Who Is Trump’s Interpreter? The North Korea Summit Is Meaningless Without One
President Trump tends to call a lot of attention to himself and his own achievements, but the truth is that any success by an American president also belongs to a large crew of support staff. And when the item on the agenda involves an meeting between leaders who don't speak the same language, then one of those people is generally the all-important interpreter. Who Trump's interpreter will be for the summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, though, isn't public information at the moment.
Bustle has reached out to the State Department's Office of Language Services regarding this particular summit, as their webpage states that they provide all interpretation and translation services for the President, the First Lady, the Vice President, and any Cabinet official who needs them.
In case you're fuzzy on the distinction between those two jobs, a translator only translates written works from one language to another, whereas an interpreter translates speech back and forth between the two languages. If both Trump and Kim will be speaking in their own native languages at the summit — which isn't clear, as Kim's level of English isn't entirely known — then the person actually doing the communicating will be an interpreter fluent in both Korean and English.
The normal set-up for a high profile meeting like the one Trump is about to enter into is that both leaders would arrive with their own interpreters, as the job requires a lot of trust. The Boston Globe spoke with Harry Obst, a German immigrant to the U.S. who went on to translate for seven different presidents, and Obst explained that interpreting for a president doesn't just mean repeating words in different languages; it also means reading the subtleties that both sides are expressing in their words and then accurately conveying those to the president.
"Professional diplomatic interpreters are trained not to leave out anything," Obst told the Globe. "They are able, in their special notes ... and in their trained memory, to capture everything."
As TIME described, though, whichever interpreters accompany Trump and Kim on their meetings will have exceedingly difficult jobs to manage. Korean is a language with strict rules regarding formality, especially in terms of how leaders are addressed, a challenge that is only compacted because of Trump's informal style of discourse and Kim's position as the "supreme leader" of a totalitarian country.
TIME relayed an episode from George W. Bush's tenure, when he referred to then-South Korean president Kim Dae Jung as "this man" in a sentence praising his leadership, and the interpreters translated it literally, without taking into account Bush's lack of formality and the way that it would sound to Korean listeners. This apparently left Bush looking very rude.
"There are very nuanced differences between words and between levels of formality in Korean," said Jenna Gibson, director of communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America, speaking with Time. “I don’t envy the translators at the summit, because they are going to have to make split-second decisions.”
According to the Boston Globe, interpreters also have to be as prepared for any important meeting as the president himself is. That, paradoxically, has actually put presidents off having their own interpreters in two notable cases: once for President Trump at a meeting with Vladimir Putin, and regularly for President Richard Nixon. Nixon, The Atlantic wrote, wanted to keep things as private as possible — and Trump, who as Axios recently reported heads up a very leaky White House, might also be looking to avoid sharing information wherever possible.
For his part, Obst told the Globe that he wouldn't be surprised to see Trump lean on the North Korean-provided interpreter for the meeting with Kim Jong Un. This, though, like so much else coming out about the upcoming summit, is mere speculation, as Trump is breaking with precedent even to meet with Kim and no one knows what to expect. If Trump has brought an interpreter with him, though, the interpreter, at least, will have prepared enough to know exactly what to expect.