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Former White House Interpreter Weighs In On Possibility Of Subpoena


All right. Let's stay with Trump and Putin and these questions about what they have said to each other in private talks. As we just heard, the Washington Post is reporting that Trump seized his own interpreter's notes after one meeting, the Trump-Putin sit-down in Hamburg in 2017. Last year at the Helsinki summit, the only other person in the room with Trump on the American side was a career State Department interpreter, Marina Gross. Well, some Democrats in Congress are calling again for her to be subpoenaed to testify.

Our next guest served 18 years as head of interpreters at the State Department. She was in the room interpreting when U.S. officials sat down with Fidel Castro, with Augusto Pinochet and many others Stephanie van Reigersberg, welcome to ALL THING CONSIDERED.


KELLY: Is there any precedent for interpreters to be subpoenaed to testify about what they've witnessed?

VAN REIGERSBERG: No, it is something that I never imagined could happen.

KELLY: In your view, is it a good idea to start now?

VAN REIGERSBERG: I don't think it's a good idea at all. There is an ethical rule that governs the work of interpreters as it does the work of lawyers and doctors. And if interpreters were forced to violate professional secrecy, I can't see why anyone would ever trust an interpreter again. You have to believe that your interpreter is good and faithfully conveys what you're saying, but you also have to trust that the interpreter is not going to go and talk to anybody that asks for a readout.

And the other reason is the kinds of notes that interpreters take in order to do consecutive interpretation differ radically from the kinds of notes that substantive officers take when they are the official note-takers. Our interpretation notes are based on our short-term memory. They're full of little symbols and squiggles and arrows.

Basically, what interpreters do when they're taking notes is they draw a kind of road map through the material they're hearing. They are immediately thereafter able to reconstruct this piece of material. But if you show them those notes in two or three weeks, their eyes would glaze over and say...

KELLY: (Laughter).

VAN REIGERSBERG: ...I really don't remember (laughter) what this was about.

KELLY: The other thing I'm curious about that has come up here is, afterwards, is it common practice for an interpreter to brief senior aides? You know, regardless of whether there's public testimony before Congress, would an interpreter come out and share with the president or whoever - the secretary of state's - most senior aides, this is what we talked about?

VAN REIGERSBERG: I can't give you a 100 percent answer. If there is a note-taker in the room, which there always should be, in my humble opinion...

KELLY: Aside from the interpreter.

VAN REIGERSBERG: ...Then what frequently happens is that the note-taker will sit down with the interpreter and say, this is what I got. Is this what you recall? But it's not normal for some third party who had nothing to do with the meeting to call you and say, hey, why don't you give me a readout of the bilateral between President - I don't know - Clinton and someone else? That would be crossing a line into what we would all consider to be unethical.

KELLY: Can you imagine any scenario where the national security interests of the country should override what you've described as the importance of the sanctity and confidentiality of these conversations?

VAN REIGERSBERG: Well, if I really try to push this to an extreme position, I suppose I can imagine such a thing. But my question would still go back to my second facet of this whole conversation, which is what would the interpreter's recollection be worth? How can someone who interpreted at a meeting six months ago go before a committee of the House or the Senate, speak under oath and absolutely be sure that he or she is remembering correctly, given the kinds of notes we take?

KELLY: Stephanie van Reigersberg. She's former head of the interpreting division at the State Department. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk.

VAN REIGERSBERG: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.