OTTAWA – Canadian translators and their international counterparts say their work should be treated as strictly confidential and they shouldn’t be compelled to testify about the private conversations they hear.
The declaration comes as U.S. Republicans on the House intelligence committee blocked a Democrat request Thursday for Donald Trump’s translator to testify about his lengthy conversation with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
Other than a U.S. State Department translator, no American government officials accompanied Trump and Putin behind closed doors.
The absence of officials – including senior members of Trump’s cabinet or other State Department diplomats – is raising questions about what Trump actually said to Putin during their two-hour, closed-door conversation.
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Since that meeting, Trump has vacillated on whether he believes Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election – a conclusion that U.S. intelligence agencies say is not in doubt.
Trump has faced fierce criticism for not challenging Putin, and for playing down the continued threat of Russian interference in the coming fall mid-terms.
The Geneva-based International Association of Conference Interpreters said Thursday that compelling Trump’s interpreter to testify would violate a principle that has been applied to their craft for decades.
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The group was founded in 1953 to support the multilingual needs of the global order that was founded after the end of the Second World War – a set of institutions that Trump is widely viewed as trying to undermine or even destroy, and that the Trudeau government says must be preserved in Canada’s national interest.
The association issued a reminder of a key clause from its code of ethics, which says its members “shall be bound by the strictest secrecy” when it comes to “all information disclosed in the course of the practice of the profession at any gathering not open to the public.”
The association added that “if statesmen are to speak freely, they must be able to trust interpreters unreservedly not to reveal confidential information. Hence the importance of upholding the cardinal principle applied worldwide since WWII, that interpreters should never be obliged to give testimony.”
Sharon Steinberg, the president of the Canadian branch of the association, said in a brief interview she endorses the view even though the Trump-Putin example is “such a high-level one.”
Lola Bendana, chief executive officer of Toronto-based Multi-Languages Corporation, a translation firm, said it is not unprecedented for high-level summits to take place without other officials in the room. But that doesn’t mean translators should be compelled to reveal the contents of those meetings.
Another common scenario, known in the trade as a “triad,” would see a patient, doctor and translator being the only ones privy to a conversation, she said.
“In the vast majority of scenarios, the information is very sensitive, be it legal or in a hospital â€¦ or in political situations such as this one,” Bendana said.
“Interpreters have a lot of privilege of having this information before it’s given out to the world, or personal information such as a patient being diagnosed with cancer.”
Bendana said it is not uncommon in politics, but she declined to give specific examples.
The only exceptions in Canada are if someone’s life is in danger from suicide or there is a risk of child abuse, she said.
None of that prevents courts from issuing subpoenas for an interpreter if they are persuaded that circumstances are warranted, she added.
In Washington, Democrats failed in their attempt to compel Trump’s interpreter to speak about the “extraordinary” meeting between the president and Putin.
Trump didn’t want any of his top officials in the room, including his national security adviser, CIA director or secretary of state, said Rep. Adam Schiff.
“It appears that there were commitments made in that meeting that affect American national security interests,” said Schiff.
He called it “extraordinary for the president of the United States to ask all of his senior staff essentially to leave the room and have a private conversation with an adversary. And then in a public conversation disavow his own intelligence agencies, and in many respects, disavow his own country.”
The Privy Council Office said government officials are “generally present” during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s interactions with foreign leaders. When translators are required, they must have a government security clearance and are “expected to observe the strictest level of confidentiality in the exercise of their duties.”