Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Presidential Natural Translator: Malia Obama

When do you get to be interpreter for the president of the United States without any training or official examination? Answer: When you're the president's daughter.
"President Obama may be the leader of the free world, but he's relying on his daughter Malia as his personal interpreter during his historic trip fo Cuba. Malia was captured translating Spanish for her father on Sunday night in a photo that's since gone viral.

"'You know, her Spanish is much better than mine,' Obama said in an exclusive interview with ABC News' David Muir. 'And I'm hoping that she has a chance to get entirely fluent.'"
Malia is a few years older than George Thomas Staunton, who was the subject of the preceding post on this blog. She is 17. Nevertheless she is still in high school and therefore out of range of the American university translation programs. It's interesting that she can serve as interpreter though her Spanish isn't very fluent. Her father did opine, though, that "as a proud father I have to say that her Spanish is getting very good. It helps that she's smarter than I am." We aren't given a verbatim sample, but her father seems pleased; so we can conclude that her interpreting was 'fit for purpose'. In the photo, "the teenager appears to be confident and happy to be helping her father, as she put her high school Spanish education into use."

The purpose was informal conversational exchanges in "a visit with locals", not official negotiations. The definition of Natural Translation says that it takes place "in everyday circumstances." Admittedly interpreting for the president is hardly an everyday circumstance, but we can take the definition as referring here to the nature of ths discourse.

The Wikipedia article on the Obama family doesn't mention Malia's language education. Her father's bilingualism in Englsh and some African languages may have encouraged her. She did visit Oaxaca on a school trip last year. It may actually be an exaggeration to classify her as a Natural Translator, since she may have had translation instruction during her Spanish courses. But if it's an exaggeration, it's only a slight one.

Rarely has an interpretation performance, natural or professional, received so much press mention. All the American news networks mentioned it.

The President and Malia share a laugh as Malia translates Spanish to English for her dad at a restaurant on Old Havana. Photo by Pete Souza, chief White House phoographer.

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.


  1. This post has now garnered more than one thousand 'page views'.

    Because of interpreting or because of the Obamas? No doubt the latter, since the post on the Staunton boy has only 250.

    1. Because of Obama's name, of course. And just to let you know since you wrote this article, Malia was NOT an official translator for the trip. She was communicating spanish for her dad to speak with the locals. Obama has a professional translator in use, he was having dinner with his family and Malia was there to translate simple spanish for the family, not for any official business.

    2. Please re-read the post. It says clearly, "The purpose was informal conversational exchanges… not official negotiations." The point is that AT THAT LEVEL people can do interpretation without training.

  2. I don't know why you people are taking this so seriously. She wasn't the official translator for the trip she was just helping her dad communicate spanish with the manager of the restaurant. That's it. Nothing more to it.

  3. It’s Interesting to read this type of news. US president may be one of most powerful person in the World, but for translation his daughter Malia help him.

  4. My English is very poor but I know the importance of it today, because it is the common language of the whole world. So I need to try harder to cultivate my knowledge.
    click to read more