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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Former Interpreter Has Seen Share of Legends

Holly Smith has long been accustomed to crossing paths with people most of us only see crossing our television screens.


But when she appeared next to dignitaries like Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, Smith didn't share the spotlight. Instead, the longtime Moscow resident was in the shadows as their interpreter.


Although Smith, who has lived in Moscow since 1979, no longer makes her living from interpreting, she said it is "an interesting subculture."


Like any subculture, interpreting has its fair share of legends. For example, apparently Nikita Khrushchev was extremely difficult to interpret for, given his propensity for veering away from the script, most spectacularly in the former Soviet leader's shoe-slamming session at the United Nations, Smith said.


"In those kind of situations, interpreters would just faint. They didn't know what he was going to say next," she said.


But usually those who are used to working with interpreters make their jobs easier, Smith said. Kissinger was known to be easy to interpret for because he spoke in short phrases, but some Russian generals, who weren't used to working with foreigners, tended to speak in long phrases, making the interpreter's job difficult.


There were also what Smith calls "scarier times" for interpreters, especially during the Cold War. A friend of Smith's once worked with former Soviet leader Yury Andropov and had the misfortune to confuse the words "arm" and "disarm," which was "a major disaster."


But no matter what happens while an interpreter is working, Smith said, the best interpreters don't get star-struck working with famous people and remain in the background.


"It helps if you're not over-awed by them," she said, adding that if interpreters are good at what they do, you tend not to notice them.


But the job also can be a high-pressure one. "Schizophrenia's almost a professional illness among interpreters," she said, explaining that interpreters must quickly switch languages and detach their personal feelings from the job at hand.


In addition to interpreting, Smith's time in Moscow has been taken up with a whole range of activities -- consulting, translating and working in television. She currently works for the High School Legal Education Project on the Role of Law in a Market Economy.


Raised in Savannah, Georgia, Smith began studying Russian while majoring in philosophy at Valdosta State College.


"If you start reading Dostoevsky at 16 or earlier, there's a good chance you'll end up in Russia. It's a kind of fatal attraction," she said, standing among groups of chattering children in a corridor of the former Palace of the Pioneers, while her daughter, Greywynn, 8, was at choir practice.


Possibly not wishing to burden Fyodor Dostoevsky with responsibility for the entire course of her life, Smith suggests another reason why she ended up in Russia: an offer from a friend who specializes in what Smith terms "weird tourism."


"In those days, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, in particular, [were] the socially unacceptable things to do. So when my friend called up and asked, 'How would you like to go to Russia for a year?' I couldn't possibly say no," Smith said. "So I sold my pickup truck, packed up my philosophy books and got on the plane. Before the year was out, I fell in love, got married and stayed here."


Since then, she has divorced and remarried. Her current husband, Sergei Kovalyov, was a research physicist, but now works as the chief accountant for Operation Smile, a charity that organizes operations for children with cleft palates and other facial deformities.


Smith spends much of her free time with her daughter. Saturday's rituals start with Greywynn's choir practice, then, after a short drive in Smith's conspicuously inconspicuous Lada Niva, the two eat a fast-food lunch and do the grocery shopping.


When asked if she lives the life of a Westerner or if she tries to live like a Russian, Smith said, "Here you just live whatever life you can."


Living in Russia for almost two decades, Smith has seen not only the changes, but also those things that have remained the same. "The polyclinics are still poor as church mice. The ladies at the housing office are still just as uncooperative. The public toilets are just as bad, maybe worse," she said.


She has also noticed the growing obsession with security among public figures and wealthy Russians, which she views as a kind of militarization of society.


"Now a large segment of the population has no protection at all. So many people are totally vulnerable. Take the shuttle traders, for example. It's so easy for them to lose everything," she said.


Later, after the errands were done, Smith sat in her kitchen over a cup of tea, her back to a refrigerator heavily adorned with magnets. She talked about the one thing that makes life in Russia worthwhile.


"The people compensate for the hardness of living here," she said. "They act as a kind of cushion. Here you get to know people as people."