Saratoga, Mercury News: Obama’s Words Go through Chawla to Modi

Saratoga, Mercury News: Obama’s Words Go through Chawla to Modi

San Jose Mercury News – Feb 11, 2015: When Gurdeep Chawla applied for a translator job at the Indian Parliament a couple of decades ago, little did she know that the skills she’d learn in a job that was supposed to be only temporary would take her as far as the White House, the G20 economic summit and the United Nations. After all, she had her heart set on becoming a college professor. But, as it often happens, life had other plans for her.

Fast-forward to January 2015, and Chawla was trailing President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi all across New Delhi, serving as the communication link between the two heads of state. Earlier in the month, she’d served as an interpreter for Secretary of State John Kerry. In the middle of the frenzy that comes with such experiences, she was mourning the loss of her father, who died in India around the same time.

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Ten years ago, Chawla, who calls Saratoga home, founded Indian Language Services, a professional translation and interpretation company. Interpreters work on a contractual basis, and they speak a range of languages, including those from South Asia, Europe, South America and Asia. Chawla herself speaks Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.

The road to where she is today traces back to St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi, where Chawla went to graduate school. Then the Indian Parliament job came along and Chawla knew immediately she’d landed her dream job. Within two years, she trained herself to learn interpretation. After earning one more master’s degree in political science, Chawla moved to the U.S. with her husband in 1996. They lived in Sunnyvale before moving to Saratoga 11 years ago. In 2002, she started working as a contractor for the State Department. Her first White House stint was in 2010, when Obama took his first presidential trip to India. Chawla shakes her head when she’s asked if she was nervous about this assignment.

“You feel a little self-conscious,” she said, “but not nervous.”

She describes her job as one of those occupations that leave no time for emotions like nervousness. “You do it or you’re doomed,” she said.

Explained Chawla, “When I interpret in a political arena, it’s like home to me. It’s like surgery. I enjoy playing with words. I enjoy the challenges. There’s no time to think. There’s no time to look at somebody else for the answer. It’s 100 percent focus.”

She credits her training and experience for the level of comfort she feels in high-profile situations.

On this most recent trip, Chawla accompanied Obama, Modi and Indian President Pranab Mukherjee for three days of meetings, press conferences, dinners and ceremonies at venues like the Presidential Palace, Raj Ghat (a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi), the Hyderabad House and the Taj Mahal hotel. She found Obama to be “very friendly, very down to earth and very humble” and a man who seldom wears signs of stress on his face. She noted that this trip had the distinction of being the second to India for any sitting president.

And it’s things like that that she enjoys most about her job, she said, because it affords her the opportunity to witness history in the making and be a part of things that people talk about for years to come. She also relishes traveling, meeting people and partaking in fancy dinners.

“It’s an exciting job, honestly, never boring,” Chawla said. “Each day is different.”

When she’s not flying off to exciting corners of the world, Chawla can be found providing interpretation services in federal courts, at various international conferences or on diplomatic assignments. She also trains court interpreters.

At home, Chawla has a college-aged daughter and a son in eighth grade at Redwood Middle School. Her husband is a software engineer.

Source: By Khalida Sarwari for Mercury News –

Image credit: Mercury News.