What is it like to be President Putin’s interpreter? Three of his interpreters shared some insights into the profession with the viewers of Russia-24, a state-owned news channel, earlier this month. They work for the Department of Linguistic Support at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and have an official job title of a counsellor (Alexey Sadykov) or 2nd or 3rd secretary (Sergey Chudinov, Natalya Krasavina).
The fact that interpreters can’t disclose anything from the negotiations they interpret at comes as no surprise, it’s part of the job. Many meetings are highly confidential, and it is confidentiality that keeps the profession of a diplomatic interpreter relevant. It’s similar to the Hippocratic Oath. Behind the closed doors though, the conversation flow and style may vary depending on the subjects under discussion and how well political leaders know each other. And it is up to the interpreter to convey not just the meaning of the discourse, but the mood as well.
Interpreters may also find themselves in most unpredictable situations when official schedules go out of the window. It’s not unknown for them to physically run after leaders at political summits, you need to be ready for anything.
Sometimes an interpreter can’t hear what is being said, especially if not working from a booth, in which case a cliché “pardon” is quite appropriate. It may cause an incredulous look as we happen to see on Putin’s face in this TV report, when his interpreter couldn’t hear a simple word “отлично” (excellent).
On one occasion Putin thought an interpreter was speaking too quietly and recommended working on his voice to make it more assertive.
Interpreters say it’s not the end of the world if Putin corrects them: everyone makes mistakes, especially when tiredness takes over. There were situations when Putin repeated what he’d just said, giving the interpreter a chance to correct themselves, or made a meaningful comment: “Listen to me carefully”. Slips of the tongues may occur with simple numbers or country names, no one is perfect. As a fluent German speaker Putin can even interpret jokes into German himself, sparing the interpreter the effort.
Simultaneous interpreting is a different story: you need to focus, analyse the meaning and interpret it in a grammatically correct, non-cluttered manner.
An interpreter’s goal for self-improvement? Here is advice from these top Russian interpreters: keep working on your vocabulary, discussions range on various topics and sometimes that half-forgotten word stored somewhere at the back of your mind may surface just in time to save your bacon.
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