November 9, 2020

Fluency in a language is just not enough. Unless you are a qualified interpreter yourself, it is always best to hire one

Viktor Prokofiev worked as a Foreign Ministry interpreter for 10 years, bridging the end of the Cold War and the Yeltsin years in the early 1990s. He translated for the Soviet and later the Russian leadership during meetings with the U.S. presidents George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, as well as Joe Biden — little did he know that the then-Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations would win the U.S. presidential elections in 2020. When recollections of Biden’s visits to the USSR began popping up on social media during the election, one widely circulated photo featured Biden and Soviet politician Andrey Gromyko, together with Viktor Prokofiev.

—  How old were you back in 1988 when you were photographed alongside Joe Biden and Andrey Gromyko?

— I was 33 at the time and had more than 10 years of experience behind — I had worked at the UN, then went back and worked for the Foreign Ministry for several years. This was in the middle of my Foreign Ministry career — I worked there from 1984 to 1994. And during that period, I interpreted for various presidents and prime ministers, including the Soviet Union’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin and prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, as well as U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush Sr., British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and French president François Mitterrand, to name but a few world leaders.

— So why that meeting between Byden and Gromyko?

— When Joe Biden came to the Soviet Union in 1988, he was Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He flew to Moscow to meet with Andrey Gromyko, the Chairman of the Presidium of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet, who had previously served as the Soviet Union’s Foreign Minister for 40 years. 

At the time, the Supreme Soviet was working on ratifying the INF Treaty, and Biden flew in for talks with the man who was leading the ratification process for the Soviet-American pact. Biden represented America and the U.S. Senate, and Gromyko — effectively as the head of state — was the one who handled ratification issues in the USSR. 

— And were you translating for both?

— Americans would normally bring along an interpreter from among their own staff. This is the customary practice of the US Department of State. Or else, they outsource, on a casual basis. As far as I am concerned, there is currently no such practice in Russia: the interpreting for heads of states is done solely by the Foreign Ministry’s staff interpreters. For reasons unknown to me, that time the American delegation arrived in Moscow without an interpreter of their own, leaving me to do the job for both sides.

Which means that I just sat there and interpreted everything that Andrey Andreevich Gromyko said into English and everything Biden said I rendered from English into Russian. 

— Could you describe the impression Biden made?

— I would like to underscore that I am speaking “as a translator and a linguist” here and from that standpoint I would say that Biden’s manner of speaking was a pleasant one. He wasn’t difficult to interpret for. But what also surprised me was the fact that he brought his son along to the negotiations. That was most unusual for those years and for that environment. 

— Back in 1988, few people could be expected to even imagine Biden becoming a US president someday. And how did you personally feel about dealing with the heads of states? After all, you had been interpreting at meetings with George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton, and Boris Yeltsin.

— For an interpreter working at high-level negotiations, the primary focus must be on the “text”. All of these people are, therefore, first and foremost seen as a source of message. Only the very last thing, when the post-job stress has passed, do you start to think about what kind of person he was and about things he said.

— Well, still, you surely must be aware that these are not sounds of just anybody’s speech but the President of the United States himself speaking?

 Naturally! There is no question of a diminished sense of responsibility. It is about the same now though when I interpret for prominent oligarchs at high-profile trials and litigations: between Berezovsky and Abramovich, for Deripaska, Pugachev, and others. This entails tremendous responsibility. Billions of dollars are at stake. And when it is a question of relations between countries, the price of a mistake could be as high as an armed conflict, or a war, or something like that. 

— You mean, a mere mistake of a translator may indeed lead to a war?

— Well, this may well happen, although I would be hard pressed to name a real-life instance of this. The Foreign Ministry had established a very good practice: it would only hire people who had a solid experience of interpreting and translation work at other agencies and institutions, like the UN, for example. And even if they were equipped with that, they still had several years of training and selection ahead. Translators would receive proper drilling; each was assigned a mentor who would offer them guidance and share their experience.

And at any high-level diplomatic talks     there are always a few people present who know the language the interpreter is working with and would be able to correct him if he makes a mistake. I personally do not think a translation mistake could result in a war, but I can well imagine that it may spark a minor conflict.

— A conflict like what, for example?

— Well, just a setback in the relations if the interpreter was not careful enough to convey exactly what was meant. I mean, even such seemingly petty things as unfitting intonation, inappropriate gestures – these are all different for each language. Every manner of colloquial expression is also often a pain. One has to be careful not to ruin the ‘chemistry of the relations’ between people, not to cause confusion or misunderstanding. It is often not before later that you realize you have made a mistake. But the process has already been going in a wrong direction.

— Did you take care to make special preparations for each new meeting at the Foreign Ministry?

— I most certainly did whenever a foreign figure arrived on a visit. In the case of Biden, I went to the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s territorial department — the Department for the USA and Canada. They briefed me and explained what might be expected to be on the agenda. [During the meeting between Biden and Gromyko] they discussed the ratification of the INF treaty. I did not have any difficulties since I had worked at the same negotiations in Geneva and knew the topic well, including all of the highly technical issues. Yet any interpreting work inevitable begs some preparatory drill. For example, this year I spent several weeks reading through the 3,200 pages of the introductory materials for the TatNeft vs Kolomoisky suit. By now, I feel like I know all the intricacies, all the ins and outs of the litigation so thoroughly that I guess, I could well handle the case myself. Well, no, I’m joking, of course.

The trial is public, by the way, so anybody can request a link to access it from the English court and then follow it online.

— What term do you use to refer to people for whom you interpret? Clients?

— The client is the person who hires me, while the person for whom I am interpreting is the person whose words I am supposed to interpret. Naturally, the structure of relations is different in London from what it was at the Foreign Ministry. The Ministry was the client, while the heads of states and the  high-ranking Ministry officials were the people I had to interpret for.

Recently, for example, the Council of Europe was a ‘client’ of mine, and I sat in the interpreter booth and interpreted a speech by French President Emmanuel Macron who was addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He was the ‘person to interpret,’ that is, a person whose words I had to translate and whose shoes I had to step into to understand how best to translate those words. 

— To step into the shoes of the person you’re interpreting for, as you put it, do you need to study their mannerisms, their style of speaking? What exactly matters for such high-level interpreting to be successful?

 —  Now this takes years of practice in their language. In the case of Macron, I had been studying French for 35 years, I had lived in Geneva, and worked for the UN there. I’m well acquainted with the culture of France and the French people, with the idiosyncrasies of their speech, I understand historical and cultural allusions. I know something about Macron too and I was well-versed in the subject of his speech. That is, every time you have to step into the shoes of a person for whom you are interpreting both on the basis of the information you have gleaned about them and on the basis of what you know about the nation and the country this person represents.

— I expect, legal translation is much more boring?

— By no means. For instance, when I was working at the Abramovich-Berezovsky trial, I couldn’t help sensing my involvement in the history of Russian business. I was interpreting at a trial where something more than just 5.5 billion dollars — the amount of the claim made by Berezovsky against Abramovich — was at stake. In truth, it was a question of the dark side of the Russian business of the 1990s, its background, its dirtiest secrets. The witnesses giving testimony included some really fascinating personalities, that aside from Abramovich himself who spoke Russian and Berezovsky who, quite inconveniently, testified in English all through the week.

— Why inconveniently?

— Because Boris Abramovich quite obviously believed himself to be proficient in English. But that was far from being the case. Whenever you have reasons to suspect that your skills in a foreign language are below proficiency, it is always best to request an interpreter who has a vast amount of linguistic manoeuvres and language tricks up his sleeve. He knows how to phrase things to avoid messing it all up. A person who lacks mastery in a foreign language is bound to make gaffes and blunders. We had no other choice but to translate Berezovsky’s English into Russian for Roman’s benefit. And I still believe that his decision to speak English during the trial had contributed substantially to his losing that suit.




Fluency in a language is just not enough. Unless you are a qualified interpreter yourself, it is always best to hire one