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Democrats Want Interpreter's Notes. They Might Be Useless

Marina Gross is suddenly in an unaccustomed spotlight
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 20, 2018 9:12 AM CDT

(Newser) – Her name is Marina Gross, and she just happens to be, as the New York Times puts it, the only other American who was in the room when President Trump met with Vladimir Putin. Gross is a longtime State Department interpreter, and Democrats in Congress now want her to testify or at least turn over her notes from that meeting so they can learn what, if any, promises Trump made to Putin. Such a move would be highly unusual, and it remains unlikely for now. The details:

  • Low profile: Not much is known about Gross, except that she is obviously fluent in Russian. USA Today describes her an "experienced, respected interpreter" who works for the branch of the State Department that provides White House interpreters. She has surfaced in White House photos from 2008, when she accompanied first lady Laura Bush to Sochi to visit the Russian Paralympic Team. Last year, a photo showed her next to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a meeting in Moscow.

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  • Unusual: Democrats including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire want to bring in Gross to testify, but Republicans have so far blocked any formal requests to the State Department. “It may be unprecedented to subpoena a translator to reveal details of a private meeting between the president and another world leader, but Trump’s actions are unprecedented in a way that harms our national security,” wrote another Democrat, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey, to members of the House oversight panel.
  • Those notes: Sen. Jeff Flake has floated a compromise of sorts by suggesting that Gross turn over her notes. But the Times reports that they'd likely be useless—Gross likely wrote in a shorthand intelligible only to herself, to help in her own understanding and processing of the conversation; her job wasn't to transcribe.
  • Bad precedent? Gamal Helal, an Arabic interpreter who has worked with four presidents and seven secretaries of state, says forcing Gross to testify is a bad idea. "It would be a horrible precedent if a president wasn't free to talk one-on-one with a head of state," he tells CNN. Freelance interpreter Yuliya Tsaplina tells the Times "it will essentially destroy all trust in our profession," adding, “We are only as valuable as we can interpret faithfully, accurately, and keep things in confidence."
  • The job: Gross is an interpreter who deals with spoken language, as opposed to a translator who deals strictly with text, explains USA Today. It's a difficult and intense task, says Stephanie van Reigersberg, who assigned State Department interpreters for nearly 20 years. “You’re listening, you’re writing, you’re figuring out how to render it in the other language, you’re repeating it.” It is not, she emphasizes, stenography.
(Read more interpreters stories.)

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