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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

October 1997

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[Williams photo]

Retired Foreign Service officer Ed Williams, a member of this journal's Editorial Advisory Board, resides between escort interpreting trips at Fearrington Village, NC.

Depends on How You Interpret It

By J. Edgar Williams


For the past several years, since I grew a bit tired of teaching in retirement from the Foreign Service, I have been a free-lance interpreter and translator of Spanish. (Bear in mind that interpreting is oral and translation is written; people tend to get these mixed up, as when the news anchor on TV tells us that we're listening to the voice of the Russian president's translator.) My principal client is the U. S. Department of State, my former employer.

For State, I serve as escort interpreter for official visitors invited to the United States by one government agency or another. Occasionally the visitors are individuals, and sometimes groups. I escort them around the country and interpret for them in interviews, seminars, and the like, related to their professional interests. When they are invited to give talks, I stand beside them and interpret the speech. I also go with these visitors to private homes when they are invited to dinner or weekend stays by members of local international visitors centers or World Affairs Councils.

I recall vividly the first time I served as an interpreter in a formal setting. In the early 1970's, when I was the commercial attache at the U. S. Embassy in Buenos Aires, we had a visit by the U. S. Trade Representative, a very senior personage from the Executive Office of the President, along with his entourage, which included assistant secretaries of State and Commerce and the president of the Export-Import Bank. That was about as high level an American delegation as was ever likely to visit us. The Argentine government was suitably impressed and anxious to talk trade.
[Buenos Aires skyline]
Our first meeting took place after a big luncheon (this being Argentina, we're talking monster strip sirloin steaks) at the ministry of foreign relations with host officials of the highest level in attendance. The ministry was located in what had been the palace of one of Argentina's wealthy families. A richly appointed, wood-paneled salon had been converted into a conference room; in its center, serving as the conference table, was a great seventeenth century Spanish colonial refectory table. The big wheels were gathered around the table and the little cogs, the advisors, including myself, were seated around the perimeter of the room. I was there from the Embassy because trade was my field of expertise.
[Buenos Aires plaza]
The talks went on for a couple of hours, with an official of the Argentine ministry as interpreter. My great knowledge of international trade was not called upon. And after that huge lunch, served with good Mendoza wine, of course, I was not alone in having some trouble following the discussion and even staying awake, especially given that there was no air conditioning.

Suddenly I heard my name called.

Our Ambassador summoned me to the big table. The Argentine interpreter had lost his voice, and the ambassador had volunteered my services to fill in.

Now, having been stationed previously at Madrid and Montevideo, I had a reasonably good command of Spanish. Nevertheless, I was a bit nervous -- interpreting important conversations of that sort was another matter. Fortunately I had not completely lost track of what was going on, and so was able to finish out the remaining hours of the conference without incident. Eventually we adjourned for cocktails and dinner.

The ambassador waxed enthusiastic about my performance as a substitute interpreter, but I have to note here that he didn't speak any Spanish at all. After that experience I was asked to interpret at other meetings during my remaining two years at the Embassy, although none was on quite the exalted level of my first official interpreting chore.

After Argentina, I had only English-speaking posts. Years later, however, when the idea struck me to take the exam to become a Department of State escort interpreter, I thought back to that Buenos Aires conference room on that warm, somnolent afternoon. The memory of that episode gave me the confidence to try the exam, and the rest is history. I have thoroughly enjoyed the work and believe that I have helped make many friends for my country and for myself.



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