An Interpreter as Eye-witness to History

An Interpreter as Eye-witness to History

Denver Plays Host to the Political Elite

by Rhoda Miller

I knew the assignment I had accepted would be exciting and even a bit scary, but I never imagined I would end up interpreting a speech by former President Bill Clinton. The five-day International Leaders’ Conference held by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) during the week of August 24-28 brought a host of prominent officials, policy-makers, pollsters and pundits to Denver. They were to discuss the US electoral process and related topics for an audience comprising some of the world’s top political leaders.


The first few panels dealt with the US electoral process, the role of caucuses, primaries, conventions, polls, the role of the press, campaign ads and anecdotes. Other sessions featured discussions on topics such as “Ensuring Democracy Delivers Real Dividends”; “Enhancing the US Role Around the World” and “Building a Better, Safer World: What Would an Obama Presidency Do” (A program organized with the Center for US Global Engagement with the foreign policy advisors to Senator Barack Obama).


On the first day, I found out that to reach my work station in the Stage Theatre, I had to climb two flights of fire stairs, push open two heavy fire doors and finally a voluminous curtain. On the other side, a guide wearing a headlamp waited to accompany me. Just follow the white line. Beyond that lay infinity. Don’t look down. I kept my eye on the lamp, remembering a tour I made of a coal mine on another assignment, and thinking this space was just as black and ominous. Once I settled safely in the interpreters’ booth, I turned on the small reading light, removed my glossary, notes, pad and set of sharpie pens from my briefcase. Then I put on my headset and microphone and dared to look down.


From my dark corner of deep space, the glare of the lights and TV cameras came as a shock. An entire set piece stretched out below. The booth was installed flush with the edge of the catwalk. Looking through the glass, I could have been sitting in the front seat of an SUV parked on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Not being overly fond of heights, I wondered briefly what would happen if I fell out of the sky and crashed onto the heads of hundreds of foreign leaders. I could have come close to shattering the glass ceiling!


Bringing me back to reality, the technician rushed in to check my headset to see if I could hear the speakers and to see if my voice carried into the earphones. A man rushed into the room below dangling earphones on one arm, shouting something I couldn’t hear. By this time, my partner had arrived. We discussed how often we would spell each other (every 15 or 20 minutes) and how we’d communicate with each other. Then suddenly Madeline Albright’s voice pierced my headphones as she began introducing the first moderator, Walter Mondale and the former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic National Committees.


From then on I had no time for distracting thoughts – no time to worry about a favorability rating or to react to the familiar names and faces of US and foreign leaders –former Senators Mike DeWine, Tom Daschle, Gary Hart, and Tim Wirth, the former prime ministers of Peru, Canada, Yemen and Chile, among others. All the panelists are listed on the NDI website along with their biographies).


To do this job, I would need a guru’s powers of concentration powers combined with the deftness of a musician in order to speak in counterpoint without missing a beat. It’s a mysterious process, akin to playing the oboe or the flute. However, there’s nothing magical about preliminary research – in this case scouring the French for terms like “flip flopper” (“girouette”), “go-it-alone” (“faire cavalier seul”) and “running mate” (“co-listier”) – not to mention “Swiftboating” and “Sam’s Club Republican”. (Le Monde has a special section on the US elections that includes blogs and video clips in French aimed at a fascinated public: “Obama et McCain courtisent le vote évangélique,” “Une girouette nommée McCain”).


For one of the five days, the conference was moved to Boettcher Concert Hall. This gave students from local schools and universities a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear Tom Brokaw moderate a discussion of global poverty and the US image abroad with such luminaries as Ben Affleck, former majority leader Tom Daschle, and James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, among others. Miraculously, my headset and microphone materialized overnight in a dressing room adjacent to the auditorium with a monitor to view the proceedings taking place in the next room. The staff at Boettcher was flexible enough to find other dressing rooms on short notice for the Spanish and Russian teams so that we wouldn’t interfere with one another. Ironically, this was the only day we were able to see the proceedings up close, but only on a monitor.


The serious ambience inside the two theatres belied the hoopla surrounding the Democratic Convention. Just a few blocks away, Manhattan-sized crowds poured out of the Pepsi Center into the restaurants and cafes of the 16th Street Mall. Outside the theatres, vendors hawked Obama dolls, talking donkeys, stuffed elephants and Hilary pens. On the other hand, I didn’t see a single funny hat anywhere near the International Leaders’ Conference.


Before the conference, I had interpreted for many international leaders, but I never thought I would be acting as a go-between (albeit anonymous) for Bill Clinton and a room full of world leaders. I should have predicted that when Denver native and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright puts a conference together for the National Democratic Institute, you never know who will show up.


 Not being a world leader myself, I realize that none of those big names would so much as recognize me if they saw me walking down 16th Street Mall. On the other hand, I don’t need a poll to tell me this event served to showcase Denver as a truly international city.  I’m glad to have played a small part in the process.