The role of diplomatic interpreters became the subject of intense interest following the summits President Donald Trump held with North Korean and Russian leaders this spring and summer. In the wake of the two summits, both legislators and pundits speculated about the possibility of trying to compel the interpreters to testify about the substance of the conversations they witnessed. Experts and interpretation professionals immediately objected.
“You are bound by a canon of ethics for interpreters in general,” said longtime professional interpreter Laura Burian MATI ’98, dean of the Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation, and Language Education. “When you’re a diplomatic interpreter, there are laws that will prevent you from speaking out about whatever transpired in the room. Typically, if you are an interpreter for the U.S. Department of State, you have a top secret security clearance, meaning that you treat every interaction that you interpret for as top secret.”
The International Association of Conference Interpreters, an organization that rep.resents 3,000 members, states in its code of ethics that members are “bound by the strictest secrecy” when interpreting at private meetings. Confidentiality is “a rock-solid tenet,” Professor Barry Slaughter Olsen MACI ’99 told PBS NewsHour in June. Breaching it “could significantly undermine the faith that people have in our profession,” he said, adding that undermining that faith could further endanger interpreters working in conflict zones, where being perceived as untrustworthy can put their lives at risk. In an interview for NPR’s All Things Considered with reporter Ailsa Chang, Olsen called her comparison of confidentiality for interpreters with attorney-client privilege “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.”
Olsen said compelling an interpreter to divulge private conversations is not a good idea. “People have to have trust that an interpreter is not going to share information that comes from a confidential encounter.”