A closer look on the #Helsinki2018 Putin-Trump Summit by a well-trained eye


The whole world is in awe after the #Helsinki2018 Summit between the chief commanders of the world’s superpowers that was held in the remote and seemingly neutral haven for high-profile guests. An occasion of this order should be taken seriously, or as seriously as one possibly can. Here is my best effort at staying serious while trying to decipher what actually happened during and after the event.

Thanks to some delightful copy I was assigned to transcreate from English to Russian on the eve of the Putin-Trump Summit and the otherwise laid-back agenda of the Finnish holiday season I had an opportunity to tune into the Helsinki spirit and follow the event online as it unfolded.

Please note that this entry contains my personal impressions of the summit. You’re welcome to share yours in the commenting fields below!

YLE – great return on tax money

The Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE offered great visibility of the summit from early morning ’til sun down. YLE showed literally every step of the presidents from the moment they set foot on the Finnish soil, seeing them cordially off at the airport when the party was over. The main public event to watch, of course, was the press conference that took place after the presidents’ private talks held behind closed doors in the Presidential Palace of Helsinki. What went on there has raised some justified questions, but also some unjustified claims to find out just that.

Living is easy?

In the morning of the big day there was a lot of exciting hustle in the otherwise quiet streets of Helsinki. In mid-July the city is usually empty – everyone is gone fishing. Not this time: crowds were building along Helsinki’s main artery Mannerheimintie way before the presidents’ arrival,  policemen watching every corner of the street and steering the shiny black cars safely to the downtown venue. Not often are the streets closed to public traffic in Finland, but now everything was planned to the last detail to make the presidential visit smooth and safe.

The Helsinki Spirit

Helsinki has long traditions as an organiser of heavy-duty events, such as the OSCE conference in 1975 and the 6th ASEM Summit in 2006 which is the largest conference ever held in Finland. Even the unpredictable Finnish weather proved excellent, with clear skies and rare readings on the thermometer. The conditions were perfect for reaching the Helsinki Spirit which is said to create a positive atmosphere for international meetings.

Would everything go according to plan this time? It’s funny how you feel somehow responsible as a citizen of the organising country, even if you had absolutely no role in the arrangements.

Better late than never

President Trump had arrived with First Lady Melania the day before the summit. While she chose not to participate in any of the official programme offered, the husband had yet another working day ahead of him. Nothing seems to worry President Trump: on the day of the summit he looked calm and collected, like he was handling business as usual.

Instead, what President Putin did would be unforgivable in any business circles. His delayed arrival has been mostly received as an attempt to prove his might, which is probably correct. One can hardly claim the security check took longer than usual.

What the world then saw happen at the Presidential Palace located in the historical part of downtown Helsinki did not appear as a press conference, but more like an awkward episode of all-too-real TV that most of us probably were not hoping to see. I’m not sure if I followed the event this closely out of an interest in superpower politics or my mission as a translator of English and Russian, so let’s say both were present. As one of my perceptive colleagues put it, watching it was painful, but the aftermath has been even more upsetting. If nothing good resulted from the summit, at least one profession was brought to the spotlight, thanks to President Trump! But let’s discuss that a bit later.

Summit issues

According to the preliminary statements, the presidents’ expectations were moderate; after all, the relations between the two countries had aggravated to the point where there were huge conflicting interests and disagreements on global issues such as the Ukraine, Syria, and the nuclear arms control, not to talk about the allegations according to which Russia meddled in the US presidential election in favour of president Trump.

The agenda of the summit that preceded the press conference was not disclosed to the public which was suspicious and caused concerns about possible deals being made behind the scenes. While a short encounter like this could hardly change the status quo, as both presidents pointed out before the summit, it was an opportunity to create preconditions for further dialogue on critical issues which we all try not to be too worried of. We certainly hope this is what happened, and only this, given the circumstances.

Getting into the groove

However, the press conference gives reason to believe otherwise. I watched it meticulously from start to finish, paying special attention to both presidents’ verbal and non-verbal communication. What made it more intriguing was the fact that I was able to pick up every nuance of what was being said in the respective languages.

Mr Trump’s appearance was very strange. He made a shocking trade-off with President Putin according to which he was ready to exchange US classified information against Russia’s intelligence on the alleged election scam. Putin’s behaviour appeared quite purposeful despite slight uncertainty in his body language which showed as him holding on to the armrest with his right hand.

Trump never showed a sign of hesitation: as usual, he seemed to simply react by saying whatever occurred forthcoming to him at every given moment, never contemplating on any repercussions his words might have later. If Mr Trump’s appearance couldn’t be explained by his impulsiveness, then he indeed was taking the Russian side against his own, which is a very problematic situation not only from the US viewpoint, but also seen from outside the US.

Lean results

The presidents seemed to have no personal issues based on their behaviour at the press conference, but the summit may have done just the opposite than it was supposed to: the echoes it gives now, a couple of days later, suggest that it could have even worsened the relationship between the two countries and cause i.a. the number of sanctions towards Russia to increase.

They get worse…

While the summit has left US in turmoil due to Mr Trump’s unfortunate concession, it’s far more difficult to assess what the Russian counterpart makes of the summit. One thing is certain: Russia will respond to all measures taken by the US, and the response is not likely to make the world a better place, unless the US show any signs of changing their policy.

Once again, we get convinced of the importance of strong leadership. It is ultimately an ability to unite and bring people together when working towards a common goal. As I see it, solidarity towards your own is also vital to building confidence among others.

Bragging is no Finn’s cup of tea (Coffee please, if you ask us!)

A meeting at the highest thinkable level, between the presidents of two unpredictable nuclear powers both wanting to become rulers of the world is a responsibility my home town handled with grace and style. While pride is not a characteristic native to the Finns, in its original meaning anyway, one needs at least not be ashamed of the way the summit was handled. We can say without exaggeration that this mission was completed successfully from the organiser’s point of view.

President Sauli Niinistö was highly presentable and hosted his own press conference quite fluently in three different languages: Finnish, English and Swedish. He pointed out that, even though Finland is not a party to superpower politics, it is by no means a neutral country, since there is no such thing. I love President Niinistö’s loyalty and humble appearance even at the most demanding occasions where taking sides could be tempting. He has the kind of qualities that are rare in people of his rank.

Multilingual communication – an art unlike any other

Whenever there is a possibility to follow an international conference or meeting being interpreted from one language to another, I just can’t help it. This is due to my compassion towards interpreters who have just about the trickiest job on earth. In fact, I wanted to become one since my youth, and become I did. I used to serve overseas construction operations for a couple of decades in this capacity.

From the experience I know that interpreters are subjected to the kind of pressure which few of us could handle even provided the theoretical skills. There is no better expert on interpersonal communication than an experienced interpreter. This is a profession that teaches you so much about people and how they behave in negotiation situations. Both verbal and non-verbal communication are at play, but while delivering the messages you must always restrict yourself to what is actually being said, even if the non-verbal communication told you otherwise. An interpreter must have almost superhuman reactions and be able to concentrate 100% on other people, sometimes even for hours without eating or a moment’s rest. Although the work basically involves talking and listening, it is even physically exhausting. After the day is done you simply drop dead in bed while the rest of the crew goes to dinner.

Media takes sides

Much has been written to date about the summit, and much more will be, I’m afraid. Most of the summaries and analyses so far focus on one side of the story only, each in their own language, leaving the other side largely unheard.

The western media concentrates on what Trump said and take little interest in Putin’s words, including his considerate apologies for the inconvenience caused to local people by the special traffic arrangements and for losses to businesses operating in Helsinki city centre.

There seems to be far more coverage on how the event was received by the Americans in Russian than there is on the respective impressions of Russians being covered in English. This imbalance would be an interesting subject to explore more closely. I doubt that it only had to do with limited language skills, though English is known more commonly in Russia than Russian in the English-speaking world. This phenomenon could even be telling us who is running the show.

Regardless of the situation, it’s always a pity when parties fail to take genuine interest in each other since this gives rise to prejudice and paves the way to seeing only one side of the story. Other than that, not speaking the same language, in both the literal and metaphorical meanings of the expression, is poor tactics, no matter if you try to beat your counterpart or establish a friendly relationship with them, not to even talk about yielding results to the parties’ mutual benefit.

I’ll conclude this blog entry by expressing a strong opinion on another post-summit scandal which has brought, surprisingly enough, President Trump’s interpreter to the spotlight.

What do translators and ethics have in common?

Several days later, almost two weeks from the summit, a new issue has been raised by some US Democrats: they want to bring Trump’s interpreter Marina Gross to testify before the Congress about the private talks that preceded the press conference. What’s wrong with that then? Wouldn’t it be neat to know what really went on at the summit? After all, the interpreter “was the only other American present”. Such practice, however, should never be allowed for several weighty reasons.

Albeit thankful to Mr Trump for the attention arisen towards the profession, the whole translator community is devastated by similar claims, since they challenge the obviously little known interpreter (and likewise, translator) ethics. All professional players know that information brought to a translator’s knowledge during the assignment must remain strictly confidential. That goes even without any GDPR or NDA obligations. So, whenever you use a professional translator, you can be sure that they will never disclose your information to any other party.

In this particular case, apart from ruining the great career of an innocent interpreter at its very peak, there are other problems that should cause serious concern from the reliability point of view. These have to do with the secrets of the trade of which the public are vastly unaware. For example, do you know what consecutive interpretation is all about and why interpreters’ notes should never be trusted?

You can learn more about this fascinating, but highly demanding mission from an interview with an accurate source published by the US radio station NPR. The main points of the interview are summarised in Finnish here.

Thank you for reading MyTransMission’s blog. I hope it gives you new insight into communication matters!

-Eeva-Leena Alhos

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