When talking to Mikhail, Reagan first spoke to Dimitry. Presidential interpreter gives inside view of summit
Washington — At last month's Reagan-Gorbachev summit, Dimitry Zarechnak did much of the talking. The US interpreter turned President Reagan's English into Russian while a Soviet counterpart translated Mikhail Gorbachev's Russian into English.
``It was definitely exciting,'' Mr. Zarechnak said in a Monitor interview of his most recent assignment. ``The night before the first meeting was not the most peaceful night I've ever had in my life. But one of the things I kept thinking about to help calm me down was that Reagan and Gorbachev were just regular guys and that I was just an intermediary between them. I decided in the light of eternity, God would not be angry with me if I made mistakes.''
Zarechnak's notes from the first meeting between Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev produced an 111/2-page double-spaced document -- the only permanent US record of the superpowers' first summit in six years.
Describing the leaders he saw from a unique firsthand vantage point, Zarechnak says they were ``outgoing, affable, and easygoing. The impression that was created in the press was really the right one. They found it easy to talk to each other from the beginning. They both had their own different viewpoints -- very different -- but in the personal relationship they got along.''
Zarechnak, one of four US interpreters at the summit, says that to allow for more spontaneity, it was agreed not to use tape recorders during the meetings. Instead, during the consecutive translation, he kept detailed written notes, recording Reagan's statements in English before translating orally into Russian for Gorbachev.
In turn, Zarechnak says he took notes while Gorbachev and his interpreter spoke, in the process verifying the accuracy of the Soviet translations.
``As a matter of practice, I check to see that what's being said is being said properly. If there's any disagreement, especially if it's substantive, I'll come in. But there were no disagreements on the translations at the Geneva meeting,'' says Zarechnak.
Following each session, Zarechnak immediately dictated his notes, which were then transcribed and circulated among senior US officials. Zarechnak says the US and Soviet versions were never compared. But he says the likelihood of divergence is small because US and Soviet interpreters cross-checked each other at the meetings. Only once was Zarechnak asked to provide an oral briefing, to Secretary of State George P. Shultz and national-security adviser Robert McFarlane after the first Reagan-Gorbachev meet ing. Zarechnak says he's forbidden to talk to the press about any of the substantive details of the meetings.
Zarechnak says preparing for his role in the Geneva summit was largely a matter of drawing on past experience. ``All the issues, like regional and bilateral questions, have come up in my interpreting career over the last 15 years. So, in a sense, everything I'm doing has been in preparation.''
In addition, Zarechnak, who holds a top-secret security clearance, studies official background documents and attends briefings for senior administration officials.
But in this case, he says, ``there were few briefing papers since the President knew more or less what he was going to say. So on my part there was not a great deal to prepare for for this particular summit.''
Zarechnak says that being an interpreter is inevitably seasonal work, varying according to the state of US-Soviet relations. ``When relations fall off, as after [the 1979 Soviet invasion of] Afghanistan, then we have long dry spells when we have little to do. That's the difference between those of us who work in Russian and those who work in Spanish, where you get a lot of countries.''
But in recent months underemployment has not been Zarechnak's problem. This fall, he interpreted three times for Mr. Shultz and twice for Reagan in meetings in Helsinki, Washington, and Moscow leading up to the summit. By November, Zarechnak -- together with the other main US interpeter, William D. Krimer -- was the man in the middle.
Zarechnak says he never really worries about making substantive mistakes under pressure. But he says that performing in the glare of worldwide publicity poses special challenges. At Geneva, he says, those problems were made easier by the two leaders. ``Apart from knowing the language and apart from having an ability to interpret, the psychological aspect plays a great role. Being made to feel at ease helps,'' says Zarechnak.
Zarechnak was born in Czechoslovakia and came to the US when he was four. He says he learned Russian because it was spoken around the house. The son of two foreign-language teachers, he also taught Russian at Smith College in Massachusetts before joining the State Department in 1971.
Unlike their Soviet counterparts, who often go on to take regular diplomatic posts abroad or in the Soviet Foreign Ministry, the State Department's 23 interpreters are not part of the regular Foreign Service. Still, Zarechnak has probably seen more high-level diplomacy firsthand than most of the State Department's 4,000 Foreign Service officers. In 1973 he attended his first summit, when President Nixon met with Leonid Brezhnev. Subsequently he interpreted for presidential press secretary Jody Powell du ring President Carter's summit with Mr. Brezhnev in 1979. This year, Zarechnak and Gorbachev have crossed paths with some regularity.
Of his first of three meetings with Gorbachev, he says, ``I was interpreting for a delegation of senators visiting Moscow. I finished one sentence and was about to go on with the next when all of a sudden Gorbachev says, `Where are you from?' Nobody had ever asked me this in the middle of my interpreting. When I told him my father was from the Carpathian mountains, he said his father had died in the same area during the war. All this was going back and forth in Russian and I was beginning to get rather nervous because the senators were waiting.''
At the Geneva summit, Zarechnak says that Gorbachev ``came over and shook my hand and said, `How do you feel, Dimitry?' He was very personable.''