Interpreting for an American Visa Interview: A Play in Two Acts (with Interlude)

Kirill Sharkovski, Interpretation Track

  State ideology and its consequences are often disastrous for individuals, and they often result in restrictions on our freedom of movement.

  This may be unimaginable to our Taiwanese peers (and others), but the reality of obtaining an American visa has always been brutal for fellow Belarusians. Refusals are frequent, successful applications are few and far between, and consequently, the very idea of going to a US embassy is rather terrifying due to all the uncertainty.

Part 1: the AIT

  In October, I was supposed to travel to the Canton Fair (廣交會) for the first time in 4 years. Unfortunately, that trip was canceled, but early that month, I received another interesting assignment. A Belarusian woman was going to travel to Taiwan to apply for her education visa at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT); I was to interpret during her application.

  One might ask: why come all the way here? As mentioned above, the geopolitical reality of Belarus is that our authoritarian government is on bad terms with nearly the entire world, its sole allies being similar international pariahs and outcasts. Consequently, the American embassy in Minsk — the capital — is nonexistent, while obtaining a visa to a country with an American embassy is next to impossible. At the same time, Taiwan and Belarus are so far away from one another that politics do not come into play here, and procuring a visa to Taiwan is still possible. Also, apparently, 98% of applications at the AIT are successful, which is why my client ultimately decided to lodge her application here. However, things were about to get complicated.

  Waking up early was never my strength, but it had to be done to reach the other end of the city where AIT is located. After passing security and leaving everything but passports behind, we were finally allowed in. First impressions were unpleasant: this was the new site of the Institute, and its shining corridors did feel rather unnerving and cold. Not to say I had time to think about it at that point, as events were moving forward fast.

  I need to mention that my interpreting direction during this assignment was Russian to English, and on another side note, there was a surprising number of Russian speakers making their applications on that day — perhaps, lured by the AIT’s high success rate.

  Frankly speaking, while I am a proponent of the idea that it is best to work in a comfortable environment, oftentimes we have to make do with what we have. And interview environment at American embassies is nowhere near comfortable. The entire application process is neatly organized as a little conveyor belt that takes you from counter to counter until the ordeal is complete. However, as this was my first time witnessing an American visa application, I expected the interview process to be a one-on-one talk with an interpreter present. This was a foolish misconception, given the sheer number of applicants. Basically, interviews are conducted near one of the counters, with the interviewer across from you, behind glass. The fact that upcoming interviewees are standing right behind you and witnessing the entire process does little to mitigate anxiety. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel very anxious during the interview and in the buildup to it — quite unlike my client.

  American immigration authorities are very concerned about the possibility that a visitor will overstay their welcome in the land of the free, which is why they are very selective about who gets in or not. Unfortunately, the visa officer did not find my client’s case believable, and when her hand reached for a stack of pre-printed papers with the dull words of rejection, I knew it was over.


  We know well that interpreters can make a speech more digestible or generally more pleasant for an audience to perceive. However, on occasions like the one I just described, it is facts and not emotions that make or break everything. On the one hand, I felt guilty for my client’s rejection. Maybe I could have done more. Maybe I could have said something differently. On the other hand, interpreters are vessels for information, we deliver the speaker’s message, but we have no right to speak on their behalf. Nonetheless, I felt very conflicted after the fact, perhaps because this was my first time.

  Later I learned that the client made her way to Hanoi and lodged another unsuccessful application with an interpreter who spoke insufficient English. The client’s partner then made arrangements to ‘airlift’ me to Vietnam and interpret for her once more.

Part 2: Vietnam

  Despite having lived in Asia for a long time, Vietnam became only the third country I visited on this continent so far. With its booming development and never-ending chaos in the city area, Hanoi was the complete antithesis of the relatively calm Taipei, especially near affluent Neihu. For some reason, this contrast immediately made me more hopeful. It was also interesting to be in a country where I didn’t understand anyone for the first time in a long time.

  The consular section of the local American embassy was also very charming, featuring an interior that evoked the ambiance of high schools depicted in movies from the 1980s. The memories of the past failure were still fresh, however, and this time my anxiety probably was on par with that of my client. However, there was little time to dwell on these thoughts, as events rapidly unfolded soon after. The embassy workers were already familiar with my client — the sole Belarusian in a very long time — and a senior employee was dispatched to handle her case. He was visibly more sympathetic, yet still worried about her not leaving the US; the interview took a very long time. There were a few moments when the visa officer’s hand reached somewhere, and I found myself praying that it was not for that rejection notice again. Ultimately, the interview was a success, and my client’s visa was granted on the third attempt. Hallelujah, as they say.


  There is no deep moral to this story, although the fact that my client is in her dream country at the moment warms my heart. I guess we always have to remember the value of perseverance, and as interpreters, we can never be sure what challenges lie ahead. But this is just one part of what makes this profession so dynamic and interesting. Good luck to us all.


Special thanks to Cheryl and Damien for reviewing and giving valuable suggestions!