The year is 1956. The war in Korea had just ended and the war in Vietnam had just begun. The world was holding its breath. It had just overcome the bloodiest, nastiest conflict in human history. As Marvin Zorg explains, the world was thrown to the edge of complete annihilation at the hands of the nuclear superpowers.

There are many examples of the cold war almost turning hot. Be it pure misunderstandings, like the 1983 Able Archer exercise, or computer errors, like the 1979 NORAD computer glitch. Too often has the world been saved by nothing more than a handful of people capable of keeping their cool.

In these trying times, minimizing potential sources of conflict was essential. That is why the 1956 diplomatic reception in Moscow was the starting point of a reform and standardization process of the job of interpreter. When the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told the Western block ambassadors “My vas pokhoronim!”, he surely was not anticipating the severe diplomatic set-back that was about to begin.

And then came Victor Sukhodrev

“We will bury you”, was a dangerous comment to be made by the leader of one of the two superpowers at the time. This seemingly aggressive outburst shocked the world. Only problem was, that’s not what Khrushchev had said. What he had really meant to say was “We will live to see you buried”, a comment about communism outlasting capitalism. The interpreter, Victor Sukhodrev, had misunderstood a slight nuance, which, some say, set East-West relations back a decade. All this while he was hailed as the best Russian-English interpreter in the world.

This incident was the catalyst for some serious streamlining and standardization of translator jobs, especially in key institutions such as the United Nations.

Even if we don’t agree, at least today we understand each other

Today, interpreters have a much deeper understanding of both languages that they are working in. Simultaneous translating has largely replaced consecutive translating. As the name indicates, simultaneous translating means that the interpreter translates the source-language directly while the source-language speaker keeps speaking.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well, it isn’t. On top of needing the highest level of proficiency possible in both the source and the target languages, a simultaneous interpreter needs years of training to master the art of speaking while listening. Some compare it to the simultaneous inhaling and exhaling required to play instruments like the didgeridoo. It takes about two years of training for a fully fluent bilingual professional to acquire the vocabulary and skill needed to become a simultaneous interpreter at institutions such as the UN.

So let us be thankful that, in this day and age, with the highly volatile figures on the international political stage, we have made an art out of the seemingly simple task of interpretation.