I’m writing this piece in Russian, a language I don’t happen to know, in order to get into the proper mood – so the English translation is unlikely to make much sense.
What triggered it is that Lynn Visson, a real-life simultaneous interpreter at the UN – who typically translates from Russian to English — this week shared some of his experiences with readers of the London Review of Books.
As you might expect, idioms present a particular problem for interpreters. The English expression ‘until hell freezes over’ in Russian comes out as ‘after it rains on Thursday.’
‘I had egg on my face’ becomes ‘I sat in a puddle.’
Especially difficult is translating fast talkers in real time, and interpreters are not immune from slips of the tongue. Visson recalls introducing Leonid Brezhnev as ‘Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Sodium.’
But my favorite story arose when a Russian delegate, apparently bored with the days’s proceedings, surprised Visson by not beginning with the customary ‘Thank you, Mr. Chairman.’ Instead, he wailed,
‘O my lost youth, my lost youth!’
Then he waxed ecstatic and at length about mosaics in the main cathedral of Sofia, finally citing one image in the cupola as reminding him of ‘Christ in a space suit.’
Well, at least he wasn’t on a crutch.