NPJ Book Review: White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation by Henry Obst

White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation by Henry Obst (2010)

The author was an interpreter for seven presidents. In this very accessible read he covers five of them. The importance of this work is gaining ground considering recent foreign policy events, conferences, summits and public and private meetings between leaders and other officials of different countries, where the interpreter (of spoken words) as opposed to a translator (of written words) has become increasingly significant in a world of purposeful misinformation and disinformation.

The interpreter, much like a lawyer, requires the strictest of confidences. In past practice while Obst served as an interpreter, unlike the current president, most past presidents  included other high officials at meetings between leaders of countries to insure accuracy of interpretation at the meetings, events and conferences.

Mistakes in interpretation occur even among the best of interpreters. To become an interpreter requires excellent language skills, a superb memory, general and specific knowledge of diverse subject matter and the ability to accurately interpret the substance of the communications along with the details.

The author covers Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. While with the president the interpreter has to pay attention to the smallest of details from body posture, facial expressions, the context of a word spoken, if a chair person removes a headphone and so forth. The interpreter does not translate verbatim, like a translator would, but takes notes to the degree that he or she refers to them for reference. The interpreter has to “absorb enormous amounts of useful information.” Humor, concentration, language skills and a deep understanding of social and historical constructs, foreign policy and high technologies is exceedingly important.

This work is a useful reference source and draws attention to the need for academia to offer more coursework in the field of interpreting. It moves beyond language itself and involves understanding diverse cultures and how we communicate with each other on all levels of society and not just from a presidential perspective.