Recommended Reading: White House Interpreter

Last week at the fantastic 54th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association, we were lucky enough to get an autographed copy of The White House Interpreter by legendary English->German diplomatic Harry Obst. In addition, we also had the chance to hear him give a very entertaining (and packed!) lecture. Mr. Obst is now in his 80s, and hearing him speak about his experiences interpreting at the highest levels of diplomatic relations for seven American presidents was a truly unique experience.

Our autographed copy. 
As soon as we got home to Vegas (before Dagy flew back to Austria), Judy started reading the book and devoured it. It's an easy, non-academic read about Mr. Obst's long career and his interaction with presidents, secretaries of state, annoying bureaucrats, mid-level diplomats, and everyone in between. In the early parts of the book, the author makes some excellent points about the lack of formal college education for interpreters, which has resulted in, well, the lack of well-trained interpreters in America. He's got a point, but he makes it so often and so passionately that it's clear he has a bone to pick with an academic institution somewhere, although he wisely does not name any names.

At his career level, it's obvious that the author doesn't have to hold back, and his opinions on everything from certain colleagues (not named) to certain presidents (clearly named) are quite clear. It's rather refreshing to read a book by someone who doesn't have to walk on eggshells when it comes to certain topics, and Mr. Obst not only provided a fascinating insight into an interpreting world into which most interpreters never have access, but he also pulled back the curtain on politics and negotiating at the highest levels. You guessed it: presidents can be as petty as the rest of us, but some are very gracious and respectful, while others are not. Mr. Obst extensively writes about the obstacles that interpreters face on the job, and most of us who work in other fields (court, medical, etc.) will certainly be able to relate. In person, Mr. Obst still has a hint of the charming German accent that reminds us that he risked his life to flee former East Germany to come to the United States, a country that he served well for many decades. He's an effortless and witty writer who really makes his anecdotes come alive. At times, we could almost feel those leather seats on Air Force One as he crossed the Atlantic for the 52nd time in 1979!

Mr. Obst spends some time explaining his craft, and we wish he'd spent more time on what he considers (rightfully so) the key component to top-notch consecutive interpreting: proper note-taking technique. It's much feared by simultaneous interpreters around the world, who'd rather have a root canal than do consecutive, but it's still the holy grail of interpreting and the key mode for diplomatic interpreting. Mr. Obst shares one page of his notes and the corresponding paragraph those notes were based on, but he could have developed that portion of the book much better. In fact, we would have enjoyed an entire chapter on this subject. We'd read many an academic book on note-taking, but we bet Mr. Obst can teach us (and everyone else) many, many things on this important subject.

We truly enjoyed this peek at the high-paced, exciting, and highly stressful world of diplomatic interpreting, and the book was a great read. However, we were somewhat taken aback by Obst's consistent use of the male pronoun when referring to interpreters (example: "the interpreters trains his memory..."). He does add a note about this delicate issue ("with apologies to the female interpreters"). However, considering the fact that the vast majority of interpreters are female, it would have made more sense to use the female pronoun. And while the use of he/she isn't perhaps the most visually appealing option, we think it's important to include women in language.

Finally, let us leave you with some memorable quotes from this fantastic book, which is available at InTrans Book Service.

"Good interpreting schools teach their students how to analyze well by using a multitude of available tools and clues, just as good law schools and engineering schools do. One of those tools is good general knowledge of many fields. Where better to acquire such knowledge than at a university where a wide range of different subjects is taught in one place?" (page 37)

"The translator's product is for the ages, the interpreter's for the moment." (page 35)

"...the vast majority of American interpreters are not trained professionals. As a result, the reader, in many American environments, is more likely to encounter an untrained interpreter rather than a trainer professional. Encountering an untrained interpreter in Finland, France of Germany is a rare occurrence."  (page 39)


Alice in Translation on November 14, 2013 at 12:42 PM said...

It will definitely be under my Christmas tree! I'm not an interpreter, but from the way you describe it I won't be disappointed.

EN/FR>IT Translator

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on November 15, 2013 at 1:28 PM said...

@Alice: That is fantastic -- we bet you will enjoy it,even as a non-interpreter.

Anabella on November 15, 2013 at 7:27 PM said...

By the time I wanted to buy a copy they were gone from InTransBook.
Freek said he would get more copies, have them signed by the author and send them!

Quick question: the consecutive he mentions on his book is the long consecutive, right? I can't imagine retaining 6-8 of info!!!!!

Great review of the book, btw

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on November 17, 2013 at 5:15 PM said...

@Anabella: Yes, they sure went fast, didn't they? How nice that Freek will get more copies, and signed by the author, too. Awesome. Ah, yes, the author does write about long consecutive, but it's a very brief chapter and he doesn't really mention time limits. However, he does refer to presidents' speeches and the such, and those tend to be longer than 6-8 minutes. Tough, huh? We can't even imagine!

Anonymous said...

Going to get it it looks really interesting. :)

Marie Brotnov on November 21, 2013 at 9:02 AM said...

Joining in the conversation a bit late here, but I agree about the sad lack of professional, university-level training here in the US. I was in my second year of Translation Studies at the University of Amsterdam when life intervened and I moved to California. The only school in the state with a translation program offered Spanish-English only (and maybe German, I can't remember), but certainly not Dutch. So I got a Masters in English Literature instead, but for a long time I thought I had to give up my dream of becoming a translator. As it turns out, an English degree plus hard work and perseverance plus certification has resulted in a good living as a translator, but it is definitely a roundabout way. You have to prove to prospective clients that you have the skill level that is simply assumed when you have that piece of paper. I see translators get a bit huffy about that sometimes, but it's very understandable from the perspective of the client.

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