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‘I was there’ Meet the interpreter who translated for Joe Biden during his 1988 meeting with the Soviet leadership
Viktor Prokofiev worked as a Foreign Ministry interpreter for 10 years, bridging the end of the Cold War and the Yeltsin years in the early 1990s. He translated for the Soviet and then the Russian leadership during meetings with U.S. presidents George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton, as well as Joe Biden — little did he know that the then-Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would win the U.S. presidential elections in 2020. When recollections of Biden’s visits to the USSR began popping up on social media during the election, one widely distributed photo featured Biden and Soviet politician Andrey Gromyko, as well as Viktor Prokofiev. Meduza reached out to the interpreter to find out more about this particular meeting and what it’s like to translate for world leaders.
Please note. The following is a summary of Viktor Prokofiev’s conversation with Meduza correspondent Alexandra Sivtsova. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here.
Translator Viktor Prokofiev was 33 years old when he was photographed alongside Joe Biden and Andrey Gromko in 1988. “By that time I had more than 10 years experience — I worked at the UN, then went back and worked for the Foreign Ministry for several years. This was in the middle of my Foreign Ministry career — I worked there from 1984 to 1994,” he recalls in conversation with Meduza.
During this period, Prokofiev interpreted for various presidents and prime ministers, including the Soviet Union’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin and prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, as well as U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush Senior, British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and French president François Mitterrand, among other world leaders.
When Joe Biden came to the Soviet Union in 1988, he was Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He flew to Moscow to meet with Andrey Gromyko, the Chairman of the Presidium of the USSR’s Supreme Soviet, who had previously served as the Soviet Union’s Foreign Affairs Minister for 28 years.
“At the time, the Supreme Soviet was working on ratifying the INF Treaty and Biden flew in for talks with the man who was leading the ratification process for the Soviet-American treaty,” Prokofiev explains. “Biden represented America and the U.S. Senate and Gromyko — effectively as the head of state — was the one who resolved issues of ratification in the USSR.”
For reasons unknown to Prokofiev, the American delegation arrived in Moscow without an interpreter, leaving him to translate for both sides. “At that meeting, there wasn’t a second translator and I sat and translated everything Andrey Andreevich Gromyko said into English and everything Biden said I translated from English into Russian,” he recalls.
Asked about the impression Biden made, Prokofiev underscores that he’s speaking “as a translator and a linguist” when he says that “Biden had a pleasant manner of speaking” that “wasn’t difficult to translate.” But he found it “very unusual for those years and for that environment” that Biden brought his son to the negotiations.
Nevertheless, Prokofiev explains that when interpreting during high-level negotiations, one’s primary focus must be on the “text”: “For the translator these people are first and foremost a source of words. Only at the last moment, when the stress after the job has passed, do you start to think about what kind of person he is, what things he said.”
Indeed, being an interpreter is a high-pressure job — mistranslations can have serious consequences for diplomatic relations, after all. “One has to be careful not to worsen the ‘chemistry of the relations’ between people, not to cause confusion or misunderstanding,” Prokofiev underscores. “It’s often only later that you realize that you made a mistake. But the process has already gone in the wrong direction.”
“I certainly prepared myself whenever a foreign figure came. In the case of Biden, I went to the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s territorial department — the Department of the USA and Canada,” he continues. “They prepared me and explained what might be discussed. [During the meeting between Biden and Gromyko] they talked about the ratification of the INF treaty. I didn’t have any difficulties since I worked on the same negotiations in Geneva and knew the topic well, including all of the highly technical issues.”
Prokofiev can’t get into the details because he signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Foreign Affairs Ministry. “This is one of the reasons that I, even now, 40 years later, can’t discuss the topics that were raised during the negotiations. It will be possible to discuss [them] only if the current Foreign Ministry and the Presidential Executive Office give the translator permission,” the interpreter explains. “And I will not talk about it, I’ll take it to my grave. And all Foreign Ministry translators do the same.”
After leaving Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Prokofiev went on to work as a freelance interpreter in London, specializing in legal and business translation. “Now I work with no less interesting people, it’s simply a completely different profile of work. Several years ago I translated a speech by Pope Francis at a meeting of the World Food Program in Rome. [He] is an absolutely remarkable person, a monk, humble, calm, and quiet,” he recalls.
He has also continued to work with politicians, though less often. “Recently, for example, the Council of Europe was a ‘client’ of mine and I sat in the synchronous booth and translated a speech from French President Emmanuel Macron, who was addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,” Prokofiev says. “He was a ‘translatable person,’ that is, a person whose words I had to translate and whose shoes I had to step into to understand how best to translate his words.”
Asked what it means to “step into the shoes of the person” you are translating for, Prokofiev says it involves years of practice. “In the case of Macron, I studied French for 35 years, I lived in Geneva, and worked at the UN there. I’m well acquainted with the culture of France and the French people, with the particularities of their speech, I understand historical and cultural allusions,” he explains. “That is, every time, you step into the shoes of a person on the basis of the knowledge you have accumulated about the person being translated, and on the basis of knowledge of the nation and the country this person represents.”
With over 40 years of experience in translation, Prokofiev finds it impossible to choose the single most interesting politician he has encountered. “I worked with Yeltsin, Gorbachev, Reagan, Clinton, Thatcher, Major, [Rajiv] Gandhi, Bush [Senior] — it’s very difficult to single someone out or to say that one is more memorable than another. It’s just that each one is remembered for their own special facets. Each one of them had their own characteristics — sometimes purely human ones, be it personal achievements or simply a pleasant timbre to their voice,” the translator explains.
That said, he does concede that working with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in the early 1990s was “extremely interesting.” “Many in Russia remember Chernomyrdin for his absolutely wonderful conversational turns. He could throw out something tricky when he needed to,” Prokofiev says. “But I remember that Viktor Stepanovich used this ability very wisely. When he negotiated his meetings with Clinton, with the U.S. Vice President Gore and others, he never allowed himself to ‘pull tricks’.”
Prokofiev was also present for statements that would later take on historical significance. “To this day I remember how I translated for Gorbachev and Reagan at a meeting in Geneva in 1985. It was the very first meeting [with] the people, one of whom — namely Reagan — who had not long beforehand [in 1983] said that the USSR was an evil empire,” Prokofiev recounts. “And when they sat down to talk to each other in Geneva in 1985, the historic phrase about the fact that in a nuclear war there can be no winners and it must never be fought was uttered. This was the end of the Cold War and I was there. This was the beginning of American-Soviet relations moving in the direction of at least some kind of rapprochement.”
Summary by Eilish Hart
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