by Peter Bridges
In my earlier years I studied several languages, including Russian. During my decades in the U.S. Foreign Service I even served for a time as an interpreter in Russian—an interpreter with serious faults. As will be told, beyond my own faults I blame, a little, Mr. Dooley.
My path to interpreting was a long one. Before I got to Russian I had studied Latin and Spanish. Then at nineteen I became fascinated by Russian novels, and by that exotic country. I studied the Russian language for nine hours a week at Dartmouth College, spent a summer at the Middlebury College Russian school—where we were obliged to speak only Russian except in local shops—and began graduate study at Columbia University.
My two years at Columbia turned me away from an academic career. My advisor, Professor Ernest Simmons, had written books on Tolstoy, Chekhov, and other old greats, but he insisted I do a master’s essay on contemporary Soviet literature. In the 1950s Soviet novels were Stalinist trash. I read a hundred of them for my essay, got my degree, quit the Ph.D. program, took the Foreign Service exam, married my love, and went into the Army to do my two required years of military service before going into diplomacy.
Curiously, my Russian got me to France. Halfway through basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, our company commander announced that any private who knew a foreign language could take a test in it. I took the Russian test, got a perfect score, and was called in to see a Personnel corporal.
“We will send you,” he said, “To an intelligence unit in Germany. But basic’s just eight weeks and you need sixteen weeks’ training to go overseas. We’ll give you eight more weeks here at Leonard Wood. It’s just a formality, so we’ll put you in combat engineer training, with the boys who frankly aren’t bright enough for the infantry.”
The additional eight weeks were as tough as the first had been. We marched long miles, and in teams of six lugged 500-pound prefabricated pieces of Bailey bridges down to the Big Sandy River to make a structure that could carry tanks. Finally we boarded a troop train to go east to Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then sail out of Brooklyn to Europe. At Dix I got my assignment—to the 97th Engineer Battalion, headquartered not in Germany but at Verdun, in France. They had neglected to put the Russian test on my record but listed the engineer training. I shrugged and said C‘est la vie, which exhausted my French.
We landed at Bremerhaven and went south and into France by troop train. En route to the 97th, three fellow privates and I had to change trains at Nancy. I bought a copy of L’Est Républicain and sat down on my duffel bag to see what I could understand. Latin and Spanish didn’t help much.
Two men, one lacking an arm, strolled down the platform and saw this unusual sight, an American soldier engrossed in a French newspaper. The one who was missing an arm said something to me. I shook my head. Mais oui, he said; obviously I knew French. No, I said. Yes, he said. Finally I said to him in Russian that I could not understand him. He responded, in good Russian, “You don’t understand me?”
They were two Alsatians, drafted into the Wehrmacht after Hitler took over Alsace-Lorraine in 1940. They had been sent to the Russian front, and had been captured. After years in a Soviet camp—where one lost his arm—they had been released and come home. We had a good talk. It was the only use I made of Russian in the Army.
After eighteen months as an Army clerk, my wife and I and little David, born at Verdun, came back to America. Five weeks later I was no longer a lowly soldier but a commissioned officer of the United States Foreign Service—at an inglorious salary of $4,900 per annum, not much even in 1957. Because of my Russian I was assigned to the State Department’s Soviet desk. No doubt we would go on to our embassy in Moscow. No, said the Department; junior officers will no longer be sent to Moscow before being tried out at another post. At a guess, one of us juniors had been entrapped by the KGB.
Where, then? A Spanish-speaking post, perhaps. The spring of 1959 arrived, and April first, the due date for what we called the “April Fool Sheet.” This was the annual Officer Preference Report, in which individuals stated where they thought they should next be assigned. I listed Madrid and Bogotá.
The April Fool Sheet was so called because, everyone said, personnel officers looked at an officer’s preferences, laughed, threw the report in the waste basket, and sent poor Smith to some hellhole.
What was the bureaucracy going to do with us? It was sweltering summer in Washington. Mary Jane said she’d be happy almost anywhere. She just didn’t want to go to the tropics; Washington was heat enough. I agreed.
Next week I came home with our assignment, to the tropics: American Embassy, Panama. We laughed, and went, and we found Panama fascinating. After two years there we were looking to spend a third year on the Isthmus, but were transferred on short notice to the Bavarian Alps, to the U.S. Army Russian Institute in Oberammergau.
Commonly called Detachment R, the school trained Army officers to serve as military attachés at Embassy Moscow or at the U.S. liaison office with Soviet forces in Eastern Germany. I was one of two Russian-speaking Foreign Service officers sent to the school each year. After nine months there we would go onward to our Moscow embassy. The instructors were Russian émigrés, defectors, and refugees, plus a Chechen professor and a former Latvian diplomat. The courses were all taught in Russian: military subjects plus economics, history, politics, and grammar.
There were also Russian language courses for spouses. Mary Jane said there’d be time enough for her to work on Russian once we got to Moscow. Meanwhile she’d work on hiking, climbing, skating, and skiing. Soon she summited the Zugspitz, the highest peak in the Bavarian Alps. Then, when we went to Moscow, she applied herself to Russian. After a year, returning from a shopping trip to Helsinki, she shared a sleeping compartment on the Red Arrow from Leningrad to Moscow with two other women. They were, they said, from Tbilisi. Now, Georgians were not famous for fluency in Russian, but they were all taught Russian from elementary school onward. These two complimented my wife on her Russian, saying it was better than theirs. A good proficiency test, I told her.
We arrived in the USSR with Stalin nine years in his grave but the KGB still a fearsome force; we left a month before Nikita Khrushchev’s involuntary retirement in September 1964. My first year there I had a dull admin job, trying to keep our rickety elevators from breaking down, supervising our Russian electricians and mechanics and wondering which of them were really KGB officers, and cleaning out storerooms that had accumulated junk for years. In my second year I was a political officer, one of three trying to figure out and report to Washington the true state of affairs in a secretive society. We traveled, when we could; much of the USSR was closed to foreigners.
Western diplomats usually traveled in twos, to lessen chances of the KGB trying some dirty trick. Once I spent a week in Ukraine with my Australian colleague Gregory Clark, whose Russian was fluent. In Chernivtsi we stayed at the Intourist hotel. The same blond waitress served us several times. Our last day there, we told her we were leaving town. “You know,” she said, ”I’ve been thinking of moving to your capital.” Greg and I looked at each other. Our capital? Canberra? Washington? “Tell me,” I said. “Where do you think we’re from?” “Why, Riga, of course.” We were obviously not Russian; Latvian was the limit of her imagination.
From Moscow the Bridges returned to Washington, where I was assigned to ACDA, the now defunct U.S. Arms Control & Disarmament Agency. In 1965 I began spending long weeks in Geneva, as a member of the U.S. delegation to the East-West disarmament conference. The conference was too big—eighteen nations—to be more than a venue for fine speeches, but the conference co-chairmen, the U.S. and Soviet delegation heads, also met privately. Each head brought three staff members, including an interpreter, with him. Our interpreter was Alexander Akalovsky, a Foreign Service officer born to Russian émigré parents. He had spent years interpreting for top U.S. officials…and wanted to go on to something other than interpreting…and he found that I spoke good Russian.
“If I get assigned to our Moscow embassy,” he asked me one day, “Would you like to replace me?” Flattering, I said, but I’m no interpreter. We could practice, he said, and the disarmament vocabulary is pretty standard stuff.
The next time I was back in Washington I took a Russian-English interpreter exam at the State Department—and passed, although with caveats. I wondered if Alex had asked his interpreter pals to go easy on me. One afternoon in August 1965 in Geneva, I saw Alex and his family off on a train en route to the Land of the Soviets. Now I was the man on the job.
I was stunned to find that the job was not to translate from Russian into English, for which I was barely qualified, but, far harder, to translate into Russian what my boss said in English. Somehow I survived, with help from my young Soviet counterpart, who was not only a trained interpreter but had studied in an English-language school in Moscow. My boss, William C. Foster, our delegation head and the Director of ACDA, took a liking to me, after finding that I knew Russian—but surely not realizing my limits in the language.
Then Adrian Fisher came to replace Mr. Foster for some weeks as delegation head. Fisher, whom all called “Butch,” was the Deputy Director of ACDA. He was an eminent lawyer who had studied at Princeton and Harvard— and he retained a Tennessee accent that could be hard to understand. Moreover, at our meetings with the Soviets he liked to illustrate a point by telling a Mr. Dooley story.
Mr. Dooley was the creation of Finley Peter Dunne, a humorist famous in the early 1900s. Dooley was an Irish immigrant in Chicago who expounded on main issues in a Roscommon brogue. Mr. Fisher recounted Mr. Dooley stories to the Soviet delegation head, in his best possible reproduction of the brogue, tempered (or worsened) by his own accent. My Soviet counterpart wanted to help me but at one point whispered to me, “What language is Mr. Fisher speaking?”
I think back to those weeks as the hardest job I ever had. I improved at least a little as time went on—and Butch Fisher returned to Washington. Our disarmament talks survived Mr. Dooley and my ineptitude. Perhaps it was well that not much was transpiring in that field in 1965 and 1966. The Limited Test Ban Treaty had been signed in 1963, but it was only in 1968 that Washington and Moscow agreed on the text of a future Non-Proliferation Treaty; the SALT talks began only in 1969.
That’s all behind me now. Plodding onward through my eighties, I have enough trouble with English that I don’t worry about other tongues. But I do remember one Somali proverb: Hadal oday been ma aha. What an old man says is no lie.
Peter Bridges spent three decades as a Foreign Service officer on four continents, ending as ambassador to Somalia. In recent years he has published a memoir of his time as a diplomat; the biographies of two once-famous Americans, John Moncure Daniel and Donn Piatt; and a memoir of his off-hours climbs, runs, and treks. His articles, essays, and poems have appeared in American Diplomacy, Copperfield Review, Diplomacy & Statecraft, Eclectica, Mountain Gazette, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.