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ALEXANDRIA, Va. – For the general public, what actually goes on inside the White House remains a mystery. An interpreter for seven past American presidents, Harry Obst has just released his new book, White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation (published by AuthorHouse). He takes a look at the five presidents he had the most interaction with - Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan – and shares an intimate look at the inner happening of the Oval Office.  


“Before I had time to compose my nerves, I found myself, for the first time, in the Oval Office for a one-on-one between the two leaders. … Lyndon B. Johnson plopped himself into his chair. Erhard took a  smaller armchair across from him, his famous cigar in his left hand. Hermann and I pulled up chairs and whipped our notebooks out of our coat pockets. I did not react fast enough to interpret Johnson’s opening statement. Kusterer had to do it for me. Suddenly, I realized that if I did not take over the next time the president spoke, my interpreting career would be over. When LBJ made his next statement, Kusterer smiled at me and made a hand gesture indicating that it was my turn. The first of thousands of sentences I was to interpret at the Oval Office over the next thirty years finally rolled off my tongue.”


Unable to find work as a professional translator, Obst emigrated to the United States in 1957. He worked in private industry for eight years until the Department of State offered him a staff position as diplomatic interpreter in 1965. He gained a thorough knowledge of the U.S. from 26 trips around  the country as an escort interpreter for leading personalities from Europe and from his work with many American presidents.


This book is not so much a memoir as an informative, educational look at the profession of interpreting itself. After finishing White House Interpreter, readers will understand what interpreting is all about and why this profession is of considerable importance to many segments of society. He writes:


“Nobody in the United States has ever written a book that explains the art of interpretation to the general reader. I wanted to fill that gap. Most Americans know what architects, lawyers, engineers, and physicians do, but interpreting remains a mystery to them.”


About the Author: Harry Obst was born in East Prussia in 1932.  He spent his early high school education as a refugee in Saxony under Soviet occupation.  As the teaching of French and English was forbidden at that time, he learned English with the help of a small dictionary and eight copies of the Ladies Home Journal, the only English texts he could find. He enrolled at Mainz University in 1954, with no money, majoring in translation and rounding out his language studies.


Obst was appointed director of the Office of Language Service at the Department of State in Washington in 1984. While in that position, he occasionally interpreted for presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and Bill Clinton. Obst retired from the federal government in March of 1997. He served as director and principal instructor of the former Inlingua School of Interpretation in Arlington, Virginia from 1997 to 2004 and has been writing and lecturing in retirement.


Samplings of lectures by Harry Obst:

A Highly Readable Memoir from a Master of the ART- June 5, 2010
For anyone unfamiliar with interpretation, Harry Obst does a wonderful job of portraying the unique challenges and rewards of this profession.  For those of us who practice it, this highly readable memoir is an invaluable contribution to our professional literature from a master of the art whose career exemplifies what interpreters can contribute to successful diplomacy. 

James Nolan, Former Deputy Director of Interpretation, United Nations


“….Based on his work of over three decades of service to the Department of State and the White House,   Mr. Obst’s autobiography narrates in an almost conversational style the role interpretation played in the major events in world history during these years, and he presents a rich mosaic of anecdotes involving some of the main actors on the world’s stage at this time.  Of particular interest to historians and political scientists should be his observations as interpreter to five presidents which he presented in chapters dedicated to presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan.  Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are mentioned in passing.  The chapter on President Johnson in particular makes a useful contribution to the reassessment of this president….

“Harry Obst concludes his recollections with a justified and cutting indictment of US higher education and the US government for failing to create centers for the education and training of interpreters and translators at elite US universities. This call for action should be read and considered by our leaders in Congress charged with overseeing the departments of education, commerce, and defense.”

Dr. Peter Krawutschke, professor at Western Michigan University and  past president of the American Translators Association



The unique quality of this book lies in a combination of highly professional information, addressing interpreters and making laymen sit up and take notice of a sorely neglected area in our society, combined with the author's profound familiarity with historical facts, on the one hand, and touches of humor - sometimes hilarious, sometimes bittersweet - on the other.

The author is never afraid of criticizing himself for inadequacies (particularly occurring during the earlier years of his career), but by the same token gives his colleagues and himself credit where credit is due, but too often not duly recognized. As for his learning and imparting process, he hits the nail right on its head with his comment:

"The interpreter becomes a professor in a small traveling university. But he also is a student, absorbing enormous amounts of useful information each day."

His skillfully uncomplicated approach toward imparting profound subjects to his readers, which, expressed by a less talented author, might have appeared dry and little inspiring, especially to those not involved in interpreting or to the powers that be, serves as a wake-up call to wider segments of society.

Karin Isbell, Phoenix, Arizona

    "You have provided me with great joy: with your letter, with the warm dedication in your book, and with the book itself. I devoured this book, because it awakened so many memories, because I was able to meet so many people in this book who have been close to me in my active period and afterwards."

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, former German Foreign Minister


An engaging and powerful testament to the incredible gift, talent and profession called "interpretation".

The book is a huge contribution to the advancement of the profession. It is written by a master interpreter himself who describes the art so brilliantly. Readers will get an insider view on the work involved, the value of having great mentors, the level of knowledge needed to interpret on new and complex subjects (especially for high level and diplomatic interpreting) and many direct experiences that show the multilingual mind performing at full capacity. Unpretentious, candid, entertaining and remarkable in style - all from an author whose native language is not English!

The art of interpretation is a gift, a talent and a profession worth sharing and developing. The author also makes a strong case for the urgent need (in American society in particular) to develop and train more professional interpreters and to do so with the help of state governments, the federal government as well as private and corporate funds. The need is great and the time to support this special profession is now.

Lauren Rockwell, review


I just simply love this book. It is so well written and I haven't read a book that has interest me in a long while. It shows great written communication skills, its impressive, its educative, its factual, and its filled with good real live humor. It’s simple and straightforward. no jargons. It should be worth more for every interpreter. I recommend it.

Jimmy Jamal, Member of the American Translation Association and SCTSL