At one point, Stalin dropped his guard and showed the true Bolshevik view of honoring commitments. {FDR adviser Harry} Hopkins asked whether the Soviet Union was il,5p6,9l prepared to honor the Yalta agreement on entering the Far Eastern war. Stalin replied testily, "The Soviet Union always honors its word." Then he lowered his voice and added, "except in case of extreme necessity." {Soviet interpreter V.N.} Pavlov was just about to omit the last phrase in his interpretation when I said to him in English, "I believe there is a little more, Pavlov," and he hurriedly mumbled Stalin's qualification. -- Charles E. Bohlen, in "Witness to History" deftext

They are brokers to history, those interpreters who cover summit meetings.

Upon their subtle, quick minds may hang political careers, if not the future of nations.

Geneva, Nov. 20, 1985: Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan are standing outside the Soviet mission, smiling for the photographers. From behind the ropes, reporters lob questions. Suddenly the take-charge voice of ABC's Sam Donaldson booms out:

Did the president agree with his chief of staff that women wouldn't be interested in the important topics of the summit? He is referring to an unfortunate remark by Donald Regan that women wouldn't understand "throw weights or what is happening in Afghanistan or what is happening in human rights."

Reagan smiles wanly, says he knows Regan well and is sure the man didn't really mean it that way. He falls silent, so Donaldson turns to Gorbachev.

"Mr. General Secretary," he shouts, "what do you think women are interested in at this summit?"

Gorbachev's interpreter whispers a translation. But the Soviet leader looks pained. He realizes that isn't the whole question, that there is some complicated context here he isn't getting.

So he beckons to William Krimer, veteran of six summits, who has been brought out of retirement to interpret for Reagan.

"The Soviet interpreter was totally lost," Krimer recalled the other day in an interview at his Reston apartment, "so I had to step around to whisper to Gorbachev what throw weight was. At that point he beamed and provided an answer."

As Donaldson put it in his memoir, "Hold On, Mr. President!," Gorbachev instantly sensed a chance to score points, and like any experienced pol he ad-libbed a little speech about how "both men and women in the United States and the Soviet Union and all over the world are interested in having peace ..." et cetera. Krimer, Donaldson concluded, "is simply the best."

It works both ways. At the talks between Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin in Glassboro, N.J., in 1967, Krimer himself was stuck for a word.

"Mr. Kosygin had asked the president, 'Why don't you stop the bombing of Hanoi? Any influence I had there when I was visiting Hanoi disappeared when you pulled a bombing raid at that time.' Johnson replied, 'If I did that, I'd be crucified.'

"Well, I was damned if I could remember the Russian word for 'crucified.' I looked over, and the Soviet interpreter supplied it."

Everything Is the Message There is a certain camaraderie at this level of interpreting, which is only natural, for these people are rare creatures: part linguist, part actor, part diplomat.

"It's not enough to know the languages," said Stephanie van Reigersberg, chief of the interpreting division in the Office of Language Services at State. "Every day people walk in here who are totally bilingual -- and are totally incapable of interpreting. Give them a simple passage and have them take it down and repeat it in another language, and they just can't do it."

On the other hand, there are people who may actually be rather shaky in the second language but who have the knack for interpreting.

"We had a woman here who had spent four months in Guadalajara, and she didn't speak Spanish all that well, she had vocabulary problems, but she had such good analytical ability, she could rework something and bring it out in another form."

For instance, a diplomat might say, in typically elaborate Spanish, "That proposal is really not something my country could support, but maybe if I consider it further we could remodel it ..." and so on.

A poor interpreter, said van Reigersberg, who is herself a top interpreter for State in Spanish and French, would render this as simply, "I don't know if we can support this or not," missing entirely the sense of the speaker's hesitancy. "You don't get the idea that the guy is really waffling. If he waffles, the interpreter has got to waffle. If he's really mad, the interpreter has to convey this too.

"You have to get across what they're really saying. The medium is the message. The message is the message. Also the tone of voice, the face, the hands -- everything is the message. But you have to stop short of aping the person, of course."

Viktor M. Sukhodrev, for many years the chief Soviet interpreter at summit meetings, speaks with a perfect American accent for the Americans, a flawless British accent for the British.

"He is incredible," one witness observed. "When the speaker's voice goes up, his goes up. When the speaker tries to be humorous, Viktor is humorous, and when the tone is serious, Viktor is serious. He doesn't try to translate word for word what is said but to convey the meaning and sense of the speaker, which is more important."

It was Sukhodrev, by the way, who interpreted for Gorbachev on TV with Tom Brokaw last week.

The Slang Barrier The best ones tend to become familiar faces on the summit scene. Besides Glassboro, Krimer has covered the Nixon visit to Moscow in 1972 to sign the SALT I treaty; Nixon and Brezhnev in Washington that year and at San Clemente in '73; Nixon-Brezhnev in Moscow in '74; Carter-Brezhnev in Vienna, 1979.

The chief Russian interpreter at State from 1963 to 1982, he also interpreted for Marina Oswald before the Warren Commission. He retired after an operation for lung cancer, but it doesn't seem to have slowed him down. He is still, at 72, recalled regularly for major events.

"In '85 I was in Geneva interpreting for the SALT talks and they asked me to stay on for the summer. They wanted me for Reykjavik too, but I refused because I was in Geneva working and there was no percentage in moving. I just came back from Geneva in November."

A native of old Petrograd, he left the Soviet Union at 6 in 1921, lived in Germany, Latvia, London, New York, "was drafted into the Army and served 4 years 19 days and 6 hours," started a real estate management business in New York while interpreting on a contract basis, then joined the State staff. He speaks perfect English, Russian and German, some French, not much Latvian.

His expertise in German has surprised more than one Sovietologist. When he went to former chancellor Konrad Adenauer's funeral as a backup interpreter with LBJ, the press speculated that the president was planning to talk to the Soviets while in Bonn "because State's head Soviet interpreter was seen getting on the plane."

"The job presupposes your being completely at home in both languages," Krimer said. "Plus education -- you can't be ignorant of what the world is all about. And it takes a great deal of concentration, memory and the ability to present someone else's views."

Technical terms are no problem, maybe another 30 or 40 words. The arms control jargon that has developed over the years was largely validated by interpreters. "A term would be used by the Pentagon as slang, and we'd have to find some way of putting it into another language. When the word comes back to us from the other side, then we know it was right."

For example, to arms negotiators, "to develop a weapons system" means not simply the whole process of designing and building a system, but a specific stage in the process, the stage that comes after research. Interpreters understand this as a matter of course.

One aspect of the Strategic Defense Initiative is the FLAG experiment, or flexible agile guidable experiment. "What does that mean? What is a guidable experiment? You have to ask what this is, in fact, and how do you give it back to the other side?"

Slang is no barrier, usually. Except for the time ambassador Gerard Smith, leaving a dinner in Vienna, remarked to his Soviet hosts, "Well, I'd better take my troops back to the salt mines."

Krimer snorted. "Next time I saw Smith I asked him never, never to use that term again."

The Same-Day Service There are two ways to interpret, consecutively and simultaneously. In the first, you listen to a chunk of talk, take notes and then turn it into the other language. In the second, you talk right along with your principal, usually with the aid of headphones and mikes.

Generally, except at the United Nations, the interpreter speaks for his or her own people, translating into the other language. This way the principal is sure of getting a statement just right.

"I'd be sitting in on prep sessions with Cyrus Vance {secretary of state, 1977-80}," said Krimer, "in which he'd discuss what he wanted to say and how to say it, and occasionally he'd look at me and say, 'Is this going to come across?' Now, I couldn't do that with Brezhnev ..."

Until well into the Reagan administration, consecutive interpreting dominated, but then Secretary of State George Shultz began to favor simultaneous, which is easier because memory isn't involved and one can listen and respond as in normal conversation. A skilled interpreter will talk along about two words behind the principal. (And if you don't think this is a skill, try paraphrasing a friend at that pace, in the same language.)

"Shultz says it puts hours in his day," van Reigersberg noted. "{Foreign Minister Eduard} Shevardnadze and he did all their business in simultaneous -- in his office, with earphones, and the interpreters off to one side talking softly into mikes -- since they weren't negotiating but planning, discussing, so the exact use of an adjective wasn't an issue."

At Geneva, Gorbachev and Reagan had about four hours of "four-eyes" talk, just the two of them, plus their interpreters translating consecutively. But changes are in the air.

"We asked the Soviets before the 1985 meeting in Helsinki if they would consider simultaneous translation, because we have really good equipment," ambassador Rozanne Ridgway, a former assistant secretary of state, told an interviewer recently. "They said they didn't object if we used them, so for the preparatory meetings up to the Geneva summit, whenever we met with us as the host, we used simultaneous, and whenever with the Soviets, we used consecutive.

"When we arrived in Geneva, we had simultaneous interpretation at the residence by the lake. Then we went off to the Soviet mission -- lo and behold, there was a portable simultaneous translation apparatus."

Its advantages are obvious. "You have the ability to have a real conversation," she said, "you don't lose the immediacy, you know what people are saying when they are saying it, you have this direct contact."

Also, one feels free to interrupt, getting away from set-piece presentations, so that an exchange of ideas becomes more truly possible.

For negotiating, however, something more permanent is needed. Tape recorders would seem the obvious answer, but evidently they inhibit edgy diplomats. Van Reigersberg was working at the Panama Canal negotiations 10 years ago when someone suggested using tape to save the stenographers time.

A pocket recorder was set on the table -- and everyone just stared at it. "Well, you start." "No, you." It was abandoned.

There is one important drawback to simultaneous translation: The interpreter doesn't have time to take notes, the notes that form what is often the only record of a private talk between leaders. Memcons -- memos of conversations -- says Krimer, are literally half of his job, and note-taking is an art in itself.

Private meetings between leaders almost never get preserved in their exact form, though the principals afterward tell their staffs what was said in as much detail as they can remember. Formal statements are all on record, but in a four-eyes conversation nobody wants to be pinned down to some precise sequence of words.

Against Interpretation Which brings up the curious case of Henry Kissinger.

In his memoir "The White House Years," the former secretary of state writes: "Nixon's first meeting with Brezhnev {in 1972} was sprung ... just before the welcoming dinner. Brezhnev insisted on seeing Nixon alone. Nixon followed his usual practice of not taking a State Department interpreter -- which, now that I too was excluded, I found irksome. As was his custom, he also did not dictate an official record, though he briefed me orally. I was reduced to asking the splendid Soviet interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev to dictate his account to Julie Pineau, my secretary. He obviously did not give his chief the worst of the exchanges, recalling {Secretary of State} Dean Acheson's famous dictum that no one ever lost a debate in a memorandum of conversation dictated by oneself."

After the Brezhnev visit to San Clemente the next year, Nixon press secretary Ronald Ziegler confirmed that Sukhodrev had been the only interpreter at all private sessions between the two leaders. "It is simply that Viktor is skilled enough that he can serve as an interpreter for both sides," he explained.

Now listen to Krimer.

"That wasn't Nixon's choice. That was Kissinger. He resented interpreters generally, regarded them as a reflection on his own limitations because he didn't know the language. At the first Nixon-Brezhnev meeting I was in Helsinki for the SALT negotiations, but I got orders to get on Air Force One with Nixon to accompany him to Moscow. But in Salzburg I was bumped for somebody and wound up on Air Force Two ..."

By the time he got to the Kremlin the meetings were already on, and when it came to the private session, "Kissinger said, 'Vun interpreter iss enough,' and so the Soviet interpreter went in and the door was shut."

Later, Sukhodrev told him that Kissinger had phoned to ask for a copy of his notes. When told the notes were in Russian, Kissinger asked if Sukhodrev would mind translating them for him. He said he'd ask his boss, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

"Next day," Krimer recalled, "Viktor asked Gromyko, and Gromyko said, 'Nyet.' So we have no record of that first conversation between Nixon and Brezhnev."

Krimer said he was often used in Moscow, but never at the private talks. "That was Kissinger's method of operating. He was bad news as far as interpreters were concerned. A footnote in his book says he had Russian speakers on his staff -- but I know those people, I've interpreted for them, and one knows about 30 words of Russian, another about 10.

"That was his excuse. The true situation, I think, is that it enabled Kissinger to write his own history."

Kissinger, currently in Europe, could not be reached for comment.

After San Clemente, van Reigersberg added her protest in a letter to the press noting that Sukhodrev and his predecessor, Oleg Troyanovsky, "are in fact policy-making members of the U.S.S.R. foreign ministry and as such are more than 'mere' interpreters."

The Smith College Connection Indeed, most Soviet interpreters do wind up as diplomats, whereas in this country they drift into higher-paying private jobs. State pays contractors $270 a day, which is just fine when an assignment, say at Geneva, lasts for months on end.

"They agree to work for less at State," van Reigersberg said, "because we're a big user. But you can make considerably more on the private market."

Her contract list, covering all levels from escort interpreter to the top, with varying security clearances, has about 1,600 names. Her permanent staff is 25 people, plus a few in Geneva.

"My biggest problem is finding people," she said. "Europeans speak many languages, but you hardly ever find a native-born American interpreter. The American schools don't teach languages well, don't see them as important. After the war, interpreters tended to be displaced persons, exiles who had batted around the world all their lives. Now they come out of interpreting schools, in Paris, the Sorbonne, or Georgetown or Monterey. A few, like Dmitry Zarechnak, my senior Russian interpreter at State, come from academia. Zarechnak taught Russian at Smith."

Zarechnak will lead the team of six or eight interpreters at the summit here. The 43-year-old native of Czechoslovakia said he was not allowed to talk to the press.

For all the sensitivity required on the job, an interpreter also needs a certain stamina.

For one thing, you get no second chance. As Krimer pointed out, "You can't ask someone to speak more slowly. Never. That's the one thing you cannot do. You have to handle whatever is thrown at you."

On top of the problems of interpreting, there is the matter of logistics, the difficulty of staying with your principal, of being there when you're needed.

"Europeans have more experience in that," Krimer said. "When the German chancellor goes anywhere, the interpreter travels with him in his car. In our case, the interpreter is more likely to be in Car No. 11 in the entourage. When the car stops is when he's needed, so he jumps out of the car and starts running. And all the security people get mighty nervous when they see a man running toward the principals."

Once Krimer, still interpreting when the motorcade started moving and about to be left behind, had to leap into the nearest car -- and landed on the lap of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Once at a dinner in Chicago he was supposed to interpret for the guest of honor, but insensitive organizers, obsessed with protocol, had put him down at the far end of the horseshoe. "Somebody said, 'Hey, we better seat Krimer next to the people he's working for.' The answer was, 'Oh, he's only an interpreter.' "

There are other hazards, if you are as sought after as Krimer. Here is how he got to the Glassboro summit:

"I came home from work about 6:30 one night, got a phone call. Have to be at Anacostia naval air station at 5 a.m. I got there, was flown to Philadelphia, taken in a station wagon -- along with the lunch packed by the White House and two Filipino stewards -- and got to Glassboro just as the motorcade arrived from New York.

"Immediately we went into a four-eyes meeting that lasted four hours. Then luncheon, then after a half-hour break back to another four hours of private meetings. Then a helicopter to Philadelphia, jet to Andrews Air Base, car to the State Department getting in about 9 p.m., when I began dictating to three secretaries. My memcon was 70 pages long. I finished up at 7 a.m."

Anglo-Saxon Words So what is it like to be sitting there between a U.S. president and a Soviet premier, arguably the two most powerful people on the planet?

"The pressure is tremendous at summits. It's hard to judge if two heads of state really like each other or if they're just being heads of state. It depends on the personality. Reagan, for example -- he likes everybody."

Usually, Krimer says, small talk is minimal. One remembers Kissinger's statement that "Idle conversation with the ruler of a communist state is a contradiction in terms."

There are degrees of formality, of course. Krimer worked a meeting of LBJ and West Germany's Ludwig Erhard, then out of office. The two were old friends, and the talk was relaxed and pleasant.

Mostly, though, the sense of occasion makes everyone a bit stiff. It is this feeling of witnessing history that is the great lure for interpreters at State, as opposed to working for the World Bank or Exxon or some shipping firm.

"I may be given talking points beforehand," Krimer said. "The president intends to talk of this and that. I may consult colleagues how best to put it. There are those who bristle at the need to do this, and usually they don't last long."

If he disagrees with something a Soviet interpreter says, he may whisper a warning to his principal, but this rarely happens. It is more likely to come out when the interpreters meet later for shop talk, when they may discuss different ways of getting across some difficult phrase. Incidentally, far more Soviet staffers speak our language than vice versa.

"We keep telling the interpreters to use Anglo-Saxon words," cries van Reigersberg. "They never use the word 'get' because it doesn't exist in other languages. 'Is converted into being ...' 'Is in the process of becoming ...' Why not say 'get?' 'It's getting cold,' for goodness' sake!"

Another hazard for summit interpreters is that, with the eyes of the world upon them, in a roomful of powerful, intelligent and frantically alert people, the slightest mistake becomes a nightmare.

One time when Krimer was new to the business he was called at a moment's notice to attend a briefing at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

"There was the director talking to a Soviet general," he recalled. "Then the general launched a long exposition. I kept careful notes, and when he stopped I started to give it back. In Russian.

"After 10 seconds I realized what I was doing and stopped, and the director smiled and said, 'Well, gentlemen, at least you see you're getting an accurate rendition of the speech.'