It has been in the news lately that the President has had a number of private head ups with Putin. On the news someone suggested (Don't remember if it was a congress person or the newscaster), that the Interpreter should be subpoenaed to testify about what was said.

One of the basic ethics for Interpreters is confidentiality of a conversation between two people. It does not seem that this confidentiality is *codified in the USA, the ethics being defined by associations.

*Some courts have rules and guidelines and a few states have laws dealing with court room Interpreters.

At any rate it does not seem that Interpreters have any kind of privilege like lawyers and other professions have to varying degree with clients. I would imagine that is because criminals don't use professional Interpreters very often and the issues surrounding any privilege for an Interpreter have never come up with much if any frequency.

Can Congress compel the interpreter to testify, or can The President stop such testimony?

Added: How about we take it out of the presidential realm, might actually be a bad example I used. Maybe say it was a translated conversation between diplomats or cabinet officers, and for whatever reason (not necessarily malicious), the person just doesn't want to answer any questions about the conversation or they became incapacitated, got pissed and quit the job, or died. So the interpreter is called as a witness. Can the interpreter be compelled to testify under subpoena from Congress? How about not under subpoena but something like the Ambassador has died what did they talk about when they last met?

  • 1
    "criminals don't use professional interpreters very often": the truth of that statement depends on your definition of "criminal."
    – phoog
    Jan 17, 2019 at 18:02
  • I think the most likely argument to be raised would be executive privilege. The interpreter might not have a legal argument to refuse purely on the basis of being an interpreter, but the fact that he was interpreting for the President would provide a better argument. Jan 17, 2019 at 18:10
  • U.S. Law requires a language interpreter for court proceedings if the defendant is not a fluent English Speaker. There are even defendants that speak fluent English, but request an interpreter because they are more comfortable in the nuances of their native language rather than English.
    – hszmv
    Jan 17, 2019 at 19:27
  • The answer might conceivably be different if (foreign) diplomats are involved, as the translator is probably part of the diplomatic team and would enjoy protections of diplomatic immunity as a result. Within the foreign country, that is. This particular translator is probably safe from the reach of Russian law. But for US law the crux of the issue is in executive privilege, which is mostly a made-up legal concept to facilitate the proper execution of the office. Jan 28, 2019 at 2:47

1 Answer 1


Anyone can be compelled to testify before Congress. The first question is whether there is a federal law immunizing translators from the obligation to testify under subpoena -- there is not (as far as I can determine). The second question would be whether one could lawfully resist testifying because doing so would violate some law: again, there does not appear to be any law prohibiting a translator from testifying as to some matter. The third question would be whether they could resist on the grounds that doing so would open them up to some other legal sanction. The possibility exists that if the translator is a member of the American Translators Association, he could be sanctioned for an ethics violation. Their ethics procedure includes "Gross negligence or willful misconduct in the performance of professional services or other unethical or unprofessional conduct based on demonstrable and serious violations of the Code". Principle 2 therein is that members accept their duty "to hold in confidence any privileged and/or confidential information entrusted to us in the course of our work". Testifying under subpoena is not willful misconduct, so even given a provision in the code that barred revealing confidential information, the fact of being compelled testimony means that the conduct is not willful, and the organization could not lawfully sanction the member. Thus there would be no legal grounds to resist the order to testify. (This sets aside the complicating factor of executive privilege).

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