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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NASA Interpreter's Job Has Her Seeing Stars

For MTIrina Yashkova is one of only two Russian-English spacewalk interpreters.
In the movie "The Interpreter," Nicole Kidman plays an intense UN staffer, portraying the job of interpreting as both thrilling and risky. While not a Hollywood celebrity, NASA interpreter Irina Yashkova stars in real-life space adventures as the crucial language link between astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the international space station.

The ISS houses two to three crewmembers, typically at least one American and one Russian, who work in space for six months at a time. As the ears and voices of these space dwellers, the interpreter's job requires perfect attention to detail and allows no room for error.

"When I was interpreting for the crew members who were outside of the space station ... I thought, 'What if I make a mistake? One word, and something happens with this project, and I will be the most infamous interpreter in history,'" Yashkova, 34, said in an interview from NASA's offices, adjacent to the Russian Space Agency in central Moscow.

A native of Surgut in the Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous region in Siberia, Yashkova holds a master's degree in simultaneous interpretation -- not to be confused with translation -- from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. Translating involves written language, while interpreting centers on speech.

Most people have witnessed "consecutive interpretation," when an interpreter supports a public speaker. In this case, when the speaker pauses, the interpreter relays the information. However, Yashkova's work as a simultaneous interpreter requires her to talk together with the speaker -- without delay.

"There is a joke among the interpreters. We say, 'Only the crazy man and the interpreters speak and listen at the same time,'" she laughs. "That is a skill, but it's really challenging because the human brain is not designed to be able to listen, process the information and speak at the same time. So, that's why I wanted to go to the Monterey Institute, to learn how to do that."

Yashkova credits her passion for languages to her family and the legend of her grandfather, who spoke seven languages and taught at her alma mater, Tyumen State University. Yashkova's mother also exposed her at a young age to foreign languages. Every morning, on their way to kindergarten, passing trees and buses along the way, her mother would ask the 6-year-old to name the objects in English.

What was once a game became her livelihood. She followed in her family's footsteps, studying English and other foreign languages. Yashkova longed to study overseas, but the road to an English-speaking country seemed impassable.

"In those days, traveling abroad was unthinkable -- the perestroika years. Then, one day, I saw an ad in the newspaper, just one line, that said, 'If you send us $20, we'll send you a catalog for colleges and scholarships in the U.S.,'" she said. "Both my parents, who had higher education, were probably making jointly $30 a month in those days, so I couldn't approach them about this."

Yashkova, then a second-year university student, turned to her classmates for help. "They said, 'you and your crazy ideas. The whole country is starving, and you're thinking about $20.'"

In 1992, Yashkova's first foray into interpreting came as a result of her crazy idea. A classmate knew of a job with the Washington, D.C.-based adoption agency Cradle of Hope, which needed interpreters to assist in the first adoptions from Russia to the United States. Yashkova earned her $20, and although she never sent for the college brochure, her work with the agency ultimately paid off.

Cradle of Hope families hosted her in a student exchange program in Ashtabula, Ohio. Later, Yashkova found work as a counselor at Camp Campbell in Boulder Creek, California. She spent three summers in California, journeying from Siberia to lifeguard and teach American children about Russian life. A fellow counselor persuaded her to apply to the Monterey Institute.

In 1996, Yashkova began studying at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the only graduate school in the United States offering master's degrees in translation and interpretation.

"Irina was our top student in Russian interpretation," said Dr. Peter Grothe, professor and director of the International Student Programs at the Monterey Institute.

"The scholarship she received from Russia was stopped because of a lack of funding, and the Monterey Institute believed so strongly in her unlimited future that we gave her a large scholarship so that she could finish the program.

"She is one of only two persons who is certified to interpret in Russian-English on spacewalks, and if she makes a mistake, it could cost millions of dollars to the space program," Grothe said.

Yashkova has avoided making any million-dollar mistakes since becoming a NASA liaison in 1998 for TechTrans International, a translation and interpretation services firm. Each NASA interpreter must undergo rigorous training for at least one year before supporting space operations. Yashkova had no real problems navigating the new terminology, but she makes light of her neophyte naivet?.

"At first, I could not understand why they were calling someone Roger, when there are no Rogers on the space station," she joked. Roger is a military term acknowledging the receipt of a command or a communication.

Yashkova spent 2 1/2 years in Moscow interpreting for the ISS crew and assisting at the launch and landing of shuttle missions transporting ISS crewmembers before relocating to the United States in June, where she continues her space adventures, most recently supporting the July 4 launch of the space shuttle Discovery. Yashkova is to return to Russia and Kazakhstan in September to welcome the ISS crewmembers home and bid the new crew bon voyage.

While she may not grace the red carpet at Hollywood movie premieres, the results of her work make a global impact as Russian and American space missions continue.