Just how tough can the work of a United Nations language interpreter be? Judging from insider stories, it’s a risky balancing act where a misinterpreted word or two can mean peace or war.
Just ask Igor Korchilov. He was a top interpreter assigned to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and American President George Bush (senior) in the late 1980s, when they held important discussions on arms control. They were already about to conclude treaties when they reached a momentary stumbling block: which aircraft would be allowed to fly over the other side’s territory to inspect and verify compliance with the treaties?
A misunderstanding nearly sprang out of two similar-sounding words, “verifying” and “verified”. According to Korchilov, “Gorbachev…did not pronounce very clearly or distinctly the ending of these two terms.” He had said a word in Russian which Korchilov interpreted as “verifying party”. In the context of those talks, it sounded like a sudden reversal of what the Soviets had previously stood for.
Upon hearing the interpreter’s words, Bush and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker were astounded, but incredulous. So they asked for Gorbachev to reconfirm his words.
When Korchilov translated their words back to Gorbachev, the Russian leader said, “No…I said it’s up to the verified party to provide the aircraft,” and not the “verifying party” as originally interpreted.
When applied to the world of international diplomacy, the role of the language translator becomes a fast, high-pressure job. In the 21st century’s highly globalize world, various countries often come together in conferences, open forums, and negotiations with its leaders and delegates, frequently on economic or political matters that affect the lives of millions. At this level, the translator must be a first-class interpreter. He or she should be able to translate for the audience one foreign language speech into another (and vice-versa), on-the-spot and accurately, simultaneously with the speaking clients, all while capturing the nuances in meaning as closely as possible.
Capturing nuances in language is vital. In diplomacy, verbal foreign language interpretations carry nearly the same weight in negotiations between nations and economic blocs as the final translated written agreements. Yet interpreters are all too human, and working under pressure can result in paraphrasing mistakes. When this happens, a little tact goes a long way.
At the conclusion of the arms treaty meeting with the Soviets, Korchilov came up privately to President Bush to apologize. After nodding gravely, Bush patted him kindly on the shoulder and quipped, “Well, that’s the bad news…the good news is you didn’t start World War Three.”
It’s this kind of tact that also saves the day when it’s the diplomat who makes mistakes. Talks between powerful, high-profile personalities can get embarrassingly undiplomatic, and it’s up to the discreet interpreter to keep it from getting out of hand.
One famous incident took place in the 1980s, when then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher (dubbed the “Iron Lady” by the Soviet media for her hatred of communism) was finally persuaded by the U.K. Foreign Office to meet with the President of the Republic of Congo, the French-speaking Denis Sassou Nguesso, a well-known Marxist and socialist.
When he came into the drawing room and sat opposite her, Thatcher glared at Sassou Nguesso and bluntly said, “I hate communists!”
Stunned, the French language interpreter at the scene quickly translated her words to the Congolese president as: “Prime Minister Thatcher says she has never been wholly supportive of the ideas of Karl Marx,” in order to diffuse the tension.