Summit Interpreters Must Fight Own Battle of Words

Times Staff Writer

When President Reagan speaks privately to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev about eliminating nuclear weapons this week, the one thing Dimitry Zarechnak hopes Reagan will not say is “Well, I guess we better punt.”

Zarechnak would have to pass that message along to Gorbachev in Russian, which would be problematical since there is no American-style football, thus no punts, in the Soviet Union.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 17, 1987 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 17, 1987 Home Edition View Part 5B Page 13 Column 2 View Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
A photo caption Dec. 8 misidentified a State Department interpreter. The interpreter pictured with President Reagan was William Krimer.

Metaphors Present Problems

“Reagan is hard to do because of that. There are long, long stories in the interpreting field about people who get into terrible trouble changing metaphors,” said Stephanie van Reigersberg, chief of the interpreting division at the State Department’s office of language services.

Zarechnak, a 43-year-old Maryland scout leader, is the senior Russian translator on Van Reigersberg’s staff and will be interpreting for Reagan at this week’s summit. Zarechnak, whom Gorbachev recognizes and calls by his first name, has been translating for American Presidents at superpower summits since the 1973 meeting between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev.

No one will be closer to the action than the Czechoslovakian-born Zarechnak and his Soviet counterpart, Viktor Sukhodrev, the grandmasters of Soviet-American interpreting. They have to work fast while also recognizing that the slightest slip on their part can cause an international incident. It is both the appeal and the downfall of the job that when the superpowers talk, the future of the world could dangle from a participle.


Although Zarechnak has declined all recent requests for interviews, retired American interpreter Alexander Akalovsky, who worked for five American Presidents, recalled when Sukhodrev slipped up in Bonn in 1967.

“Aleksei Kosygin was giving a press conference and at that time, the question of the non-proliferation treaty was very much in the forefront,” Akalovsky said in the book “U.S.-Soviet Summitry,” put out by the State Department.

“Kosygin was asked by the press whether he thought West Germany would sign the non-proliferation treaty. In Viktor’s words, the answer was, ‘I don’t know, but they will have to.’

‘An Uproar in Bonn’

“This caused an uproar in Bonn. I was in Moscow at that time. We got a priority cable asking us to check the exact words because the West Germans interpreted this as a dictate by the Soviets, that the Soviets would force them to do something they might not wish to do. We checked the Russian text when it was published the following morning, and according to it Kosygin had answered, ‘I don’t know, but we believe it would be in their interest to do so.’

“When I asked Viktor about this episode, he said simply that he had goofed.”

Matters of etiquette also can put an interpreter in a tough spot. Zarechnak, in an interview several months ago with the Montgomery County (Md.) Journal, recalled a time when Gorbachev struck up a personal conversation with him in the middle of his translating.

“Once I was interpreting for a delegation of senators visiting Moscow. Toward the end of the meeting one of them went on for a while. I took all the notes and was ready to translate when all of a sudden Gorbachev said, ‘Where are you from?’

“Nobody had ever asked me this in the middle of my interpreting. When I told him my father was from the Carpathian Mountains, he said his father died in the same area during the war. The conversation was going back and forth in Russian.

“I was beginning to get rather nervous. The senators were waiting and here I’m having a private conversation with Gorbachev.”

Zarechnak’s Russian-speaking family came to the United States from Czechoslovakia when he was 4.

Interprets With Accent

Sukhodrev is so adept at translating Russian to English that he can adopt either an American or a British accent as the situation dictates. In some meetings during the Nixon Administration he was the only interpreter present.

Slang and metaphors are common travails of translators. Van Reigersberg, who is an interpreter herself, remembered a metaphor change that had nations snarling at each other.

“At the U.N., an interpreter changed a metaphor in Russian to ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ and the Danish delegate asked for right of reply and said he resented the Soviet Union taking his country’s name in vain. The Dane didn’t realize this was a quote from Hamlet. Someone finally explained it to him and he said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know.’ ”

Because of incidents like this one, Van Reigersberg advises her interpreters to explain metaphors, not change them. If Reagan should talk about punting, the interpreter should say, “ ‘It’s time to kick’ and explain very quickly this is a football term that means ‘Get rid of the ball before it gets taken away from you.’ ” Interpreters, she said, learn to “put the cart before the horse in six languages.”

Gold Lingo Confuses

Van Reigersberg often has a difficult time interpreting for Secretary of State George Shultz, partly because he is such an avid sports enthusiast. Interpreting for Shultz and Cameroon President Paul Biya last year, Van Reigersberg not only had to explain to Biya in French the layout of the Augusta golf course but also the complicated golf betting system, which confuses even the most literate Americans.

“Secretary Shultz was saying, ‘We have bets on what we call woodies and sandies and greenies,’ and the other interpreter was laughing so hard I thought he was going to lose his lunch. Afterward I said to the secretary, ‘I love you, but I could kill you.’ ”

Van Reigersberg’s job is to supply interpreters to all official functionaries who might need them, and this week she said she feels like she’s playing chess without knowing how many pieces she has. Russian interpreters will be needed at the international press center, at the U.S. Information Agency (where there will be talk about cultural exchanges), at the Department of Commerce and other sites of side meetings with various Soviet officials, “and probably more I haven’t heard about yet,” she said frantically.

She has six Russian interpreters on staff and has others on contract. Her biggest fear, she said, is “that at some point they decide to break up into umpteen groups and I have umpteen interpreters, minus one.”

Many Negotiations

Besides staffing all the American-Soviet affairs this week, Van Reigersberg will also have to supply interpreters for the U.S.-China textile negotiations, U.S.-European aviation negotiations, the U.S.-France technology working group, a couple of NATO meetings and preparatory meetings for the visit of the prime minister of Italy. “I mean, life goes on,” she said.

In addition to changing conversation from one language to another, Akalovsky said, the interpreter’s job is also to protect the President, “to prevent the other side from putting into the President’s mouth words he never uttered or to distort what he said. Second, if there’s an error on the part of the interpreter for the other side in translating his principal’s remarks, the interpreter should correct the error and thus provide the President with an accurate basis for his reaction. All of us, of course, are human and make errors, even the best of interpreters.”

Total Concentration

Interpreters need to have total concentration on words, which, combined with the emotion of the moment, can sometimes backfire. Retired American interpreter William Krimer recalled once taking copious notes of a long conversation by a Soviet general and then starting to repeat it to the American principal--in Russian.

Secrecy is a code of honor among interpreters when they are working meetings known as “four-eyes,” meaning the two principals meet face to face, alone--except for the interpreters.

“You could compare it to the professional secrecy of a doctor or a lawyer. I’ve never in my entire life heard of an interpreter who’s leaked anything,” Van Reigersberg said. “Nobody would ever think of doing anything like that and expect to remain in the profession.”

If they did, it would definitely be time to punt.