The Conversation

Heard Not Seen

The life and work of a gifted interpreter

By Dana Sachs

Soontaree Davidson

Job: Freelance interpreter and translator

First moved to Wilmington: 2008

Favorite spot: The access to the water, like Masonboro. That is such a sanctuary for me.


You call yourself an interpreter. What’s the difference between a translator and an interpreter?

The two are closely related. The difference is mainly in mode of expression. Translators deal with written text. Interpreters deal with spoken language, and we deliver it on the spot, and in both directions — meaning, in my case, from English to Thai, and Thai to English. We don’t have time to use a dictionary.

That’s high pressure.

It is high pressure, but most people think you just pop in and mimic whatever that person says. It’s not necessarily the case. It has to do with preparation. Last week I went to a Department of Defense conference at Andrews Air Force Base. They tell you the date, when to show up, and they give you the general topic. That’s it.

So how do you prepare?

You anticipate what might come up and Google anything that has to do with that topic. You’re looking at different terrorist groups, different continents. For that one-day event, it takes about a week to prepare.

Is your job to summarize what a person said?

[There are] different levels of interpreting. “Consecutive Interpreting” means that the speaker will say something for about 30 seconds, then he or she pauses and the interpreter delivers. For “Simultaneous Interpreting,” [we] speak along with the speakers and usually we are in a booth. There’s a sound feed through our ears and we deliver our interpretation through [an] audio system.

Is one form of interpreting more reliable?

No. It depends on the context. In a bilateral meeting — two parties, each [with] one key speaker — then Consecutive is the mode. Usually, Simultaneous happens with multiple languages, like at a conference. [In those cases], I don’t do it alone. It’s impossible. Our brain can only concentrate at a maximum of maybe 20 minutes in that active listening mode. I have a colleague and we alternate. It’s almost like dancing. You need to know each other’s moves.

Can you describe what happens in your brain while you’re doing that kind of interpreting?

We all have a headset on. We use one ear to receive the message, then process and deliver it. And on the other ear, we don’t use the headset so that we can hear that our delivery is understandable, that it’s correct, and that it makes sense.

You’re kind of like a computer, but you also have to understand the subtlety of language.

The cultural component is so critical. Idioms, for instance, are specific to a culture and you can’t do a direct translation. You have to kind of maneuver it. Like you don’t say, “It takes a village.” You [say], “It takes a collective effort to accomplish something.” Or, “The grass is greener.” I would say, “We tend to envy what the others have.”

In Consecutive interpreting, how do you remember everything someone said?

Note-taking and memory are key. You do active listening. And you try to compartmentalize your brain to memorize. There’s a technique. And [with] note-taking, you need to build your own symbols. It’s almost our own code [that works] as a reminder.

What are you some of your symbols?

Delta, the triangle, is “change” to me. For “exchange,” I draw an arrow within that triangle. “Increase” is just an arrow up, and “decrease” is just an arrow down.

You’ve done a lot of high-level diplomatic interpreting. How does that work?

Diplomats bring their own interpreters. Let’s say the defense minister of Thailand comes for a meeting with our secretary of defense. I will go with our secretary. The other side brings their own. For that level, I am responsible for whatever my principal — in this case, the secretary of defense — says. The other side brings their own because they want to be responsible for their own interpreting to avoid misunderstanding.

You’ve interpreted for President Obama, Vice President Biden, President Trump, Secretary of State Kerry, and Defense Secretary Mattis. What’s it like to work at that level?

When I first started, I was very nervous. There’s a lot of things that go into it, like the way you dress. Business attire. Black or neutral colors. Because there’s a saying about interpreters: “We are to be heard, not to be seen.” Because it’s not your event. It’s not about you.

Do you feel like the principals don’t really see you?

It’s a mix. I did interpretation for General Mattis, the defense secretary, at a bilateral event in Singapore. I sat right behind him and did my usual interpretation. And at the end, after the meeting was over, he turned around and thanked me for my service. We usually don’t get recognized. We usually get our job done and then step away. That’s a very memorable moment for me.

Official summits often include receptions where heads of state mingle. How do all those world leaders talk with each other?

Most of the leaders can carry on general social conversation [in English], like “How are you?” But when it gets deeper, [the interpreters] step in. I did that, for example, for President Obama at the [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] summit in 2016. [At these kind of events], somebody will come and say, “OK. I need Cambodia. I need Thai. I need Lao. Follow me.” And we usually stay 10 steps away and we look for clues. It’s an art to know when to step in, because you otherwise might insult the prime minister of Thailand. You don’t want to come out like, “Oh, he doesn’t know English at all.” You look at the body language. When President Obama walked over and said something to the [prime minister] of Thailand, then I stepped in to do my job. And then when he was done, I stepped away. If he walked over to talk to the state leader of Vietnam, then the Vietnamese interpreter stepped forward.

That’s such an odd scene to imagine.

It’s very natural for them. At the world leader level, they have worked with interpreters before. They know how to handle it.

So, for example, you say, “He’d like to meet soon”?

No, we always refer to ourselves in the first person. We would never say, “He said this.” “She said this.” If President Obama said, “I would like you to come to visit the United States sometime,” then I say, “I would like to you to come to visit the United States sometime.” When the president of the United States says something, then I become the voice of the president of the United States in Thai.

After President Trump’s private meeting with Russian President Putin in July, Democrats raised the possibility of asking the interpreters about what the two men said when they were alone. Many interpreters balked. Is there a code of silence?

It’s not a code. It’s a private conversation. Whatever he said, I should not be out there going, “Oh, he said so and so.” Absolutely not. It’s like doctor-patient confidentiality.

What if . . .

No matter what.  b

Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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