Trump's Russian interpreter should not be forced to reveal her notes, colleague says

Marina Gross was one of two other people in a meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin. Though Republicans have blocked Democrats from subpoenaing her notes, interpreters remain uneasy.

Yuliya Tsaplina believes her profession would be 'destroyed' if Marina Gross' notes are subpoenaed

Interpreter Marina Gross, left, takes notes as U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the beginning of their one-on-one-meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
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Marina Gross is one of two people who knows what was said in a private meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. State Department interpreter was translating for President Trump during the meeting and scribbling notes on a notepad. Earlier this week, Democrat politicians asked to subpoena those notes. They believe they will provide insight to the closed-door conversation.

As It Happens  guest host Laura Lynch asked Democrat representative Jackie Speier why she's calling for a hearing.

"I want to read a transcript. I want to know precisely. Two and a half to four hours worth of conversation is worthy to the American people to know what is said," Speier said.

Republicans denied the request, but it has left interpreters unnerved about the precedent it could set.

The American Association of Language Specialists (TAALS) released a statement this week criticizing the move, saying "an interpreter is justified in declining to testify because s/he is bound by strictest professional secrecy."

Yuliya Tsaplina is a Russian interpreter and spoke with Laura Lynch about the request.

Ms. Tsaplina, how do you imagine your colleague Marina Gross is feeling after being in the spotlight this week?

I think it would be presumptuous for me to speak on her behalf. But I think that if I were in her shoes I would be very, very uncomfortable right now and wishing for this unnecessary attention to go away.

Why uncomfortable?

Because it puts us in a very delicate situation. As interpreters we are bound by the strictest code of ethics. We are not supposed to divulge any information that we learn about in the course of our professional duties. And so any attempt to make us testify necessarily creates a very uncomfortable situation for any interpreter.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference after their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, Monday, July 16, 2018. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

People are obviously very eager to hear what went on in this closed door meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin. Why shouldn't they hear from her?

An interpreter is only in a meeting as an extension of the principles. An interpreter is not someone who makes decisions. An interpreter does not set the agenda.

An interpreter is only in the meeting because there is a need for the ideas to be rendered in a different language. So, all questions about what happens to the meeting should be addressed to the principals and not to the interpreters.

There are photographs of Ms. Gross with her notepad on her lap. If anyone was actually to get access to her notes what might they see on a notepad?

I've never seen Marina's notes. But I can assure you that, for example, if it were my notes that would have been completely useless to anyone else. Because no one would be able to decipher them.

Those notes only serve our short-term memory to make sure that we don't forget any details. We use a lot of symbols. We use abbreviations and it's literally impossible, even for me, to decipher my own notes let's say a week after the meeting.

Yuliya Tsaplina is a Paris-based language interpreter. (NYC Interpreters)

Can you give me a sense of what kind of symbols you use?

For example, I use a little square as a symbol for country. I use a triangle as a symbol for change. I use little circles to say that someone is thinking about it or is of a certain opinion. If someone were to get hold of my notes, it would be like getting a coded message. They wouldn't be able to decipher it.

I'm wondering if that view of the general meeting or of the tone of it might be of use.

It could be, but again our code of ethics is very clear about it. The code lays down the standards of integrity, professionalism and confidentiality, which all members of the association shall be bound to respect in their work as conference interpret. That's article one.

And then we have a code of honour with article two and it says members of the association shall be bound by the strictest secrecy which must be observed towards all persons and with regard to all information disclosed in the course of the practice.

So there is really no way for us to disclose any information, anything that's learned during the meeting. You know what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin wait ahead a meeting in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. Marina Gross sits to the left of President Trump. (Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

It almost seems like a precedent has been set, this can of worms has been opened. Republicans have denied the request in Congress from Democrats to subpoena Marina Gross, but are you worried that there are going to be subpoenas in the future now that people are talking about this?

I'm very worried about it because it will essentially destroy the profession. And I think it would be very shortsighted because let's assume it happens, and I certainly hope it doesn't. But even if it were to happen, my guess is that it would produce very little information, but more importantly it would destroy trust in the profession.

So if that gets done, then down the line if those team members of Congress were to have meetings with their counterparts from Indonesia, from China, from any other country in the presence of interpreters — how would they feel about discussing confidential issues knowing that an interpreter can be called to testify and tell the world about everything that was said?

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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