Interpreters' Power: Putin Edition

Hannah Arendt famously defined power as "the power to set the agenda".  The wisdom of that insight applies with particular intensity to Interpreters supporting Ministerial and Governmental speakers in multilateral contexts, as was underscored recently by clumsily applied spin in the German-Russian relationship, as detailed in this story from Radio Free Europe.  

Angela Merkel was at the Kremlin with President Putin on March 12, 2015.  After the meeting during a press conference she made a comment about the situation in Ukraine.  More canny observers in the room noted a glaring discrepancy.  Of course English was not the medium of this exchange, but English still serves the point well. 

Ukraine is a geopolitical nightmare. It stands to reason that official public comments will be very carefully crafted and vetted.  Radio Free Press notes that her comment would be rendered into English thus:

"We achieved cooperation between NATO and Russia.  Due to the criminal and illegal, under international law, annexation of Crimea and the military conflicts in eastern Ukraine, this cooperation has suffered a serious setback." [emphasis added]

An English rendering of the German to Russian snippet most distinctly dropped the adjective "criminal," which by any reasonable standard is a forceful and central component of the observation, about as angry as diplomatic language, always constrained by politesse, can manage.

As Carl Schreck of Radio Free Europe comments,

Those listening exclusively to the interpreter were given the impression that Merkel considers the takeover of Crimea only a "violation of international law."

(As if that weren't bad enough.)

Whether the simultaneous interpreter was under arranged orders to sanitize (if only slightly) the message or in a moment of patriotic, pro-Russia (over)enthusiam, simply abused Chancellor Merkel's trust - the discomforting fact remains: this interpreter violated the most basic professional tenet of interpreting, allegiance to the speaker's intent and meaning in the rendering of the source.