By Lefteris Kafatos
When U.S. leaders converse with representatives from non-English speaking nations, translation plays an imperative role in ensuring successful communication. In 1789, when a newly born nation suddenly found itself with the need to communicate with foreign countries, America’s first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, established the Clerk of Foreign Languages within the Department of State which, after many name changes, became the Office of Language Services (LS) in 1985. Ever since, LS has carried on a tradition and mission to provide language support for the conduct of foreign policy. Today, LS is a part of the Bureau of Administration’s Operations Office (A/OPR) and is comprised of an elite team of linguists who translate and interpret for senior-level officials and Department employees in a variety of languages, worldwide.
LS consists of two divisions: the Translating Division (LS/T), which is responsible for translating all written documents, and the Interpreting Division (LS/I), which provides interpreters for all meetings that require spoken or verbal interpretation.
Although LS/T translators are not always in the spotlight, they constantly work to advance U.S. diplomacy. In addition to playing a vital role in international treaties and agreements, LS/T translates all manner of government materials and diplomatic documents—from démarches in cables to notes between world leaders. In January 2019, a team of 19 French and Spanish LS/T translators worked long and grueling hours to complete the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the treaty that replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement in 2018. This process was a massive undertaking where all 360,000 English words needed to match their French and Spanish counterparts. Other examples of LS/T work include translating brochures for foreign tourists visiting the Supreme Court, and manuals used by U.S. military to train overseas partners. LS/T is also a key partner for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s (DS) Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program (ATAP), working to provide DS with translations for more than 100 courses each year.
While written materials are a key component to LS, when U.S. officials have a need to communicate in person with foreign-language speakers, LS/I is able to provide interpreters and linguists who act as America’s mouthpiece, currently in 47 languages. Besides the Secretary and other Department officials, LS/I also serves the President and Vice President, the National Security Council and a host of other cabinet officials at the Departments of Defense, Commerce and more. Anytime there is a major international summit, such as the U.N. General Assembly, LS/I interpreters are there conveying America’s message into other languages. In addition to assisting with high-level communication in the White House Situation Room and DoS Operations Center, LS/I interpreters also support the day-to-day communications that underpin American diplomacy. LS/I linguists regularly interpret at working-level meetings where intricate details of difficult agreements often get resolved.
In addition to government-to-government diplomacy, LS/I interpreters also serve in the realm of public diplomacy. One of the most effective means for improving understanding and goodwill between the U.S. and foreign partners is person-to-person diplomacy, another field in which LS/I interpreters shine. A prime example is the support LS/I provides for the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), a professional exchange run by the Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).
LS/I interpreters accompany and interpret for foreign leaders in an array of industries who were nominated by U.S. embassies to travel throughout the United States in order to meet counterparts and learn more about American culture. LS/I interpreters act as linguistic and cultural bridges that span the cultural divides between America’s leaders and foreign partners.
Since the translation and interpretation industries are constantly evolving, LS maintains contact with language communities both domestically and abroad. LS also participates in exchanges with embassies to infuse their language pools with the living languages actually spoken on-site. One example includes a recent exchange with Embassy Montevideo’s Cecilia Fraga, a translator, who was able to assist LS while teleworking to complete her embassy duties in Uruguay. This embodies the close collaboration between Washington-based linguists and those at embassies around the globe. LS staffers can also be found at venues such as the Interagency Language Roundtable, the American Translators Association and on campus at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where they train future linguists and recruit fresh talent.
The dedicated staff at LS strives to cultivate valuable language assets to serve the Department and U.S. Government at large. Their linguists are trusted professionals who maintain the high level of proficiency that American diplomacy requires.
For written word projects, contact firstname.lastname@example.org; for meetings or spoken word interpretation, contact email@example.com. Please note the language or languages needed in the subject line and an LS program officer will respond as quickly as possible.