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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: Translator Interprets History




Twenty-five years ago, when I was a young diplomat representing the Novosti Press Agency in Ottawa, I served as press attach? to Alexander Yakovlev, the Soviet ambassador to Canada and the future father of glasnost. The flamboyant Canadian prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had recently come back from a trip to the U.S.S.R., and our grim-faced prime minister, Alexei Kosygin, was returning the compliment with an official visit.


Every evening in my basement office next to the embassy, I had to print 500 copies of an information bulletin to be distributed to local mass media about the events comrade Kosygin had been participating in.


One unfortunate day, Kosygin, walking back to his hotel from Parliament, was physically attacked by a Ukrainian emigr? nationalist. The smooth, daily routine was ruined, and Kosygin returned to his quarters earlier than planned, ordered a bottle of Armenian cognac and a lemon (he was hungry), and had his personal interpreter, Viktor Sukhodrev, stay with him.


When I returned to the embassy to pick up the documents for my bulletin, they had still not been translated from the Russian, and I was told to do my own translation. I wasn't sure I was up to the task, but there wasn't much choice. When I was ready an hour and a half later, Sukhodrev finally came to the embassy and read what I did. I'll have to skip over his unprintable reaction. Anyway, he immediately began dictating, and 10 minutes later I left the embassy carrying the perfect English translation of the bulletin.


This was my only personal encounter with the No. 1 Soviet interpreter of the '60s, '70s and '80s, Viktor Sukhodrev. But there are plenty of other interesting incidents in his memoir My Tongue Is My Friend ("Yazyk moi - drug moi"), published this August by Olimp and AST publishers and selling for the equivalent of $1.50.


Born in 1933, Sukhodrev spent his childhood in London before returning to Moscow in 1945. He entered the Soviet Foreign Office as a staff translator at the age of 23 and three months later began interpreting for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with whom he worked for eight years. He dedicated about 200 pages to Khrushchev, and 100 to his subsequent masters, Alexei Kosygin, Andrei Gromyko and Leonid Brezhnev.


Sukhodrev's account is very simple and shorn of any sweeping generalizations, profound political analysis or muckraking about Soviet leaders. But it is filled with small and not-so-small details involving many world leaders.