Posted on Thursday, November 12, 2009
Category: Interpreting, Technology
The White House must be looking for a new Arabic interpreter. Gamal Helal – the primary Arabic interpreter for the last four presidents and six secretaries of state – left the office on October 22.
Born in Asyut, Egypt in 1954, Helal came to the US when he was 21, after completing his undergraduate degree.
He studied in Vermont’s School for International Training and received his M.A. in cross-culture communication, a degree that gave him solid background for his future work as one of the preeminent Arabic interpreters in the United States.
The Interpreter Behind the President
In 1983, Helal became a US citizen and began to work as an Arabic interpreter for the government.
Helal began as an Arabic interpreter in the Department of State, and played a critical role during talks with Iraq before the Gulf War. In 1993, he became the senior diplomatic Arabic interpreter in the department, and he gained a reputation for his expertise in foreign affairs, as well as his ability to remain calm under situations of extreme pressure.
Soon, Helal became an integral part of US relations with the Middle East, serving as the senior Mideast adviser to every President since George H. W. Bush. He was also involved as an Arabic interpreter in every recent major peace talk, notably the 2000 talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat.
But Helal served as more than just an Arabic interpreter during these meetings. During the summit, Helal was asked to speak alone with Arafat and persuade him to come to an agreement. Rather than simply translating, Helal displayed the use of language as a powerful bond between speakers.
More than Just Words
Helal was also a key player during communications with leaders in the Middle East after the World Trade Center bombings in 2001. He served as an interpreter in Arabic language communications with Middle Eastern leaders to work through the difficult time and promote cultural understanding.
Especially in this case, being an Arabic interpreter was much more than just communicating in two languages. “I had to be in a position to convey not only the words, but the mood, the determination, the ideas and the nuance of what [President George W. Bush] was saying,” Helal commented in an interview with the Washington Post.
What’s next for Helal? Now 55, he is leaving behind his government post as an Arabic interpreter to start his own career as language consultant.