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Famous Interpreters: Secrets and Silent Spying

A few months ago, we wrote a summary of the achievements of famous interpreters and translators in history (you can read it here). Today, we bring you some juicy secrets some famous interpreters have disclosed! Yes, their ethics are questionable for violating confidentiality. But we will look past it for the sake of this article, as this is all stuff that happened before confidentiality agreements, GDPR, and the such. Plus, it’s fun to read!

Ralph Lauren’s Strange Requirements

Luke Harding claims, in this article for The Guardian, that one interpreter who agreed to work for the fashion designer Ralph Lauren received from him a long list of requirements. They related to what clothes to wear, how to wear her hair, and how to do her makeup. She turned the job down, apparently (we get you, sister).

Interpreting for Chinese Leaders

As reported by Luke Harding too, Victor Gao was with the Chinese Foreign Service in Beijing. He was also the United Nations Secretariat in New York from 1983-89. And, in terms of interpreting work, he was an English interpreter for the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. In the 1980s, Deng was the most important person in the world! Gao says that Deng was very small, around 152 cm tall and that he was a man of few words. His speech wasn’t sophisticated and he conveyed his ideas very clearly, which made it easy to understand him.

Gao travelled with Deng to the UK in 1985 and met Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street. He also went with him to an official lunch hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Read more about Gao and Deng Xiaoping here.

Gorbachev’s Complicated Speech

The interpreter Elena Kidd, currently course director of the MA interpreting and translating programme at Bath University, worked for Mikhail Gorbachev back in the 90s. She gave an interview to The Guardian about it. She says Gorbachev was friendly and had an accent that was easy to understand. However, his public speaking skills weren’t great. As a result, his sentences were “long and convoluted”, which made it difficult to convey the message in English in real time.

Films and Simultaneous Interpreting in the 1970s

The article Listening to the Inaudible Foreign Simultaneous Translators and Soviet Experience of Foreign Cinema, by Elena Razlogova, is a great read. There, she explains that, between the 1960s and 1980s, it was Soviet simultaneous interpreters and translators who made foreign-film screenings possible. Why? Because they interpreted them live! Isn’t that amazing?

One of those interpreters was Nelia Nersesian. We’ve included her in this article about famous interpreters because people loved her! Why? Because she used to change her tone and expressions while interpreting for different characters in American films. As a result, the experience was more enjoyable. You might be wondering what secrets she had to keep. Well, she took part in the dubbing and subtitling of so-called “trophy films”. These films were stolen from the so-called trophy fund during the occupation of Germany, and the Soviets showed them without credits. In other words, no-one could tell who had done the translation or dubbing work. Nelia was one of the few who knew who the linguists were. Unfortunately, she took the secret to the grave.

A BBC-Trained Interpreter Who Witnessed the Iran-Iraq War

Her name is Banafsheh Keynoush and she grew up in west London. So far, she has interpreted for four Iranian presidents. Moreover, she lived in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, frequently witnessing air raids.

As there were no interpreting schools in Iran, she got a BA and MA in English and self-trained in interpreting. She used to listen to BBC radio every evening to practice translating the broadcast simultaneously. In 2017, she interpreted for Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, in New York. What she has to say about him, you wonder? Apparently, he’s a very calm, even-headed person. And he paid more attention to Keynoush’s interpreting work than other presidents, which made her more self-aware. Read more here.

When Famous Interpreters Refuse to Speak

Sometimes, interpreters refuse to speak of what they have witnessed. Such is the case of Magdalena Fitas-Dukaczewska. Ms Fitas-Dukaczewska was the interpreter during a meeting between Donald Tusk and Vladimir Putin. After Poland’s defence minister accused Vladimir Putin of involvement in the 2010 plane crash which killed the Polish president, the interpreter was asked to testify about what she heard during the meeting. However, Ms Fitas-Dukaczewska refuses to speak about it as it would destroy her credibility. Considering that confidentiality is one of the guarantees of interpreting work, it’s understandable. Read more in the article Interpreters make really lousy spies, by DW, here.

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