The Pressures Of Being An Interpreter At A High-Stakes Summit President Trump doesn't speak Korean and little is known about Kim Jong Un's English skills. The best interpreters serve as both linguists and diplomats. They understand the politics behind the words.

The Pressures Of Being An Interpreter At A High-Stakes Summit

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All right, so when President Trump meets with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, tonight in Singapore, there is going to be a language barrier. A lot is going to be riding on the skills of interpreters. Now, typically, they are invisible - unless, that is, they slip up. There was that time in 1990. Former President George H.W. Bush was deep in nuclear negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. All of a sudden, the White House Cabinet Room froze. The Soviet interpreter, Igor Korchilov, remembers the sinking feeling he had.

IGOR KORCHILOV: They were astounded that Gorbachev had changed his position a hundred and eighty degrees overnight.

GREENE: Except, he hadn't. Korchilov, the interpreter, had simply said the wrong word. They corrected the mistake pretty quickly. But Korchilov did wonder for a moment - had he just accidentally changed the course of history? He approached President Bush afterwards to offer his apology.

KORCHILOV: He made a stern look, you know, put his arms in his pockets and said, relax; the good news is that you didn't start World War III.

GREENE: NPR's Danny Hajek talked with some of the interpreters whose words carry the weight of the world.


DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: October 2000 - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lands in Pyongyang to meet former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. And right there between them is U.S. interpreter Tong Kim.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What did they say?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

HAJEK: Then the doors close, and the talks begin.

TONG KIM: That was the most important meeting I have ever interpreted for.

HAJEK: The delegations sat either side of a glossy mahogany table that spanned the length of the room - Kim Jong Il and Madeleine Albright face to face, interpreters by their sides. Each leader brings their own. To prepare, U.S. interpreter Tong Kim reviewed top-secret documents. He read a dozen books on nuclear bombs.

KIM: I kept reading and reading and reading.

HAJEK: He learned a North Korean accent.

KIM: I picked up their language, their intonation, their dialect. And that gives them some trust.

HAJEK: See; the best interpreters are part linguists, part diplomats. They have to know the politics behind each word.

STEPHANIE VAN REIGERSBERG: It can be scary, but you get yourself into a kind of a zone.

HAJEK: Stephanie Van Reigersberg spent 18 years as head of the interpreting division at the U.S. State Department, and she has stories.

VAN REIGERSBERG: I had one experience with President Bush Sr. when he was vice president during the...

HAJEK: All right, so this is December, 1983 - a secret mission into El Salvador. They flew in on Black Hawk helicopters through the Salvadoran mountains to a presidential villa. And Bush was there to deliver a warning to armed military commanders about their government's brutal death squads.

VAN REIGERSBERG: I don't want to use the word vulgar about Bush because that was far from the way he is, but basically, he cussed them out. Having a woman interpreter using that kind of language really got their attention. And after the meeting, Bush said, well, I almost got us both killed, didn't I? (Laughter).


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The president of the United States and Mrs. Reagan.

HAJEK: Years of negotiations led to this other moment more than 30 years ago when President Ronald Reagan welcomed his Cold War rival Mikhail Gorbachev to Washington.


RONALD REAGAN: Today marks a visit that is perhaps more momentous than many which have preceded it because it represents a coming together not of allies but of adversaries.


DIMITRY ZARECHNAK: We were just agonizing over this word adversaries.

HAJEK: Dimitry Zarechnak was interpreting the speech that day. Here he is on NPR in 2001.


ZARECHNAK: ...Because in Russian, the actual word for adversary is protivnik, which sounds very much like protivniy, which means disgusting, and it has that kind of a flavor.

HAJEK: It could've thrown off the whole summit. So to save the moment, Zarechnak made a change. Instead of adversaries, he went with the Russian word for competitors.


ZARECHNAK: (Speaking in Russian).

HAJEK: And it seemed to work - a nod from Gorbachev, and the summit was underway.



HAJEK: So when it comes to interpreting, it doesn't get much more high-stakes than this - President Trump and Kim Jong Un. And just weeks ago, it was fiery rhetoric, and the talks were canceled. But for interpreters who hold onto every word, the challenge in this meeting room will be keeping up with a president who's known to go off script. Again, Stephanie Van Reigersberg.

VAN REIGERSBERG: You hear the message that comes to you, and you deliver it as best you can, and that's all you can do.

HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News.


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