Inttranews Special Report - Fred Burks
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In 1981, Fred Burks went to Indonesia as part of a VIA (Volunteers in Asia) student exchange plan, and spent four years learning Indonesian. After two years of living in the People's Republic of China, he became a contract interpreter first in Indonesian in 1986, then in Mandarin in 1988. In 1992, after taking an assignment as the administrative interpreter supporting two simultaneous interpreters at a government-sponsored seminar in Washington, DC, he became officially qualified as a conference interpreter.
Despite a population of 220 million, very few American interpreters speak Indonesian. In 1995, the State Department asked him to go to Copenhagen to interpret for Vice-President Gore at a UN Conference. As he admits, "even though I wasnt officially qualified for high level interpreting, they couldnt find anyone else." He qualified at the highest level shortly thereafter.
Since then, he has interpreted for Presidents Clinton and Bush (the younger), Vice-Presidents Gore and Cheney, Secretaries of State Albright and Powell, and numerous other high-level government officials.
As widely reported, in November 2004, Fred Burks resigned as chief interpreter in Indonesian for the US State Department after it insisted he agree to a new contract that included a pledge never to disclose "any information" that he learned in the course of his government interpreting work to unauthorized outsiders.
Inttranews decided to find out why he resigned, what was so different in comparison with standard confidentiality requirements in interpreting, as well as the cost of his decision and the integrity it required.
Inttranews: What qualifications do you have as an interpreter?
Fred Burks: The vast majority of my interpreting work in the last 18 years has been with the U.S. Department of State. The State Department has three levels of interpreters: consecutive, simultaneous, and "conference" (high level, - simultaneous interpreters of course are qualified to interpret for conferences. This is a poor choice of names). I qualified as a conference interpreter in 1995. No other tests or qualifications are required by the State Department.
Inttranews: How many languages do you speak?
Fred Burks: I speak Indonesian, Mandarin, and Spanish, in addition to my mother tongue, English. I worked as a Mandarin interpreter for the State Department for about five years, though in recent years I have only interpreted in Indonesian professionally.
Inttranews: You say you became "officially qualified as a conference interpreter" in 1992. What did this process entail?
Fred Burks: In 1992, I became qualified as a simultaneous interpreter, which means I was qualified to interpret at conferences. I became qualified as a "conference interpreter" in 1995. Until my recent resignation, I was the main State Department interpreter to evaluate tests for applicants at all levels in the Indonesian language. I thus understand the process quite well. For both simultaneous and conference level qualification, the test uses a video recording of a simulated interpreting session. The performance of the applicant is recorded and evaluated based on a number of criteria. There is no written component for interpreters.
Inttranews: Was the work for the White House any different from interpreting for other clients?
Fred Burks: In my high-level work, there were two basic formats: conferences and bilateral meetings. The conferences were little different from conferences around the world, though the U.S. generally only uses two interpreters, while many nations use three for simultaneous interpreting. I interpreted at one conference in the White House conference room. The only difference from a regular conference is that there was no booth, and only one interpreter for each side, as the meeting was less than an hour.
The bilateral meetings are quite different. There is quite a bit of protocol to follow. These meetings are almost always done with consecutive interpreting. The government of each principal involved provides one interpreter. Each interpreter interprets only for their country's speaker. When I interpreted for President Megawati's visit to Washington, DC one week after 9/11, exceptions to protocol were made in two ways. As Megawati understand English fairly well, it was agreed that I would provide whisper interpretation to her. Thus, she could listen to the English, but always have my whispering in Indonesian for a backup any time she didn't understand something. This worked very well.
The second exception was that I ended up interpreting for both principals may times during her three days in Washington. This is very much against protocol, and I at first protested. But Megawati's interpreter practically begged me to take his place, confiding that Megawati did not like him, and had scolded him for poor interpretation a number of times. She had only recently become president and had not yet found an interpreter to her liking. Interpreting for someone who speaks a good amount of the language being interpreting can be quite challenging.
Inttranews: According to your own statement, you worked "only three weeks" as a conference interpreter in 2004. Was the job for the State Department paid that well?
Fred Burks: The State Department pays below market rates. At the highest level, the current compensation is US$ 500 per day of work. I charge more for my work with private clients. As a contractor, and as the State Department's top Indonesian interpreter, I had the luxury of deciding how much or little I wanted to work. In the past two years, I have become quite passionate about my work on the Internet exposing major cover-ups and building global community. Though this does not yet provide any income, it is clear to me that this is where I want to focus my energy and time. Because of this, I only took interpreting assignments that were particularly interesting or meaningful. As a result, I earned very little last year and have been drawing down on my savings to support my Internet work.
Inttranews: Why did you resign?
Fred Burks: This is a long story, but the main reason is that I would have had to sign a new contract required for all interpreters. The new contract stated that interpreters "shall not communicate to any person or organization any information known to them by reason of their performance of services under this agreement that has not been made public, except in the necessary performance of their duties or upon written authorization of the Contracting officer." This means that if my itinerary has not been made public, I can't even tell my family in what city I'm staying while I'm away working. It means that if someone tells me a good joke while I'm working, I can never tell it to anyone unless it somehow becomes public knowledge. It means that I would not be able to share the many heart-warming stories from my times with my clients that are not the least bit sensitive. Nor would I be able to write most of what I am writing here. As the contract specifically stipulated that this clause did not expire after the contract was terminated, it meant that I could not share this information for the rest of my life.
I very much understand the need for confidentiality and secrecy under certain circumstances. By no means do I think interpreters should be free to talk about anything they hear while working. Yet strangely enough, I was never required to sign any confidentiality agreement with the State Department in my 18 years of interpreting work! Though I was interpreting for presidents in secret meetings, I did not have secret clearance. In my opinion, presidential interpreters should be required to have secret clearance. But as long as it was not required, I chose not apply as it is a very long, invasive process. To go from no confidentiality agreement at all to the above, incredibly restrictive agreement to me seems entirely inappropriate.
I negotiated for about a month with my supervisors at the State Department to see if we could work around the new contract. It appeared that we would be able to do so. But then, out of the blue, the chief of language services, who had been involved in these negotiations, for reasons unknown to me sent me an email stating that anyone who did not sign the new contract would no longer be able to work for the State Department. That is when I sent in my official resignation.
Inttranews: Was the non-disclosure agreement any different from that normally required of professional interpreters?
Fred Burks: I have not done a lot of private work. The work I have done privately has not required a non-disclosure agreement. I did keep sensitive information confidential, strictly for ethical considerations. I do not think interpreters should reveal information they learn in the course of their work that might negatively impact their client, unless there is a very good reason.
Inttranews: Was there no previous non-disclosure agreement?
Fred Burks: As I stated above, I never signed any kind of confidentiality agreement.
Inttranews: Did you resign, or were you asked to resign?
Fred Burks: I chose to resign after my chief's email stating that, in effect, I could no longer work with the State Department if I didn't sign the contract. Technically, I did not resign, but rather terminated my contract.
Inttranews: Have you found any work since leaving the job?
Fred Burks: As I am so passionate about my other work, I am not interested in looking for other interpreting work now. I have turned down a couple offers. If something really interesting comes along, I may accept it, but I am keeping very busy with this other most empowering work.
Inttranews: What effect do you think your decision will have on your career?
Fred Burks: I had already been working much less as an interpreter. I will miss the fascinating work at high levels, but other than this, my resignation has not had much effect on my career. I could easily find lots of interpreting work if I chose to make the effort.
Inttranews: Have you undergone any pressures since resigning?
Fred Burks: I have actually been quite sad that only a couple colleagues contacted me to discuss my resignation and express their sadness at my leaving. Though I was actually quite well like as the State Department, none of my supervisors called to express regret. Neither have I been subject to any pressures. I have talked with the press about a secret meeting I was involved in back in 2002 at which the US government requested that president Megawati secretly capture a well-known fundamentalist Muslim and turn him over to the U.S. As this was an illegal, or at the very least highly deceptive action with great ramifications, I have decided to talk about it since my resignation. This revelation has received quite a bit of press in Indonesia, supporting many people's belief there that the U.S. manipulates politics in Indonesia. I will likely soon be going to Indonesia to testify in the high-level court case of the above-mentioned gentleman. He is currently facing an extensive jail term for allegations
which come largely from the U.S.
Inttranews: Do you think the international translation community could do more in cases of humanitarian disasters such as the tidal wave that hit Indonesia last week, and if so, do you have any suggestions?
Fred Burks: I think the interpreting community could set up a list of interpreters who would be willing to help out in major disasters like the recent tsunami. This list could include contact information and other important questions, such as willingness to pay for travel, needs for reimbursement, etc. If a disaster should strike, this list could be made available to major relief organizations involved in handling the disaster. This would likely be of great assistance in providing a rapid relief team to sites where the need is great. I would certainly be interested in adding my name to this database. I wish I could help out in Indonesia, which has been so hard hit in this most recent disaster. My heart goes out to all of the victims.
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