The Pressures Of Being An Interpreter At A High-Stakes Summit | KUOW News and Information

The Pressures Of Being An Interpreter At A High-Stakes Summit

Jun 11, 2018
Originally published on June 11, 2018 8:39 am

Former President George H.W. Bush was deep in nuclear negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The 1990 talks, focused on an arms control treaty, were suddenly interrupted when a seasoned Soviet interpreter made a critical mistake.

The interpreter, Igor Korchilov, said the word "verifying" in English, instead of "verified." Everyone in the White House Cabinet Room froze and turned toward him — including his boss.

Gorbachev quickly said: "No, no — I never said that."

"To this day, I still feel extremely embarrassed," Korchilov tells NPR. He worked with Gorbachev from 1987 to 1990.

It was a seemingly minute detail. But in the context of these talks, the word "verifying" meant that the Russians had unexpectedly sided with the U.S. on one point in the long-sought agreement.

The discussion was on an Open Skies proposal, in which both sides could fly over each other's territory to verify compliance in arms control agreements. The Soviets and the Americans didn't agree on whose aircraft should be used for the inspections — the verifying party (the U.S.) or the verified party (the Soviet Union).

Korchilov interpreted Gorbachev as saying: "The aircraft to overfly territory for inspection purposes should be made available by the verifying party at the disposal of its crew."

"At that moment I wished the earth could swallow me up," Korchilov wrote in his 1997 memoir, Translating History: 30 Years on the Front Lines of Diplomacy with a Top Russian Interpreter.

He wondered if he had accidentally changed the direction of superpower diplomacy. He approached the U.S. president later to offer his apology.

"He made a stern look, put his arms in his pockets and said, 'Relax, the good news is that you didn't start World War III.'"

Korchilov also apologized to Gorbachev, who said, "Oh, don't worry, Igor. Only those who do nothing make no mistakes."

The politics behind the words

In closed-door meetings at the highest level, interpreters face the pressures of global diplomacy. Every word matters, and a slip-up can have monumental consequences. That's especially true for the June 12 summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

President Trump presents his own challenges for interpreters. He's known to go off-script. His former campaign adviser Anthony Scaramucci once said, "Don't take him literally, take him symbolically."

And earlier this year, The Washington Post reported on the difficulties of translating Trump's profanity, such as his comment in January about "shithole countries."

Uncertainty, however, is part of any language. That's why the best interpreters serve as both linguists and diplomats — they understand the politics behind the words. For those who've interpreted top-level meetings, they've lived the pressure.

On Oct. 23, 2000, Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, became the highest ranking U.S. official ever to set foot in North Korea. She met former leader Kim Jong Il, clad in his trademark khaki pants and jacket, at the Pae Kha Hawon state guesthouse in Pyongyang. Albright's trusted interpreter, Tong Kim, followed close behind.

"That was the most important meeting I have ever interpreted for," says Tong Kim, who served as the senior Korean language interpreter at the U.S. State Department.

Albright was trying to persuade the regime to abandon its long-range missile program. To prepare, Tong Kim needed to learn the jargon of arms control. He reviewed top-secret briefs and read a dozen books on nuclear bombs.

"I kept reading and reading," he says. "Reading every article in newspapers and academic journals — it was total immersion, in the task of preparing myself."

When he first began interpreting, he says, "I spoke like a South Korean. And they did not seem to appreciate it, although they could understand my renditions, perhaps not as readily, though."

So he perfected a North Korean accent.

"I picked up their language, their intonation, their dialect," Kim says. "And that gives them some trust."

Albright's meeting was meant to pave the way for President Bill Clinton to visit Pyongyang, but missile talks between North Korea and the U.S. stalled just as Clinton left office.

"I almost got us both killed, didn't I?"

In December 1983, George H.W. Bush, then Ronald Reagan's vice president, went on a secret mission to El Salvador. The country was in the midst of a civil war. Stephanie Van Reigersberg, who led the interpreting division at the State Department and specialized in Spanish, was assigned to accompany him.

They flew in on Black Hawk helicopters, through the Salvadoran mountains to a presidential villa. Only a handful of U.S. officials knew about the vice president's planned meeting. Bush was there to deliver a warning to a group of military commanders about the government's brutal death squads.

"The whole military senior staff was there and they all had weapons on their laps," Van Reigersberg recalls.

Secret Service agents recommended the vice president call off the meeting over security concerns. But Bush refused — he was determined to confront the commanders.

"Basically, he cussed them out," Van Reigersberg says.

"Having a woman interpreter using that kind of language really got their attention. You are so concentrated on delivering the message that it's only afterwards that you say, 'Oh my heavens.' And after the meeting, Bush said, 'Well, I almost got us both killed, didn't I?'"

Reagan's "adversary"

Years of negotiations led to a U.S.-Soviet summit in Washington, D.C., in December 1987. President Ronald Reagan welcomed his Cold War rival Gorbachev to the White House, in hopes for a new era of peace.

During the official welcoming ceremony on the White House South Lawn, Reagan famously said: "Today marks a visit that is perhaps more momentous than many which have preceded it, because it represents a coming together not of allies — but of adversaries."

"We were just agonizing over this word 'adversaries,'" said Dimitry Zarechnak in an interview with NPR in 2001. He was interpreting the president's speech that day.

The Russian word for "adversaries," protivniki, sounds similar to a word that means "disgusting," protivniy.

"In English," Zarechnak said, "you can have a noble adversary. In Russian, it sounds terrible."

So instead of repeating the word "adversaries," Zarechnak used a Russian word for "competitors."

Gorbachev gave a slight nod — and the summit was underway.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right, so when President Trump meets with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, tonight in Singapore, there is going to be a language barrier. A lot is going to be riding on the skills of interpreters. Now, typically, they are invisible - unless, that is, they slip up. There was that time in 1990. Former President George H.W. Bush was deep in nuclear negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. All of a sudden, the White House Cabinet Room froze. The Soviet interpreter, Igor Korchilov, remembers the sinking feeling he had.

IGOR KORCHILOV: They were astounded that Gorbachev had changed his position a hundred and eighty degrees overnight.

GREENE: Except, he hadn't. Korchilov, the interpreter, had simply said the wrong word. They corrected the mistake pretty quickly. But Korchilov did wonder for a moment - had he just accidentally changed the course of history? He approached President Bush afterwards to offer his apology.

KORCHILOV: He made a stern look, you know, put his arms in his pockets and said, relax; the good news is that you didn't start World War III.

GREENE: NPR's Danny Hajek talked with some of the interpreters whose words carry the weight of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTERS CLICKING)

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: October 2000 - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lands in Pyongyang to meet former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. And right there between them is U.S. interpreter Tong Kim.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What did they say?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

HAJEK: Then the doors close, and the talks begin.

TONG KIM: That was the most important meeting I have ever interpreted for.

HAJEK: The delegations sat either side of a glossy mahogany table that spanned the length of the room - Kim Jong Il and Madeleine Albright face to face, interpreters by their sides. Each leader brings their own. To prepare, U.S. interpreter Tong Kim reviewed top-secret documents. He read a dozen books on nuclear bombs.

KIM: I kept reading and reading and reading.

HAJEK: He learned a North Korean accent.

KIM: I picked up their language, their intonation, their dialect. And that gives them some trust.

HAJEK: See; the best interpreters are part linguists, part diplomats. They have to know the politics behind each word.

STEPHANIE VAN REIGERSBERG: It can be scary, but you get yourself into a kind of a zone.

HAJEK: Stephanie Van Reigersberg spent 18 years as head of the interpreting division at the U.S. State Department, and she has stories.

VAN REIGERSBERG: I had one experience with President Bush Sr. when he was vice president during the...

HAJEK: All right, so this is December, 1983 - a secret mission into El Salvador. They flew in on Black Hawk helicopters through the Salvadoran mountains to a presidential villa. And Bush was there to deliver a warning to armed military commanders about their government's brutal death squads.

VAN REIGERSBERG: I don't want to use the word vulgar about Bush because that was far from the way he is, but basically, he cussed them out. Having a woman interpreter using that kind of language really got their attention. And after the meeting, Bush said, well, I almost got us both killed, didn't I? (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The president of the United States and Mrs. Reagan.

HAJEK: Years of negotiations led to this other moment more than 30 years ago when President Ronald Reagan welcomed his Cold War rival Mikhail Gorbachev to Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: Today marks a visit that is perhaps more momentous than many which have preceded it because it represents a coming together not of allies but of adversaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DIMITRY ZARECHNAK: We were just agonizing over this word adversaries.

HAJEK: Dimitry Zarechnak was interpreting the speech that day. Here he is on NPR in 2001.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ZARECHNAK: ...Because in Russian, the actual word for adversary is protivnik, which sounds very much like protivniy, which means disgusting, and it has that kind of a flavor.

HAJEK: It could've thrown off the whole summit. So to save the moment, Zarechnak made a change. Instead of adversaries, he went with the Russian word for competitors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZARECHNAK: (Speaking in Russian).

HAJEK: And it seemed to work - a nod from Gorbachev, and the summit was underway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Applause).

HAJEK: So when it comes to interpreting, it doesn't get much more high-stakes than this - President Trump and Kim Jong Un. And just weeks ago, it was fiery rhetoric, and the talks were canceled. But for interpreters who hold onto every word, the challenge in this meeting room will be keeping up with a president who's known to go off script. Again, Stephanie Van Reigersberg.

VAN REIGERSBERG: You hear the message that comes to you, and you deliver it as best you can, and that's all you can do.

HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "LITTLE DREAMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.