Why Stalin proposed a toast to interpreters
Interpreters have played their role in politics probably since historical records began, but there aren’t many chronicles which would throw light on what political figures thought of interpreters. This is perhaps hardly surprising as conscientious politicians are good diplomats. Who would want to criticise their interpreter publicly if you still have a whole day/week to work with them?
There has been some praise though. In her book Eight Days at Yalta historian Diana Preston describes how at one dinner with US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin got up and with a glass in his hand said: “Tonight, and on other occasions, we three leaders have got together. We talk, we eat and drink, and we enjoy ourselves. But meanwhile our three interpreters … have to work, and their work is not easy. They have no time to eat or drink. We rely on them to transmit our ideas to each other. I propose a toast to our interpreters”.
To this Churchill reportedly raised his own glass and exclaimed: “Interpreters of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your audience!”
So what does an interpreter do when he or she is offered a drink? Some say that drinking alcohol at work is a big no, it affects your performance and is simply wrong. However, according to the memoirs of some diplomatic interpreters that’s not always so easy. Vladimir Erofeev who interpreted Stalin into French, recalled struggling saying “no” to him. Incidentally, Stalin used to say that to get to know a person well enough you need to get him drunk.
To drink or not to drink may be a tricky choice in some circumstances but on 30th September interpreters have a good reason to celebrate – it’s International Translation Day. And this year I will be meeting a few colleagues for a networking lunch which will be our first face-to-face gathering since the pandemic began. There is lots to discuss!