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Summit Interpreters Must Fight Own Battle of Words

December 08, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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.

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.

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

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