President Trump’s decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has raised a host of complex geopolitical questions. But there is a practical one to consider, too. Given the men’s mercurial speech patterns, how, exactly, would they communicate? Or to be more precise, how would their interpreters make sense of it all?
All over the world, interpreters (spoken word) and translators (written word) have struggled mightily with Trump’s mangled syntax, leaps of logic, and vulgar language. When the president labeled Haiti and other parts of the developing world “shithole countries,” Japan’s Sankei newspaper translated the epithet as “countries that are dirty like toilets.” Taiwan’s Central News Agency somehow landed on “countries where birds don’t lay eggs.”
Kim’s insults have wandered into some pretty strange territory, too. He once referred to Trump as a “mentally deranged US dotard” and to the “US imperialist aggressors” as “cannibals and homicides.”
To get a handle on how it might all play out, Ideas spoke with Harry Obst, a German émigré who translated for seven American presidents, from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton.
Obst talked about his own experience navigating presidential vulgarities and what to expect from Kim. He also mused on what might happen if Trump, a go-it-alone type who has spoken to Russian president Vladimir Putin without an American interpreter present, did the same on the Korean peninsula.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
President Trump uses some pretty basic language. But he also has a tendency to mangle it. So, is he difficult to interpret for?
Not for a professional diplomatic interpreter in the United States. Those are among the top 100 interpreters in the world.
I started off with Lyndon Johnson, and he could be pretty corny and use Texas slang-type language at times that I wasn’t particularly used to. But as a pro, I knew how to handle that, and if I really got in a fix, I would just ask a follow-on question, rather than interpret something incorrectly.
Can you tell me a story about LBJ? What kind of things would he say? Oh, he would say, “[f-word] Wilson and his multilateral fleet,” [referring to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s proposal for a fleet of nuclear submarines overseen by a group of North Atlantic allies]. A diplomatic interpreter is skilled enough to know what the other person’s background is — you get a document on that. And in most cases, he would have met the other person in previous meetings, three, four, five, six times. So he will also tailor it. For instance, the German chancellor at the time of Johnson was Ludwig Erhard. He was a very quiet, well-educated, sensitive person, who never, ever used a swear word. So, to him, you can’t translate it that way. You have to say, “Damn Wilson and his multilateral fleet.” But if the other guy is just as corny as your guy, then you translate it just as it was said. So there is some diplomacy even in interpreting.
Last year, President Trump spoke with Vladimir Putin at a Group of 20 summit without an American interpreter present, relying only a Kremlin-provided interpreter.
For what reason, I don’t know — probably to keep everything to himself and his staff.
Nixon had the same habit — he relied, in virtually all important meetings, solely on the senior diplomatic interpreter for English in Moscow, Viktor Sukhodrev, whose father, by the way, was a Soviet spy in the United States for 12 years. And he also worked for the KGB. That was the person that Nixon trusted and Kissinger trusted!
Having set this example in the Putin meeting, there is always a chance that this particular White House might say, “We don’t want an American interpreter in the Kim Jong Un meeting.” I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened.
Why is it so important to have an American interpreter present?
One reason is that the interpreter traveling with the president gets to see his talking points and all documents that the president needs for this particular meeting. This is doubly important with a president like Trump. Why? Because he doesn’t read his briefing book. The packet for such a meeting — and I’ve worked hundreds of them — may be as much as between 80 and 200 pages.
The second reason, especially for a person like Trump who thinks he is one of the greatest negotiators in the world: He might insist on a one-on-one, just him and him, with the interpreter or interpreters. If such a meeting takes place, there’s one important product that comes out of it — a written record that’s always done by the interpreter. The interpreter, then, is the only American who can record this meeting for posterity, for the National Archives, for the Secretary of State to read. If you don’t have an American interpreter in there, there will be no American record.
Professional diplomatic interpreters are trained not to leave out anything. They are able, in their special notes — that are different from shorthand and longhand — and in their trained memory, to capture everything.
In official North Korean statements, we see the stilted bureaucratese of a totalitarian state. Is that sort of language likely to bleed into Kim’s speech in a meeting with Trump?
The top leader [in a totalitarian state] is the only one who is not bound by the bureaucratic language — only in his own country when he makes public appearances. If he speaks privately, with the leader of another country, he can use sports jargon or anything else and is bound to be a hell of a lot more relaxed than the first secretary of a ministry.
How do you see a meeting playing out between Trump and Kim?
If each side brings a professional interpreter, whatever the two tell each other will come across the way it was said. But it will be a quite different meeting if there is only a North Korean interpreter present, and no American interpreter. In that kind of a meeting, our leader is bound to get into trouble.