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Known and respected worldwide, the Middlebury Institute Translation and Interpretation programs prepare you for international careers in translation and interpretation.

Laura Burian on Ethics and Challenges of Diplomatic Interpreting

The recent summit between President Trump and Russian President Putin has put the official diplomatic interpreter in an unusual spotlight. We asked Laura Burian MATI ’95, experienced diplomatic interpreter and longtime member of our translation and interpretation faculty, to explain the role of the interpreter in situations like this.

Translation vs. Interpretation?

A good question, since we've been hearing a lot of news reports that seem to confuse them. Translation is when you take something from one language to another in the written word and interpretation is spoken.

What can the interpreter tell us?

You are bound by a canon of ethics for interpreters in general and then more specifically when you're a diplomatic interpreter there's a lot of laws, in fact, that will prevent you from speaking out about whatever transpired in the room. It's typically if you are, for instance, for the US Department of State, if you're a diplomatic interpreter, that means that you have a Top Secret security clearance, and you treat every interaction that you interpret for as Top Secret.

Any exceptions?

If something has been made public record, I suppose you could confirm, yes, that is what the public record says, but it's not your story to tell.

What about contradicting public record?

I've never seen it happen. I know the reason we're talking about this is because of recent calls for the interpreter for Trump and the meeting with Putin to come out to Congress and speak. I don't know if she can be compelled to do so. It will take some legal investigation to figure out even if that's possible. And I think that's why there's a bit of a delay and they're trying to figure out even if they can ask for that.

How accurate are interpreter notes?

Interpreters take notes that are very much a shorthand that is to be used in the moment. Often the utterances are well under a minute in these kinds of back and forth discussions, and so you may or may not take any notes at all in the moment. If you do take notes at all for a longer utterance, you write down just what you need to remember it briefly. And so you can't necessarily go back to your notes or even to your memory and recall, with great accuracy, everything that was said in the past. It's in the moment that your notes are highly accurate.

Have you ever been asked?

Yes. And the instructions that I've followed, you know, if you're working for the Ambassador and you are in the room and the Ambassador's assistant is not in the room. And then you come out of the room and the Ambassador's assistant says, can you tell me what happened? The answer is always no. There may be a reason why that person was not in the room. You don't know all of the ins and outs of it. It's not your judgement call to make, so it's just always, I can't remember, if they really press you.

You can pursue a Master of Arts in Translation, a Master of Arts in Translation and Interpretation, or a Master of Arts in Conference Interpretation. These two-year, 60-credit programs include core course work in translation and interpretation practice, localization tools and technologies, and professional development and career skills. Each degree includes a practicum for students to engage in authentic translation and interpretation experiences, often working with local community partners. A thesis option is available for those interested in pursuing an extended translation project. Students often pursue internships during the summer between their first and second years. Language-specific course work, working both in and out of your languages, helps to develop your skills.

Language Pairs

Students entering any of the programs choose to focus on one (or two) of the following languages, all paired with English. Each program has skill-based and language-specific courses, experienced faculty, and extensive access to internship and employment opportunities.

A, B, and C Languages

Your A language is typically the language that you grew up with and were educated in during school. This is the language and culture that you feel most familiar with and can understand and speak with fluency, cultural awareness, understanding of nuances, and grammatical accuracy.

Your B language is the language that you feel almost as proficient in as you do your A language. You typically have both substantial academic and in-country experience with this language. You understand its nuances and cultural references and can use it almost as fluently and expertly as your A language. Most translators and interpreters will listen/read in their B language as they interpret/translate into their A language, but many others will also work bidirectionally; that is, they will also listen/read in their A language and interpret/translate into their B language.

Your C language is considered a “passive” language—the language that you understand at the level of your A and/or B language, but that you will only listen to/read in order to interpret/translate into your A/B language. You will not typically translate or interpret into your C language. Many translators and interpreters add C languages to their repertoire throughout their professional lives. Pursuing a C language is only available in the Translation program and the Conference Interpretation program.  

  • C language is required for the Conference Interpretation degree in French or Spanish.  
  • C language is highly recommended for the Conference Interpretation degrees in Russian and German, as most professional positions in these languages will require a third language.

Careers and Internships

The Institute has established partnerships with organizations around the world, providing Translation and Interpretation students with summer internships and postgraduate opportunities:

  • United Nations Institute for Training and Research (Geneva, Switzerland)

  • World Intellectual Property Organization (Geneva, Switzerland)

  • United Nations (New York, NY)

  • Stanford Hospitals and Clinics (Stanford, CA)

  • Office of Language Services, U.S. Department of State (Washington, DC)

  • Organization of American States (Washington, DC)

Professional Affiliations

The Institute is an active member of a number of translation, interpretation, and localization professional and educational organizations:

Tuition and Fees

Visit our Admissions site for detailed information about tuition and fees.