How Website Founder Fred Burks Came to Interpret for President Bush and President Clinton
November 19, 2005
The story of how I ended up inside the White House interpreting for Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton is quite inspiring. It all happened pretty much without my even trying. But before I begin the story, I have to mention that since age 19, I have been deeply committed to doing what’s best for all of us and to opening fully to divine guidance in my life. The chain of small miracles that led me to the White House is only one example of the abundance of amazing miracles I’ve experienced since embracing these empowering life intentions.
“You’ve got to go with me, Fred, or I’ll never fulfill my dream of living in Japan.” In 1980, I was an energetic 22-year-old college student living in a fun dormitory on the beautiful campus of UC Santa Cruz in California. One calm autumn evening, my roommate, John, asked me to go with him to a meeting put on by Volunteers In Asia (VIA). VIA is a non-profit educational exchange organization that sends college undergrads to Asia to experience life in a foreign culture while teaching English there.
Besides being very busy with studies that evening, I wasn’t at all interested in leaving college or living overseas. At first, I told John I just didn’t have time. But after hearing his sincere appeals, I had to agree that John was shy and that there was no way he would go alone. Only because I knew it might really change his life, I reluctantly agreed to accompany him.
At the meeting, I found myself captivated by the incredible vibrance and passion I saw in these recently returned volunteers as they excitedly shared colorful slides and fascinating stories about their transformative cross-cultural experiences in Asia. Their vivid descriptions were filled with enthusiasm, joy, and powerful awakenings. The lives of these young adventurers had clearly been dramatically enriched by their journeys. The end result was that though John never went to Japan, I, having been dragged to this meeting against my will, ended up going to live in Asia as a volunteer English teacher!
I requested Japan as my first choice for placement, as I had to pay my own plane fare and Japan was the least expensive choice. But I told VIA that I would go anywhere they sent me if the few available Japanese positions filled. They chose Indonesia for me, which at the time I hadn’t even realized was a country. I had thought it was a small group of islands somewhere in the Pacific. I fully trusted, though, that I was being guided to the right place for me.
In Indonesia, I lived for a full year on the west side of the vast island of Borneo with the warmest, most wonderful Muslim family in the world. As my newly adopted father was an MD, he supported his parents and a couple siblings and in-laws and their children, so that in all, we had an extended family of 20 people living under one roof! My adopted mother there was one of the kindest, most saintly women I’ve ever met. I had countless amazingly rich experiences with these gentle, loving people.
Even with all of the activity of my large, adopted family constantly around me, I found myself studying the Indonesian language like a maniac—two to three hours almost every day—for the entire year abroad. I knew that language was crucial to diving into the culture, but I was way overboard in how much I studied. Yet somehow, I sensed there was a greater reason for it all.
In 1986, four years after my time in Indonesia, I had just come back home from two intense years of teaching English at a college in communist China, again as a VIA volunteer. My time in China was filled with rich, sometimes challenging adventures quite different than Indonesia. Living in Wuhan (a city of six million about which most people have never heard), I had been the first foreigner in the city to be allowed to live together with local Chinese in a teachers dormitory. Now that I was back home, it was time to finally look for some income-producing work to feed my nearly empty bank account.
A VIA friend of mine told me about an interesting job as a language interpreter taking influential foreign visitors on study tours of the United States for the Department of State. I had never seriously considered being an interpreter, but this sounded quite interesting. So thanks to all those hours studying like a maniac in Indonesia, I ended up with a great job as an Indonesian interpreter where I was paid to travel and study all over the US with my distinguished Indonesian guests!
By the end of my first month in this fascinating new job, I realized I was a natural at interpreting. I was soon whispering simultaneously into the ears of my Indonesian visitors as Americans conversed with them. I saw that if I was willing to study more, I could become a really good simultaneous interpreter and possibly even interpret for top government officials some day. After praying for what’s best, however, I became clear that I wanted to focus my time and energy on other, more meaningful matters. I chose not to spend much time on language skills, and was perfectly content to continue as a low-level interpreter.
In 1992 (six years later), now working only part time as an interpreter and part time with cancer patients as a registered nurse, I took an assignment as the administrative interpreter supporting two simultaneous interpreters at a government-sponsored seminar in Washington, DC. Because of the intense concentration needed, simultaneous interpreting requires two interpreters who switch off every 20 to 30 minutes. I was out running errands for a few of the visitors when the seminar started.
When I came back a few hours later, the group was on a break. As soon as he saw me, one of the interpreters, Dan, grabbed me and franticly asked, “Can you do any simultaneous interpreting?” The other interpreter had gotten sick and had to go home. Dan had been interpreting almost three hours without a break, which is almost unheard of. So even though I wasn’t officially qualified, I stepped in, did great, and finished out the remainder of the week-long seminar as a simultaneous interpreter. On hearing about this, my boss at the State Department called me in to congratulate me. At his suggestion, I took and easily passed the test to become officially qualified as a simultaneous interpreter.
It turns out that Indonesian interpreters are in great demand—especially simultaneous Indonesian interpreters. Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world (population 220 million), yet very few Americans ever learn Indonesian (the national language). So in 1995, out of the blue I received a call from the State Department asking me to travel to Copenhagen to interpret for Vice President Al Gore at a UN Conference! Even though I wasn’t officially qualified for high level interpreting, they couldn’t find anyone else. So I went, had a great time, and shortly thereafter qualified at the State Department’s highest level.
Before my resignation because of excessive secrecy in 2004, I had interpreted for President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney, Secretaries of State Albright and Powell, and numerous other high-level officials from many countries. Whenever present in high-level meetings, I did my very best to open to divine guidance, and to send out lots of love, support, and wishes for what’s best to all present. At key summit meetings, I even invited many friends to take a moment in silence and join me in inviting our world leaders to open to what is best for all who share our world. I have no doubt that this is why I was led to this fascinating work.
It’s pretty amazing that I never even had to try, yet ended up as the State Department’s top Indonesian interpreter. It’s even more amazing when you remember that I did not choose Indonesia and was dragged against my will to that first VIA meeting years ago! There are many more little miracles to this story that, for reasons of space, I didn’t include. For me, all of this shows that the more I open to divine guidance and to what’s best for all, the more filled with miracles my life becomes. I give thanks for these many miracles and for all that I have been given. And thank you, my friends, for reading and sharing in a piece of my life.
With very best wishes,
Former language interpreter for Presidents Bush and Clinton
To read some of the fascinating stories from my high-level interpreting experiences
To read about the inspiring results of inviting our world leaders to open to what’s best
To read about my resignation because of excessive secrecy in November 2004
For the story of how speaking truth led to my being a celebrity for a week
To read an empowering essay I wrote titled Simple Keys to a Fuller Life