Harry Obst is usually on time to class - unless, like today, he gets tied up at the White House.
The director and sole instructor of the School of Interpretation at Inlingua Language Service Centers in Rosslyn has been called in to interpret on a conference call between President Clinton and a German official. His usual job, though, is training people to be interpreters.
Interpreters are in high demand because hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken in the area. The job can pay very well: A courtroom interpreter can make more than $250 a day and a conference interpreter can get $650 a day, Mr. Obst said.
"It's a matter of supply and demand. It's that simple."
Mr. Obst, who immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957, speaks six languages in addition to his native German. He has interpreted for every president since Lyndon Johnson.
His background in interpreting and translating (interpreting written documents) led him to establish Inlingua's interpreting school in 1997. Other language schools offer similar training, but Mr. Obst says Inlingua is one of the few that requires a student to be fluent in a language before enrolling.
The privately owned school is unique in the area since similar programs at Georgetown University and George Mason University were discontinued.
The interpreting school is "language neutral," focusing not on interpreting a specific language, but on general techniques used to interpret any language.
"[This way] we can spend all our time making them good interpreters," Mr. Obst said. "Eighty percent of all interpreting work in the U.S. is done by totally untrained interpreters."
In small classes, students are taught memory retention, visualization skills and a type of shorthand notation using symbols based on word meaning, not sound.
"[The] interpreter is a meaning hunter . . . [he] works like a detective," Mr. Obst said.
Mr. Obst's classes incorporate readings in ethics, economics, etiquette and courtroom procedure to give students a background for the environments they may be interpreting in.
Classes run eight hours a day, five days a week, in three-week terms and take up most of Mr. Obst's time. He has retired from daily interpreting but still fills in at the State Department or White House about once a month.
"It's very hard to turn down the president," he said.
Mr. Obst says there are more foreigners than Americans in most of his classes these days. His current session includes students from Uruguay and Outer Mongolia.
Inlingua is a Swiss-based network of language centers with more than 270 privately owned offices around the world, including some 30 in the United States. In addition to the School of Interpretation, Inlingua runs immersion language programs, mostly for Defense Department employees.
"About 80 percent of our students have to take Defense Department tests [for language efficiency]," said Ed Nef, who …