Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev. RIP.

Sukhodrev interprets Brezhnev and Nixon in 1973. 
Viktor Sukhodrev, the legendary Russian interpreter, who worked with Soviet leaders from Khruschev to Gorbachev, passed away on 16 May 2014.

This excerpt from an article on Russiapedia explains one 'untranslatable' idiom that Khrushchev used during the 'kitchen debate' with Richard Nixon in 1959:

As the conversation progressed, Khrushchev unexpectedly passed onto the international affairs and Soviet-American relations, warning Nixon, that “We are giants, too. If you want to threaten us, we’ll respond with another threat.” It was at that moment that Khrushchev promised to show the United States “Kuzkina mat’”, or “Kuzma's mother” in English, introducing the most famous collocation of the Cold War vocabulary, which for years remained an enigmatic and obscure threat for the US and a turmoil for interpreters. 

As Viktor Sukhodrev, Khrushchev’s personal interpreter recalls, his colleague was confused and translated the expression as Kuzka's mother as “Kuzma’s mother” throwing off the entire American delegation. Later, the American interpreter having just as hard a time, finally decided to interpret it as “we’ll show you what is what, “ which was close, but still not true. Sukhodrev confessed that Khrushchev did explain what he had in mind, on their trip to Los-Angeles, “…I am starting to translate, when Khrushchev suddenly interrupts me, ‘When I was at the exhibition with Nixon, the translation of this phrase was wrong. And it’s really easy. We will show you something you had never seen before.’ I froze for a moment; no dictionary had such meaning for this expression. In other words, ‘We’ll catch up with you and overtake you, and astound you with something you’d never seen before.’”

Later, as the nuclear program was thriving, the Soviet nuclear physicists named the newly-developed a 100-megaton atomic bomb, the only one in history, and named it “Kuz’kina mat’”. With this new notion, the expression started to make concrete sense.

Watch a longish TV interview with Sukhodrev here. Among other things he explains Khrushchev's famous phrase 'we will bury you' and says that 'nothing is untranslatable.'
Photo: Robert L. Knudsen.

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