When presidents visit other nations — besides being escorted by an entourage of bodyguards and officials — they often are accompanied...

Share story

When presidents visit other nations — besides being escorted by an entourage of bodyguards and officials — they often are accompanied by interpreters.

So in 1978 when then-President Carter was to give a speech in West Berlin, he asked his interpreter to write a line in German that would stir up the crowd like President Kennedy did in 1963 with his historic “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

“I said, ‘Jim, you cannot duplicate history like that,’ ” said Harry Obst, who has interpreted for seven U.S. presidents, from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton.

Obst, who will be offering a two-week workshop beginning Aug. 22 at Bellevue Community College, came up with, “Was immer sei, Berlin bleibt frei,” or “Whatever may be, Berlin shall stay free.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The phrase spoken by Carter made headlines and became widely used.

“It rhymes, and the Germans really ate it up,” said Obst, 73, in a telephone interview from his home in Alexandria, Va.

Interpreting training


Harry Obst workshop:

Harry Obst, an interpreter for seven U.S. presidents, gives a two-week workshop beginning Aug. 22 at Bellevue Community College, North Campus, Room W270, 10700 Northup Way. The 10 weekday sessions are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost is $775. Information: 425-564-3145 or www.conted.bcc.ctc.edu/
translation/index.asp
and click “Workshops.”

Bellevue Community College: Translation and interpretation certification program and workshop. (Same contact information as above.)

State courts: Certifies interpreters in Cambodian, Cantonese, Korean, Laotian, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese.

www.courts.wa.gov/programs_orgs/
pos_interpret/
or 360-705-5301

Federal courts: Certifies interpreters in Spanish, Haitian Creole and Navajo.

www.cps.ca.gov/fcice-spanish or 916-263-3494

State Department of Social and Health Services: Certifies medical and social services interpreters in Cambodian, Cantonese, Korean, Laotian, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese.

www1.dshs.wa.gov/msa/LTC/ or 360-664-6111

— Seung Hwa Hong

Such high-profile moments have shown the value of good interpreters and translators, who are in demand in the multilingual Seattle area. The opportunity to travel and be paid well are among the attractions of the profession. But the job and workload can be unpredictable, and many interpreters work as independent contractors, so for them the hours can vary and there are no benefits.

Interpreters work in many settings, including business, conferences, health care, courts, politics and tourism.

To protect their client’s confidentiality, interpreters often develop their own style, some writing vertically as opposed to horizontally, and using symbols more than words when taking notes.

They may also create their own meanings for symbols. For instance, in the interpreter world, a triangle could stand for jealousy, Obst said.

“To me a circle is a meeting; other interpreters use circles for harmony, unity,” Obst said, adding that an advantage of using symbols rather than words is if an interpreter’s notes are found, they will be indecipherable.

Local training

The work is attracting more attention among job-seekers.

At the Translation and Interpretation Institute at Bellevue Community College, enrollment jumped 41 percent during the past school year, to 246, said René Siegenthaler, director of world languages and travel at the college.

The institute, part of the college’s Continuing Education division, offers the only professional certificate program for interpreters and translators at a community college in the Northwest. Students who are accepted can take courses in interpretation, translation or both. On average, it takes two years to earn the certificate.

Interpretation refers to verbal communication, while translation refers to written work.

Other training includes a deaf interpreter training certificate program at Seattle Central Community College; the Cross Cultural Health Care Program in Seattle provides training to become a medical interpreter.

A challenging job

Annette Hrabovsky, 45, of Bothell was one of the 18 students enrolled in the weekly evening introduction course at Bellevue Community College, which costs $350 and runs for 10 weeks.

The former chef said she was attracted to the profession by its travel opportunities, unstructured schedule and intellectual challenge.

“Just because … we’re bilingual or multilingual doesn’t mean we’re necessarily qualified for being an interpreter and translator,” said Hrabovsky, who is fluent in Spanish and is studying other Romance languages.

An example of what can happen, Obst said, was when Carter visited Warsaw in 1977, and an interpreter hired by the State Department misinterpreted Carter’s “love” for the Polish people for “lust” when confusing Russian and Polish words.

Another important element to the job is the profession’s code of ethics, which calls for interpreters to be accurate, culturally sensitive and impartial.

“You do not make it sound nicer, more appropriate; you’re just there to interpret,” said Emma Garkavi, a state-certified court interpreter in Russian.

Paid well, hard to find

To become a successful interpreter, one needs a good general knowledge and fluency in two languages, said Obst, the director of Office of Language Services at the State Department from 1984 to 1997.

“As an interpreter you can only work with the knowledge in your head,” Obst said, as opposed to translators, who can look up words in a dictionary.

The best way to break into the profession, Obst said, is to work as a court or medical interpreter. He then encourages his students to try business interpreting.

“That’s where you can do good money,” Obst said, who by the time he retired from the State Department was earning more than $110,000 per year.

The median pay is about $16 an hour, and generally ranges from about $10 to $26 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. But highly skilled interpreters and translators — such as high-level conference interpreters — working full time can earn more than $100,000 a year.

But the job isn’t always as glamorous as it might appear.

Upon arrival to a country, presidents need to give a speech, and during lunches and dinners, interpreters have to keep working. .

“Usually you don’t get to eat and that’s always part of the stress, but hey, interpreters don’t get fat,” Obst said jokingly.

Obst said he hasn’t watched the movie that came out this year called “The Interpreter” starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, but has heard about the plot, in which Kidman plays an interpreter who overhears an assassination plot inside U.N. headquarters.

“Well, all that is pretty realistic — I know things that some people would give a lot of money for … that I cannot divulge until the day I die,” Obst said.

Obst, who had 1,700 interpreters working for him at the State Department, said his greatest difficulty was finding well-trained interpreters in the United States.

When Obst worked under Carter, the White House asked him to hire people who could interpret Chinese.

After months of searching for a candidate who could pass the test, Obst finally found a recent college graduate and offered him $8,000 more than the starting salary, which at that time was $37,000. He instead took a job with Occidental Petroleum, which doubled the offer.

“My heart was broken,” said Obst.

Stressful, yet satisfying

The interpreting field got a big boost from the federal Court Interpreters Act of 1978, which established a federal certification program that applied to specific languages.

The act also requires federal courts to assign an interpreter to those who speak only, or primarily a language other than English, or who are hearing or speech impaired.

Interpreters who pass the federal test are considered “professionally qualified.” For other languages, interpreters can be screened by courts to qualify as “language skilled.”

In Washington, interpreters can get licensed in certified languages by passing a test with the Department of Social and Health Services or with the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts.

At King County Superior Court, interpreters in certified languages — Cambodian, Cantonese, Korean, Laotian, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese — earn $45 per hour, said Martha Cohen, manager of the Office of Interpreter Services. For languages that are not certified, interpreters make $35 per hour.

Kenneth Barger, 34, a state and federally certified Spanish interpreter, said of his profession: “It’s constantly stimulating, and even though I’ve been doing it for six years I consider myself a beginner.”

Barger said that it’s not just the legal terminology and the varieties of Spanish and slang that he needs to have a grasp of, but also such everyday vocabulary as car parts.

Garkavi said the job can be very demanding and require flexibility and travel.

“Sometimes you may have four requests for the same hour, and there may be days where you don’t have a job at all,” she said, adding that she also does translation work to supplement her income.

Interpreters also need to understand a lot of terminology, from that of nuclear-power plants to aviation, for example, so a master-level interpreter cannot keep up with more than three languages, Obst said.

“The job is basically stressful because you are always under enormous time pressure, but it’s a great, satisfying job,” he said.

Seung Hwa Hong: 206-464-3347 or ihong@seattletimes.com