obst said, referring to the retired general who was chief of staff to Richard Nixon and secretary of state to Ronald Reagan. “He had a very crazy knowledge of the English language. He would not say what he really meant to say.”