Harry Obst, who worked as a German interpreter for seven U.S. presidents through Bill Clinton, says he can only remember one of them who ever dispensed with an interpreter during discussions with a foreign leader: Richard Nixon.
It was a bad idea, for lots of reasons, the author of White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation, tells NPR.
And he says that also goes for President Trump, who acknowledged this week that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a previously undisclosed discussion at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, without an interpreter on the American side. "It was Nixon all over again," Obst says.
The former interpreter cites all of the obvious concerns you might expect when things can get lost in translation. Even, as in the case of Putin, who has "a reasonable command of English," there's always the possibility of missing an important nuance that could be clarified by interpreters on both sides of the discussion, he says.
But a president might also need backup during high-level discussions, even informal ones, says Obst, who was "required to read up on all the same briefing material that the president was supposed to have read, but often didn't have the time to read." For that reason, serving the president as an interpreter requires acquiring at least a top-secret clearance, and additional special clearances if one is privy to discussions involving NATO or nuclear matters.
Obst, because he was always familiar with the briefing book, was sometimes called upon to be an adviser, too.
A president might "make a stupid mistake," or just needs a little help, he says. "For example, Reagan in his last years in office had a touch of Alzheimer's. Sometimes I would whisper in his ear if he got mixed up about some point of policy. 'It's not SALT I we are talking about, Mr. President, it's SALT II,' – that sort of thing."
But another key role for an interpreter — and this gets to Nixon and Trump — is making a historical record of what transpired and what was discussed.
Dimitry Zarechnak, a former Russian interpreter who worked for Reagan and Clinton in discussions with their Kremlin counterparts, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, confirms that Trump is the first president since Nixon to forgo the services of an interpreter in a situation like the G-20 summit.
Zarechnak tells NPR that "there have been a few such cases," but not at the level of the president. "Once I remember that [Secretary of State George] Schultz decided to use only the Russian interpreter. Zarechnak also recalls that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shervardnadze once asked that only he, and not the Russian interpreter, be present at a discussion.
Nixon and Kissinger, he says, were obsessed with secrecy and "simply never used our interpreters," a practice he calls "atrocious."
As for Nixon, Obst says, "he didn't [and Kissinger, the then national security adviser] didn't want his secretary of state [William P. Rogers] to know what was being discussed," referring to a famous power struggle that often left Rogers out of the diplomatic loop.
"Nixon had meetings with [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev with only the Russian interpreter present. Since the interpreters write the reports, there is no American record of what was said," according to Obst.
Even when a foreign leader's command of English is good, both interpreters should still be present, Obst insists.
Former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who Obst says normally spoke very good English, needed help when he became fatigued. "When he was tired or had a cold, his English would fall apart and then he'd rely on his interpreter."
The U.S. is "very lucky" that it has a group of highly skilled interpreters, says Obst, who once headed up the U.S. State Department's Office of Language Services, the bureau established by President Thomas Jefferson, who saw a vital need for such services.
So, what happens when a president gets a bad interpreter?
Carter found out in 1977. As The New York Times explained at the time, on the first day of an official visit to Poland, "Mr. Carter's phrase 'When I left the United States' was translated into 'when I abandoned the United States.' A reference to 'Pulaski County' came out 'Pulaski Duchy.'" By day two of the trip, the interpreter had been replaced.
Yet another story, related in Obst's book, involved Carter and Chancellor Schmidt. Because of Schmidt's English skills, Obst didn't have much to do during one conversation.
"I was half asleep," he recalls. "Then, all of a sudden, Schmidt wanted a translation for the German word hühnchenfutter. I said 'chicken feed,' but then [Carter's national security adviser] Zbigniew Brzezinski joked, 'No, with this president, it's peanuts.'"