An otherwise uneventful press conference at the White House between the Italian president Sergio Mattarella and US president Donald Trump on October 16 ended up making the facial expressions of one of the other people present go viral.
Taking notes and listening carefully as the leaders spoke, ready to translate between English and Italian, Mattarella’s interpreter, Elisabetta Savigni Ullmann, looked remarkably befuddled as Trump discussed US foreign affairs.
She looked distinctively bemused as he remarked to Mattarella that in Syria: “They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So there’s a lot of sand they can play with.” And then she glanced up, disoriented, as Trump questioned: “How come the FBI never got the server? I’d like to see the server.”
Savigni Ullmann has won sympathy from those who say not even a seasoned interpreter, a neutral professional figure par excellence, can refrain from being horrified by Trump’s rambling speeches.
A professional cloak of invisibility
Since the bilateral meeting, it has emerged that Savigni Ullmann was possibly only very focused on listening and translating consecutively. Her face habitually appears puzzled as she makes sense of complex meanings and renders them into another language. Regardless of what she was truly thinking, the incident shows a rare occurrence: an interpreter making headlines.
As cultural and linguistic mediators, interpreters have played an important role for centuries – crystallised by the evolution of international diplomatic relations and the founding of the UN. As a trade and a taxing cognitive art, interpreting helps facilitate dialogue and international diplomatic understanding, strengthening world peace and security. The relevance of interpreters is especially pertinent in the current political climate for preserving the flow of discourse and diplomacy.
Nonetheless, interpreters are bound by codes of conduct to behave by following distinctive ideals of neutrality and invisibility. Research shows that the role of an interpreter is understood as a “channel” that transmits the message to the audience without any alteration, intrusion, or opinion – including through facial expressions and emotions.
The invisibility of interpreters protects them from being held accountable for their misinterpretations or from being accused of interference, and helps them to achieve transparent communication. But it also has implications for their professional recognition, as they must act as hidden figures. Of course they are not “truly” invisible: they are physically seen and heard, but their role is to remain in the background. The better an interpreter can facilitate interaction between people without showing any distress or that they are in difficulty, the better expert they make.
Yet, interpreting can be a difficult profession. Interpreters perform as the voices of other experts, under time constraints, facing a swirl of specialised topics and terminology, in high-stakes settings and with no safety net. It is only in failure, when they make mistakes or attract unnecessary attention, that they get noticed at all.
Invisible skills in an age of self-celebration
There is a growing body of research on the concept of invisible labour, about those types of work which are socially and culturally hidden from view. My own research is concerned with such invisible skills and competencies that people are required to perform in complex work environments. I look behind the scenes at the worlds that professionals such as interpreters inhabit, to understand the relentless work they put in.
In some professions, such as editing, digital work, care work, domestic labour, and parts of medical and nursing activities, invisibility comes with the job. Part, or all, of the work performed daily by many workers remains hidden, unacknowledged, or even obscure to both institutions and outsiders. Yet, these workers are pivotal for the completion of complex tasks and the production of specific results. That is the case of interpreters, whose expert skills of seamless linguistic mediation help other parties to succeed.
But the interpreters’ invisible role also challenges society’s celebration of fame. More and more, workers are in a race to increase the visibility of their own work and profession, such as by posting about it on social media. But these hidden experts reach fulfilment by the critical part they play in their particular working environment – by remaining unsung heroes.
In an age of continuous self-promotion, some people build a career that erases their professional self from the public eye, to help other people be successful. Interpreters allow the show to go on, carrying out projects that significantly affect our lives, while remaining an anonymous presence on the stage.
Correction: A line in this article which described the Italian interpreter’s reaction to Trump’s comments about Ancient Rome was removed, because it was from a different press conference.
Deborah Giustini is affiliated with the Chartered Institute of Linguists.