Inside the high-stakes world of U.S.-Russian diplomacy, where even veteran interpreters admit that it can sometimes be hard to get the right point across to the other side.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, his translator Pavel Palazhchenko and former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock. Photo: ITAR-TASS

Whenever a Russian leader makes a diplomatic gaffe telling his American counterpart, “I’ll transmit this information to Vladimir” in English, or whenever a button that was supposed to read “reset” instead reads “overload,” you come to realize how fun the U.S.-Russian relationship would be without interpreters.

Russia Direct interviewed a number of veteran interpreters who have worked alongside leaders of both the former Soviet Union and Russia to find out how they deal with the daily pressure of finding the right word at the right moment at high-profile events and conferences.

“Mine is a crazy job, many think this trade can’t be taught or learnt, you just need to have a knack for it,” says Yevgeny Sidorov, an Arabic interpreter whose career spans 40 years.

Sidorov translated Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and former Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev at high-profile international conferences and forums. Like many colleagues of his, Sidorov does both simultaneous and consecutive interpretation. The former means translating the words of a speaker into another language as he speaks uninterrupted, while during consecutive interpretation, the speaker makes pauses to let the interpreter translate what has just been said.

“Seasoned interpreters work on autopilot,” Sidorov says. “You can even get distracted a bit and lose focus for a while.” A speech, he adds, usually includes a great deal of clichés, and when a speaker starts a sentence, a good interpreter can more often than not predict how he will finish it.

“You don’t think how difficult this job is when you’re doing it,” says Michel Nercessian, the attaché of the French Embassy in Moscow, who has worked as a simultaneous translator with the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

“I remember interpreting for one climber who had made his way up the steepest slopes,” Nercessian says. “He said that when he sees the photos of himself on a nearly vertical incline, he gets in a panic, but when he’s doing his job, he just has no time to think about the danger he faces, he’s thinking only about the next ledge to cling on to.”

The same goes for interpreters – the main thing is to cling on to the point the speaker is making. If they understand it, they can get it across to the audience using different language tools. Still, it’s not always possible to find an absolutely accurate translation for a phrase, interpreters admit.

“Sometimes you realize that you have to compromise and that you can’t covey all the undertones or connotations of what’s being said and you go for second best,” says Pavel Palazhchenko, who has worked with Mikhail Gorbachev since the mid-1980s.

Palazhchenko gives due credit to Gorbachev, who, he says, took account of the fact that he was addressing a person of a different culture at talks and tried to structure his phrases so that they wouldn’t be difficult to translate.

An interpreter has to be well informed on everything and be well versed in the subject he is translating about. “You seldom have enough time to prepare for an event,” says Yevgeny Sidorov. “You need to read a lot in between to expand your knowledge.”

Some interpreters develop special techniques that can help them at work. Sidorov, for instance, has compiled his own list of the most frequently used quotes from the Quran. “Generally, it’s very difficult to translate idioms, proverbs, words of wisdom, etc., but for Arabic translators a no less difficult job is translating quotes from the Quran,” Sidorov says.

Muslim speakers often cite the Quran, and an interpreter is supposed to know the Quran and its translation almost by heart. “This list turned out to be a great help for me – practice showed that there are about a hundred popular quotes and remembering them makes this job really easier,” he says.

In addition to the Quran, Muslims often cite hadiths, the stories of the life of Muhammad. “These are also very difficult to translate, especially if you don’t know what they actually are about,” says Sidorov.

An Arabic interpreter, Sidorov adds, should be especially careful about the accuracy of the translation of names and titles. “For an Arab, the correct translation of his name and title is often more important than the translation of his speech,” Sidorov says.

He adds that an interpreter should also keep in mind for which audience he is translating. “In Egypt and Syria they can use different words to refer to the same notion,” he says. If most of the audience is Syrian people and you use Egyptian terms, they may not necessarily understand you, or to say the least, they won’t quite like it.”

A big challenge is doing consecutive interpretation for a speaker that forgets to make pauses. Interpreters admit that it is very difficult to translate 100 percent of what has been said when the speaker speaks for five minutes.

Yevgeny Sidorov says he had a really hard time working with then Azeri leader Heydar Aliyev at dinner marking the 60th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Aliyev’s words were first interpreted in English and then Sidorov interpreted that into Arabic.

“The first bit of his speech was more or less short, about five to seven minutes. Then he went on speaking for about 10 minutes, and the third part was just endless, 20 minutes or so,” Sidorov says.

“So we were standing there beside him without any paper to take notes on, and as we realized our situation was getting really desperate, we just grabbed someone standing next to us by the sleeve pleading to find some napkins for us so that we could write down in shorthand what Aliyev was saying,” Sidorov says. “We did pretty well, and when it was over, we thanked the man that helped us out with the napkins. He said, “My pleasure. I’m the prime minister of Azerbaijan, by the way.”

An interpreter’s worst nightmare is a fast speaking orator. “One doesn’t always understand that whether or not he’ll get his message through to the audience depends on how fast he is speaking,” says Alexander Kazachkov, a Spanish interpreter.

“Many try to read out their reports as fast as they can, especially at international events, where time is limited. But by doing that, they reduce the amount of information communicated to the audience,” Kazachkov says. At U.N. meetings, speakers usually have special plates in front of themselves reminding that they should speak slowly.

Because the job is quite stressful, simultaneous translators usually work in pairs, with one changing another every 30 minutes. At international organizations, a daily shift usually lasts for three hours.

Professional interpreters say it’s not enough to speak a foreign language well to become a whiz. “I know people who speak English and French well, but I saw them absolutely at a loss, unable to say a word when they were asked to translate a toast at dinner, for example,” says Pavel Palazhchenko. “There is probably some kind of psychological barrier. You have to be psychologically strong to measure up.”

“It’s just hard to explain how you translate, you do it in your subconscious, it’s like magic, like poetry something absolutely intangible,” says Alexander Kazachkov.