U.S. and Iranian diplomatic relations made a big jump last month when President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke directly by phone. It's the first time an American president has spoken to an Iranian leader in more than three decades. That phone call, of course, wasn't a cure-all. The U.S. and Israel remain concerned about Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear program, among other things.
Banafsheh Keynoush has been the English translator for four Iranian presidents. She spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about what Iran's leaders have been saying all along, and what can't be translated.
On getting started as a simultaneous interpreter
I had decided that I wanted to be a simultaneous interpreter as an avenue to finally work in the field of international relations. Remember that as a woman in Iran those avenues were closed to us. ... I was born to Tehran, so I grew up there, and I worked there and made my way as a simultaneous interpreter. And a colleague asked me to help him out during a conference, and I believe at the time I was the first female voice for interpreters, and people started liking the way I translated. I'm always usually a little animated and emotional even during translation. And I was asked to handle the press conferences for the presidents.
On controversially misusing the word "holocaust" in a translation
[Iranian President Hassan Rouhani] did not use the word "holocaust," so I can just tell you what transpired as a result. I went to his people, and also spoke with CNN, and said, "You know, this is what had happened, and I take full responsibility for it."... He said, I think "that event" — he referred to it as that historic event, something of the sort. And you'd be interested to know that in the end, they said, "You know, stuff happens. It's OK."... You have to recognize that the speed of simultaneous translation is indeed simultaneous.
On her impressions of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Honestly, I think it's a little premature to talk about impressions. I usually — it takes two years for me to hang out in New York with the president to really get a sense of who they are and how they think and feel about world affairs, or et cetera. But with him, I just felt that he's a person comfortable in his skin. He appears to be kind of middle ground, and moderate, and relaxed, and somewhat easygoing, and that's about all the impression I had.
On translating for former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
I think he came into this with a degree of inexperience, as well as ambivalence, carrying the same ambivalence that many of Iran's revolutionaries carry toward the West. On the one hand, they strive to understand it, to make contacts with it. On the other hand, they represent the raison d'etre — the defiance of U.S. foreign policy in the region, in the Middle East, and in Iran. And I think together, he represented that confusion.
On what gets lost in translation
I often ask myself how well am I able to interpret a culture beyond the words? Because beyond that, there's a culture. There's a culture from which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes from, which you might be surprised to find, it might be quite different from other presidents, and the cultural backgrounds they come from — Iran, after all, being a very culturally diverse place, socially diverse place in many senses. I am not able to convey that, and I think that is critical to understanding some of the failures of the Iranian-U.S. relationship.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. My thanks to Celeste Headlee for sitting in for me yesterday. Later on this hour, we're going to go back to that very disturbing story out of the capitol involving the young woman who died in a confrontation with law enforcement near the White House last week. Her family has said she was struggling with mental illness. So we're going to hear from a member of the American Psychiatric Association about what we might be able to learn from this tragic event.
But we start today talking about a difficult diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Iran. Now those relations took a step forward when President Obama and Iran's president Hassan Rohani spoke recently by phone. That was the first time an American president has spoken to an Iranian leader directly in more than three decades. Now clearly, that phone call didn't solve all problems. The U.S. and Israel remain concerned about Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear program. But we thought this would be a good time to speak with someone who's been talking with Iran's leaders all long. Actually, she's been listening to them and telling us what they're saying. Banafsheh Keynoush has had the assignment of translating for four Iranian presidents, and we caught up with her recently on a trip to D.C. Banafsheh, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
BANAFSHEH KEYNOUSH: Thank you.
MARTIN: Now you're a U.S. citizen?
KEYNOUSH: I am.
MARTIN: And you live in San Francisco?
KEYNOUSH: I do, yes.
MARTIN: So how did it happen that you have translated for not one, not two but four Iranian presidents?
KEYNOUSH: Well, to start with, I'd love to say that I think I was really good, but, you know, being good doesn't always bring about such opportunities. And the way it happened was that I was actually at a conference. I had decided that I wanted to be a simultaneous interpreter as an avenue to finally work in the field of international relations. Remember that as a woman in Iran, those avenues were closed to us.
MARTIN: You were born in Turan.
KEYNOUSH: I was to Turan. So I grew up there and worked there and made my way as a simultaneous interpreter. And, you know, a colleague asked me to help him out during a conference - and I believe at the time I was the first female voice for interpreters, and people started liking the way I translated. I'm always usually a little animated and emotional even during translation. And I was asked to handle the press conferences for the presidents.
MARTIN: I think Americans understand that, as you pointed out yourself, that your career horizons were limited in Iran, in part, because of beliefs about the appropriate roles for women in that society - public roles for women. Have any of the officials ever refused to allow you to work with them?
KEYNOUSH: In all these years, I only had one incident where I went to the holy city of Qom to attend a conference with a number of senior clerics, and there were a group of clerics who objected to having a female voice as an interpreter. But given that, you know, the level of translation that was required, it had to be high-quality translation. In the end, they decided that they were willing to give me a chance. And once I started handling the translation, I think they were very grateful because they started sending in hand-written notes thanking me.
MARTIN: Really? Well, there you go. You've translated for individuals who've been seen in widely different ways in this country and in the West, more broadly. I was wondering what your sense is of them. What I guess - what I'm asking you is, is there something you could share that is different from our impression of them?
KEYNOUSH: Well, first and foremost, I see a personality. And then beyond that, a person. And once I'm able to connect to the person, the translation flows from there. And, you know, it usually takes, you know, a few tries to really understand what the psychology behind the politician or the leader is. And I have had the, really, privilege of seeing these people as human beings like ourselves. And so, you know, that just makes - makes things really lovely in terms of working with individuals.
MARTIN: Well, just last month, you translated for the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. One of the interviews that caused quite a stir was his interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour at the United Nations meeting in New York. And I just want to listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: One of the things your predecessor used to do from this very platform was deny the Holocaust and pretend that it was a myth. I want to know, you - your position on the Holocaust. Do accept what it was? And what was it?
KEYNOUSH: (Translating for President Hassan Rouhani) I have said before that I am not a historian, personally. And that, when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust as such, it is the historians that should reflect on it. But in general I can tell you...
MARTIN: Now, you know about this. The Iranian press subsequently challenged your use of the word Holocaust in your translation. What do you make of this? What do you say about that?
KEYNOUSH: Well, that is correct. And he did not use the word Holocaust. So, I can just tell you what transpired as a result - I went to his people and also spoke with CNN and said, you know, this is what has happened and I take full responsibility for it. And you'd be interested to know...
MARTIN: What word did he use?
KEYNOUSH: He said, I think, that event. He referred to it as that historic event or something of the sort. And you'd be interested to know that in the end they said, you know, stuff happens. It's OK. And, you know, obviously I trust CNN. And I know that they really handled the situation the way it had to be handled.
MARTIN: Well, why did you use the word Holocaust when he didn't use that word?
KEYNOUSH: I think it was probably because Christiane Amanpour had used the word several times. And, given the speed of the translation, it was just the way it flowed.
MARTIN: But, can I just ask you - it wasn't your intention to create an impression of him? Because the reason that it caused - well, a number of reasons. Obviously, the fact that the Iranian press reacted to it so strongly - but the interpretation of it was that this president was trying to make a break with the past. That he was trying to create a different impression of himself and the position of the country. And, so, the question, I think, becomes were you trying to help him in a way?
KEYNOUSH: Well, that is really not my job. I cannot do that. I have to convey the message as best as I can. However, I generally receive a degree of latitude given the experience I've had in the field of interpretation. But none of this was really conscious. You have to recognize that the speed of simultaneous translation is, indeed, simultaneous. And fast.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, what are your impressions of President Hassan Rouhani? President Obama has spoken directly with him. This is the first time in many years that an American president has spoken directly with an Iranian president. But others, including Israeli, you know, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said this is the same as the past. And I just wondered what your impressions were of him.
KEYNOUSH: I think...
MARTIN: If you feel comfortable saying.
KEYNOUSH: Absolutely. I mean, honestly, I think it's a little premature to talk about impressions. I usually - it takes two years for me to hang out in New York with a president to really get a sense of who they are and how they think and feel about world affairs. But - or etc. - but with him, I just felt that he's a person comfortable in his skin. He appears to be kind of middle ground and moderate and relaxed and somewhat easy-going. And that's about all the impression I had. The rest was just work.
MARTIN: You also translated for a previous Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He kind of gave the West fits. I mean, he just gave the West fits. It just - he was even the subject of a "Saturday Night Live" skit - you know, more than one - because, it's like, people didn't know what to make of him. And I just, as a person who spent time with him, I just have to ask you, what were your impressions?
KEYNOUSH: I think he came into this with a degree of inexperience, as well as ambivalence - carrying the same ambivalence that many of the Iran's revolutionaries carry towards the West. On the one hand, they strive to understand it, to make contacts with it. On the other hand, they represent the reason that - to the defiance of U.S. foreign policy in the region and the Middle East and in Iran. And I think together, he represented that confusion.
MARTIN: You were there, though. Didn't you - you had to translate some of the statements that caused the most agitation in the West, if I may, you know, put it that way. There was a, you know, at one point he said - well, he said in a speech - this was in Turan in September 2009 - he said that the West lied about the Holocaust as a pretext for establishing the Zionist regime. And I think you may been there 'cause he said this in the United States, when he said that there are no homosexuals in Iran. And I just - is it OK if I ask you what it's like to translate something like that that I think many of us find ridiculous?
KEYNOUSH: Absolutely. I mean, believe me, for a second, I almost didn't want to translate that, that there are no homosexuals in Iran. But again, professional integrity required the translation, and when it came out, it did the way it did. But in all fairness, I think that there was a context to it. He went on to say, not the way it is here, which means not on, perhaps, a scale. Although, that could be factually inaccurate, as well, as far as we're concern.
But, you know, it is what it is. And it's just my job to say what it is, and what comes out as a result and sort of interpret that. They didn't read too much into it, and that's the only thing I can tell you from their side. On this side, I know that it really did sound extreme and ridiculous.
MARTIN: How do you handle the question of your body language when you're translating something like that?
KEYNOUSH: I often think about it. I'm not sure if you really will. The body language, I'm generally a very animated person. But having said that, I often ask myself, how well am I able to interpret a culture beyond the words? Because beyond that, there's a culture.
There's a culture from which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes from, which you might be surprised to find. It might be quite different from other presidents and the cultural backgrounds that they come from. Iran, after all, being a very culturally diverse place - socially diverse place, in many senses. I am not able to convey that, and I think that is critical to understanding some of the failures of the Iran and U.S. relationship.
MARTIN: Well, it's been a tense time for some years now, really. And there's a feeling I think in both countries, I think I can say, that there's a hope that things will change. I just wanted to ask as a person who spends more time with Iranian officials than most Americans do, what's your sense of the country? Do you have any? Do you have a sense of what the leadership desires? Do you have a sense of a shift in point of view?
KEYNOUSH: I certainly do. I do sense an urgency on the part of the leadership, the supreme leader, the message that has come across, as well as the presidency. As you know, these are two major pillars of power inside Iran. And there's a sense of urgency given the over 18 million votes that the new president received by the population in Iran. And that reflects here in the discussions that he brought with him. Now having said that, I think that both the Iranians - at least anyone who's had a history of - an experience with Iran's recent history recognizes that change in Iran is on a different timeline, much slower than we expect. And I think everyone needs to be patient.
MARTIN: Banafsheh Keynoush has been a translator for four Iranian presidents, as well as other Iranian notables, and she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios while we caught up with her on a visit to the capitol. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
KEYNOUSH: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.