There are few professions that offer a front-row seat to history, or a chance to rub shoulders with world leaders, as well as the odd tyrant. Interpreting is one of them, and it is interpreters who have given us some of the 20th century's best phrases. The Soviet interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev, who died in May, aged 81, famously rendered Nikita Khrushchev's threat to the west, made during his first visit to the US in 1959, as "We will bury you". (What Khrushchev actually said was, "Communism will outlast capitalism," but it was the more brutal, and not entirely accurate, phrase that stuck.)
…Here's how three translators recall their toughest assignments.
Banafsheh Keynoush grew up in London in the 1970s, when her father worked at the Iranian embassy. She lived in Tehran after the revolution and trained herself as a simultaneous interpreter by listening to the BBC. She has interpreted for four Iranian presidents, most recently for the country's moderate leader Hassan Rouhani, who visited New York last September.
…I was interested in politics from the age of eight – foreign rather than Iranian politics. I lived in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war; we were frequently witnessing air raids; there were times we were listening to attacks 15 times a day.
Aged 14, I was sitting in my bedroom wondering how I could make my dream happen. I was watching the UN security council discussing a ceasefire to the war and realised that the diplomats were wearing earphones. My father explained that they were listening to simultaneous translation. I thought: "Ha! That's how I can get my foot into the realm of diplomacy." There were no interpreting schools in Iran, so every evening I listened to BBC radio around 8pm and translated it [the broadcast] simultaneously. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to study international relations. There was only one programme in Iran in the early 1990s, but it was open only to men. It was so disappointing. I got my BA and MA in English.
…After eight years I realised my passion for international studies hadn't subsided, and I applied for the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston. When Khatami, the new president, came to New York for the first time, I translated for him. Khatami is personable and has a sense of humour. He is a thinker. He is at ease in small groups, but less at ease with politics.
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