Our predecessors, the founding fathers of the profession - and of AIIC - have left us a priceless legacy: the trust of those for whom we work, who know they can count on us to be discreet in all circumstances, and maintain secrecy forever.
In the early fifties this was not a foregone conclusion. After a closed session, journalists, for instance, might readily question the interpreter about what was said inside. Fairly soon, however, the haughty refusal of Constantin (and others) made them understand that they were knocking at the wrong door. The interpreters also realised that instead of trying simply to eradicate the idea (that interpreters could be a source of information), nature abhorring a vacuum, it was better to replace it by another, i.e. that interpreters are so aware of the importance of their job and all that the position of privileged intermediary implies that they push secrecy to the ridiculous extreme of even refusing to pass on information that is not confidential.
It should be noted in that respect that the interpreter is never judge of what may constitute information. After an official dinner, the question "Did the President take a second helping of fish?" may appear innocuous; if however the day before, speaking to a gathering of fishermen, he had said that he was so fond of fish that he always took a second helping, the answer becomes a piece of information. The only rule for the interpreter is to say NOTHING, even when tempted to shine at a dinner party, or simply to be sociable. And not to worry about seeming ridiculous. It is enough to quote Talleyrand: "Between passing for a fool and passing for a gossip-monger, I made up my mind long ago."
These remarks do not only apply to state secrets (which in any case are few and far between, as most of the content of private talks is divulged by the parties themselves). It can also happen that the interpreter, or the team of interpreters, is privy to sessions of which the participants do not wish the contents to be revealed. In practice, the obligation to be discreet does not pose a serious problem. I do not believe much in the Cornelian dilemma that would be faced by an interpreter hearing, in a budgetary session, confidential information that could be important for the defence of the profession. As far as the courts are concerned, it is true that the interpreter's obligation to maintain secrecy is not defined in law in the same way as for journalists or doctors, but I have only heard of one case where the question arose, to be settled in our favour: A Swiss court, of its own volition, refrained from questioning an interpreter who had been present at a meeting which turned out to be of a criminal nature.
And what about the future? Does the obligation to maintain secrecy fade with time? There are those who say that after thirty years we should be allowed to write our memoirs (assuming they are of the slightest interest!). In legal terms, that is true. In this respect a specific case is worthy of mention. When I was in charge of interpreting in the French Foreign Ministry, our colleague (who died recently) Sandra Stolojan consulted me about a little book she was planning to publish on General de Gaulle's visit to Romania, and for which she was going to use the notes she had taken during the private talks between the General and Nicolae Ceausescu, which she had kept. I told her that in my view such a course would be incompatible with membership in AIIC. In the belief that she owed it to her country, recently liberated, she went ahead with her project after getting authorisation from the Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry, who consulted the de Gaulle foundation and checked the records for the accuracy of the notes. The book came out, and Sandra loyally resigned from AIIC. The profession was greatly perturbed by the event and the Council of AIIC was considering the possibility of expulsion, but when I pointed out that there was not much point in expelling someone who had already borne the consequences of her action by resigning, the procedure was dropped.
Why was such a publication wrong, and why do we have to be, in my view, so strict in such matters? It is not to protect the protagonists, who often are long-since departed, but to protect ourselves, to keep intact the priceless legacy we have inherited, the trust of the people we work for. Legally, I would be fully in my rights were I to publish accounts of meetings held long ago, but I know that a minister, casting eyes on my successor, would say to himself "take care, sooner or later it will come out", and some of the famous trust would be lost.
There are also people who tend to take a relative view of our secrecy obligation. It is true that secrets are often open secrets, that a secret shared by twenty people is no longer a secret, that others do not hesitate to be indiscreet... Such people however only take into consideration the interests of the protagonists or our obligations under law. They forget about our obligations to ourselves. We have a profession to protect, of which an intangible but vital asset is the certainty that NOTHING will EVER come out through the interpreters.
And that is one of the arguments I used at the Quai d'Orsay to justify the fact that priority was always given, when recruiting freelance interpreters, to members of AIIC, for they practised their profession in the framework of stringent ethical rules. The argument always carried weight. It is up to us to make sure that it continues to do so.
Articles published in this section reflect the views of the author(s) and should not be taken to represent the official position of AIIC.