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US-Russia relations declining, but past achievements are never in vain – Gorbachev’s interpreter

We are used to seeing world leaders on our screens shake hands and smile as they deliver another major accord, but in most cases, history is first made behind closed doors. Are masks off during these private meetings, and is there a human side to the matters of state? We ask Pavel Palazhchenko, the interpreter of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Pavel Palazhchenko, it’s so great to have you on our program. Welcome.

Pavel Palazhchenko: Thank you.

SS: So I wanna talk about you in this interview, for the most part. Let’s go back a little back. When you first started working on the level of US-Soviet summits, did it scare you that you are translating Gorbachev, Reagan, I mean, like, you’re literally translating the words of the most powerful men in the world? Did it phase you at that moment?

PP: I don’t think I was scared, frankly. I don’t think that if you are scared of responsibility, you want to do this kind of work. It is interesting that this was the first time that simultaneous interpretation was used rather than consecutive interpretation, when you first listen to the speaker and then interpret what he has said. Simultaneous interpretation was first tried in Helsinki, at the high level, in Helsinki, during the meeting of George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze in the summer of 1985, years and years ago. But now it has become rather common practice, at that time, it was very new. I was thrilled, I was fascinated, not afraid, not scared. But certainly, I felt the responsibility.

SS: So you were on board when the beginning of the end of the Cold War started, so to say, the whole process, you were on board. Were you allowed to have a political position, were you allowed to have a say in these things?

PP: In part, that depends on the position that you have in the Foreign Ministry. Initially, I was a member of the Department of Translation and Interpretation, and it was only later in early 1987 that I was transferred to the USA desk, to the Department of the USA and Canada of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In that position, I was involved in the preparations both for the ministerial meetings and summits, and in that position, I did not, maybe, have much influence, but I could contribute. But the most important moments are when the principals, the Foreign Minister or the President, actually ask your opinion. When that happens, you are on your own, and you’re not just an interpreter, you actually have to say what you think, and to me, with my very limited prior political experience, that was not easy.

SS: But that happened…

PP: That happened.

SS: …because I know you were very intimate with both Gorbachev and Eduard Shevardnadze, I know about Shevardnadze because he was my grandfather, and I know about Gorbachev because you are his advisor up to this day. How did you earn their trust? How does that happen?

PP: How does that happen? The initial process is earning the trust as a professional, as an interpreter. But then, inevitably, – I worked with both of them for 6 years, – and inevitably, you become closer. And they either trust not only you as a professional translator, interpreter, but also, they begin to trust your opinion because they know that you’ve been with them through a great deal. I think it started in Reykjavik with Gorbachev, at about the same time with Shevardnadze, and they did ask for my opinion sometimes at difficult moments during the whole process of ending the Cold War. It was not actually a smooth and easy process, as many people now think, it was a process that had its pitfalls, obstacles, difficult moments when misunderstandings occurred, when understandings seemed to be breaking, and I think, at that time they asked my opinion just because I was closest to them physically.

SS: So you obviously were not only translating, like we’ve said, but also, emotionally and intellectually involved in the process, and it was a very difficult process, like you pointed out, it was not all smooth. A lot of things were breaking, and needed to be put together, it was like the work of a jeweller, a jewellery-maker. And somehow, it worked, the Cold War ended. Before we get back to you and your profession, I just wanna ask you, looking back now at what’s happening between US and Russia, does it desolate you?

PP: Well, maybe not desolate, because when one has the prior experience of working with the Presidents at the summit level, one does understand that there are ebb and flow, and that there are moments, historical moments, that sometimes last more than a moment, that sometimes last long. And that look like everything is collapsing, but you know, historically, that the achievements of the past are never ruined totally. And I think that it is a difficult moment, the relationship is dismal. That would be my word. But it’s not hopeless. And I think that one day real dialogue will resume, and I wish well to those people who will be resuming that dialogue and who will help them in resuming that dialogue.

SS: You have translated all these great leaders. How important is the personal chemistry between two men? I mean, I can say Gorbachev and Reagan, Baker and Shevardnadze, Kerry and Lavrov. Even if you’re ideologically on different sides, when personal chemistry is there, things get done. Would you agree with that?

PP: Oh, absolutely. I think that personal chemistry is something that is perhaps not all-important, but very important. I would just add that you have to work to develop that personal chemistry, and I think that on the Soviet side, both Gorbachev and Shevardnadze worked on that. For Shevardnadze, it was somewhat easier, because he and Schultz hit it off practically immediately. For Gorbachev and Reagan, it was not as easy, because they had very different background, because they were, I would say, more different initially than Shevardnadze and Schultz were. But they worked on it, and I think the great merit of those two men, Gorbachev and Reagan, is that they did so much despite the problems and obstacles, despite so many things that happened that were extremely unfortunate during that period, such as the spy scandals, as the military to military incidents, you know, overflights by fighter-bombers over Navy ships, this kind of thing. Unfortunately, the military still seems to like this kind of thing, and the military don’t want a war, but they sometimes do things that are risky, and those things happened during those 6 years. And the great merit, I think, principally of Gorbachev and Reagan and Gorbachev and Bush is that they did not allow the process to be side-tracked, to be side-lined, to be broken by those unfortunate incidents that happened.

SS: Still going back to personal chemistry, because not allowing to break the process is also partially thanks to the personal chemistry, but then, here, that’s when you come in, a person who translates the words of another person, a person who is in charge of relaying the packaging of the leader, right? For instance, let’s say Trump – he is very brazen, he is very unorthodox in his way of speaking. Obama was very academic, like a Harvard professor, Bush-junior was very folksy. Then, obviously, if a translator just translates, that smooths out the edges of the personality and the words. Do you take time and thought to actually translate the person rather than just the president of a country, to relay the image that he really carries from within to the person sitting in front?

PP: Well, I don’t know, I did my best. I did my best, and I think they did their best. The chemistry that developed between them, I think it’s they who worked on it. We tried to help, I had excellent people on the other side, all of us really were motivated to help. I think that is the most important thing, otherwise, whether I did try to smooth things edges, whether I did try to, perhaps, make certain things smoother, make certain things more neutral and emphasize other things – frankly, I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I think that I just tried to do my best professionally. When moments happened when they were either annoyed with each other or upset, as during the final minutes in Reykjavik – well, I was perhaps as upset as they were, and I was part of it, but I don’t think that I tried to modify, to modulate those things, I don’t think so.

SS: But then, you know, to break the ice in situations like this, humour always worked, at least for Gorbachev and Shevardnadze. And then, translating the humour the right way is essential, is key, because I see so much of Putin’s humour being mistranslated, because Putin has this very Russian specific-based humour, and when it’s translated into English, it just doesn’t make any sense. Now, you translated Gorby and Shevy, who both had amazing sense of humour, and the other side obviously got the humour and laughed. How hard is it to correctly translate the humour of the person you’re translating?      

PP: Well, the choice is basically between more literal translation, between a word for word translation, perhaps with a little explanation, or finding something analogous that would work in English. And sometimes you make that choice, sometimes you risk and maybe comment a little bit to make it more understandable. But I must say that both Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, Gorbachev in a more improvisational way, Shevardnadze prepared for every conversation very meticulously, but both of them took into account the cultural differences, and they tried not to say too many things that would require a lot of cultural interpretation. Putin… Again, I think that Putin, when he speaks here, and when he negotiates, and I did interpret the other side during some of the negotiations with Putin, I think it’s a little different. I think he is more folksy, he is more joke-y when he talks to Russians than when he talks to, let’s say, Americans or Europeans.

SS: Talking about that, I always wondered, when all these great leaders shake hands, laugh formally at formal jokes in front of the cameras, smile… I mean, it’s obviously a mask, it’s a role that they play in front of the media. Now, you’ve been with them behind closed doors. Are the masks off, once they sit down to the negotiations table, are they different, or do they keep playing this role?

PP: For the most part, you know, in my experience the masks are off, and they begin to be very human. They obviously make an effort to explain, they sometimes see that the other side doesn’t understand, they think that the other side doesn’t want to understand, they can become annoyed. They can become upset, I saw sometimes tears in Reagan’s eyes in Reykjavik, for example. But I also saw them in very human situations, when the media was present, but they were extremely natural and not wearing masks in public moments. So I would not agree that during public moments, when they smile and when they say things, that they are playing a role, that this is a mask. Not always. Some of it is a mask, and that’s necessary, because, you know, the heads of state, they are also diplomats, and diplomats cannot be totally open. But some of it is quite natural.

SS: How do you know when they’re playing and when they’re real? For instance, with Reagan, especially, it was impossible to know when he was genuine and not, the man was acting all the time, he was an actor!

PP: He was an actor, absolutely, but he was an actor, I think, not only because he was an actor during part of his career, but because he was kind of theatrical, perhaps, histrionic, one might say, by nature. He liked it, he… The first that I saw, that I concluded during the very first moments when I first was interpreting for Shevardnadze and Reagan, during the September 1985 meeting at the White House, the very first meeting, was that he was eager to please, that he was eager to be liked. That was part of his nature, not because he was an actor.

SS: So I know it had happened at least once when you were the only translator in the room during those top, high-level talks, the Americans didn’t take their translator – maybe because they were scared that the information would be leaked. Why does that happen?

PP: I think that it happened on a few occasions, I think that they actually, Reagan and Bush, trusted their translator, they just wanted to indicate to the Soviet leaders that this is additional sign that there will be no leaks. But absolutely, they trusted their translators, and they were… I know that Washington is full of leaks, but I also know that interpreters, translators are never ever the source of those leaks. Because you know, these things become known. Even the famous Deep Throat, the leaker who destroyed President Nixon, we now know who that was. And there has never ever been any assumption or accusation of any one of us, of our profession, that we leaked something. That’s impossible because of the ethic of the job, because of ethic of the profession that I think practically all of us, certainly those of us who work at high level, very much observe.

SS: I just wanna ask you a few technical questions about your profession, because I always wondered… For instance, I know you once said that if you hear an obvious mistake, for instance, a person says Iraq instead of Iran, you just translate it. But how do you know that he for sure says Iran instead of Iraq?

PP: Well, it’s intuition, it’s intuition that comes with experience, that comes with hours and hours of work. On the other hand, you take a risk. In simultaneous interpretation, you cannot ask a person, in consecutive interpretation, when you sit right near him, yes, it is possible, if you have doubts, to ask, but it’s undesirable, you don’t want to do that in those cases. In simultaneous interpretation, the choice is either you correct when you’re 100% sure, or you say Iraq and say: that’s what the speaker has said, even though you assume that probably he meant Iran. So it’s this kind of thing, people sometimes misspeak, yes, it happens.

SS: And then, also there must be some difficulties with understanding certain accents. I’m sure, not all accents are as accessible as American or British. I know you mentioned somewhere Nigerian accent… For instance, if you’re sitting and simultaneously translating this top-level meeting, and you don’t really understand what that person had said, what happens?

PP: Normally… I was lucky, I mostly worked with people who spoke very good Russian and very good English, frankly. And so, it was… Who also had enunciation, good diction. But yes, it has happened on a few occasions, more during my work at the UN and, subsequently, at the Council of Europe, where there are some people who speak with a heavy accent, whose enunciation is not very good. So what do you do? For the most part, you pause and you don’t interpret where you don’t understand, hoping, – and that hope works most of the time, – that it will become clear later. It will become clear later, in most cases, it does become clear later, but don’t… Sometimes you say what you think he or she meant. But it’s better to omit something and then to hope that things become clearer. It hasn’t happened too often to me that I took a risk, but it has happened.

SS: Then, there’s always… For instance, Sergei Lavrov, who is brilliant in English. I remember, he was sitting down with Putin and Obama, and the translator was translating, and then Sergei Lavrov turns around and corrects the translator. I mean, that’s kind of embarrassing, does that happen a lot when you’re translating a person who is proficient in the language that you are translating to the other leader?

PP: Well, sure, I mean… Deputy Foreign Ministers like Vorontsov had excellent English. I’ve been corrected, but, to my knowledge, to my recollection, not at that level. So, fortunately, maybe they missed something that I mistranslated and decided not to correct me, but I haven’t been corrected at that level. I had been corrected in my career, you know, I have been in this profession for almost 50 years, so I have been corrected. For the most part, I’ve been corrected correctly, but sometimes people correct and they don’t know what they’re doing, it also happens. So when they are trying to correct you, and you stand by your translation, you have to say so. And that happened to me too. When you think that perhaps it’s basically a matter of taste, you might want to repeat what they’ve said. It’s a matter of taste, it’s not very important, but ok, you don’t quarrel with them. But when you are sure, then you have to stand by your translation, it has happened to me, fortunately, not at the highest level, because you don’t want that kind of bickering happening.

SS: I just wonder if you have in your arsenal of memories something, maybe, hilarious, or something that went horribly wrong, for instance, remember, just recently Putin said about Trump that he is a яркий человек, that he is a bright man meaning that he is unorthodox, he is someone that leaves a mark as a persona, and then, the American media translated it that as bright in terms of “master of thought”, which is completely…

PP: Bright is a mistake, yeah, but if the interpreter had said “colourful”, that would have been…

SS: Right, but they didn’t.

PP: It’s not the whole thing, but it would have been ok. Bright, of course, means “smart”.

SS: And well-known mistranslations, like Khrushchev’s translations of “we will bury you”. That’s where the translator, obviously, missed the idiom from the language. Have you ever had that, when you missed an idiom that went wrong or hilariously?

PP: It never happened that I let the guy down. But I was sometimes not quite happy with the rendering that I gave, that happened. And if it was repeated in another conversation, normally, I would be ready. I would be ready because I thought, well, he said this funny phrase, нельзя ломать народ через колено, and my rendering initially was not quite good. Then I thought about it…

SS: What’s the rendering now?

PP: I would say, there are, well, two ways of doing it. Closer to the original, you would say “you cannot break people like a stick”, but more idiomatic would be “you cannot break the people’s back”. Because that shows the sense of it, that you should understand that there are things that have to be done carefully when you are dealing with the destinies of nations. So there were moments where I felt… But there were also moments when I was surprised myself that I found a practically perfect rendering on the spot. And that’s what makes the interpreter happy. But you shouldn’t be too happy, because when you are too happy with the rendering that you have come up with, then you can lose concentration, and the most important thing in simultaneous interpretation, in translation, is concentration.

SS: Pavel Palazhchenko, thank you so much for this wonderful interview. Wish you all the best of luck.

PP: Thank you, I’ve had a good time! Thanks a lot.