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The invisible man.

You've seen him hundreds of times-with presidents and kings, striding to the corporate jet, or at the conference table when they sign billion-dollar deals.

Then again, you haven't. Inconspicuous, able to assume the personalities of people around him, he's easy to lose in a crowd. Even people who know him say they often forget he's in the room.

Spy? Impostor? Actor?

No, interpreter-the original invisible man. That's his job, to make things go so smoothly between two sides that they lose sight of him.

Mark Leybovich was born for the part. Leybovich is a gentle, self-effacing man with expressive eyes and a ready smile. An engineer and linguist, he's conversant in eight languages, able to size up people instantly-what they're saying, and what they're not-and then convey inflections, tones, moods.

Son of an economist and a physical therapist, Leybovich was born in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, a Soviet republic in the Central Asian desert. Now 44, Leybovich worked as a construction supervisor, doubling as an interpreter for the Tashkent Chamber of Commerce.

In 1979, Leybovich emigrated with his wife and children, looking for political and economic freedom in America. He never looked back.

With his familiarity with all the major European languages (Plus Uzbeki), Leybovich quickly picked up translation jobs as he rounded out his education in economics, business and finance. Then he entered the world marketplace-with great success, as vice president of a translating and interpreting company, The Corporate Word, Pittsburgh, Pa.

"Mark is an outstanding interpreter," says Gregory Zaretsky, president of The Corporate Word. Quick-thinking, resourceful, tireless, he understands people-and they relate well to him."

So well, in fact, that Leybovich regularly interprets for such major international players as McDermott international, Combustion Engineering, Dresser Industries, Babcock & Wilcox, Westinghouse, General Electric and other clients of the translation firm. As translator, he's worked on the Soviet-American medium-range nuclear arms treaty, among other assignments.

An Interpreter Can Make or Break a Deal

Constantly in demand, Leybovich believes it's for good reason. "I play a role," he says, "not just as an interpreter, but as a member of the team, a facilitator between our clients and their counterparts. For example, when negotiations seem to be dragging, or one side doesn't get the point the other is making, an interpreter's tone of voice or choice of phrase can make the difference in whether they seal the deal or not."

On the cutting edge of international trade with the USSR, Leybovich visits Moscow every few months. That's in addition to criss-crossing the United States and dropping in on major European capitals-London, Stockholm and Copenhagen (where sometimes all he sees is his hotel room).

Yet no matter how exotic the setting, Leybovich never forgets why he's there. "Interpreting is complicated," he says. "You have to convey the right meaning, of course, but actual interpreting is only 20 percent. The other 80 percent is non-verbal communication and diplomacy. To work effectively, you have to be an actor. You have to become the person you're interpreting for and make the other side believe you-then they'll believe him."

A Good Interpreter Pays

His Way Many Times Over Leybovich gets a privileged glimpse of life at the top-corporate jets, first-class hotels and the finest restaurants. But he rarely gets to indulge. When he accompanies a delegation to dinner, both sides want to talk-and he can't be caught with his mouth full.

There was the time that Leybovich was at a legendary Louisiana Cajun restaurant-his favorite. Mouthwatering treats were placed before him, but the talk got so hot and heavy that it was all Leybovich could do to keep up-and watch glumly as the waiters eventually cleared the table.

In Moscow, eating can be a challenge even in the best circumstances. Finishing meetings late one evening, Leybovich had to call a relative in the city with a plea for sandwichesbecause Moscow restaurants close early. One morning, when indifferent coffee shop workers refused to open up for him, a few greenbacks miraculously changed their minds.

Sleep, too, can be a problem. Fastliving clients sometimes want to be taken out on the town-or have latenight discussions about what the other side is really saying. Regardless of the hour, Leybovich is expected to be the first one into the meeting the next morning, alert and ready.

Generally, nights are spent poring over complex technical or financial documents. No night life, no free time-on the road, it's all business. in Moscow, he may see a relative or an old friend, and in New Orleans a little jazz (he's a hopeless addict), but that's about it.

How hard is it? "You forget about being tired," Leybovich says. "You simply have to get it right. An interpreter always has to reflect the client's image, has to sell the client all the time."

Even while he's in the air. Once, Leybovich was summoned on a firm's corporate jet-picked up in Cleveland, Ohio and delivered to corporate headquarters. Enjoying a beer at 40,000 feet, he got his instructions via telephone en route. Another time, Leybovich was asked by a Soviet official to take a picture of him as he called his wife from the plane-because the Soviet knew no one back home would believe him. Then there was a trip to Los Angeles to pick up a high-ranking visitor-who discussed business with a senior VP over Scotch and shrimp on the way back.

Tact Is as Important as Tterminology

Leybovich generally handles technical assignments for The Corporate Wordtractor deals and hydroelectric dams that generally stay out of the headlines. Savvy enough to talk business, technical enough to talk hardware, he has to tread a thin line between personal sensitivity and business objectives. Although the Soviets are eager to buy American goods and technology, privately their national pride suffers. So when engineers discuss technical matters, Leybovich has to be careful not to make the Soviets look backwardand to help them feel on a par with their American counterparts.

That kind of cultural sensitivity constitutes a major part of an interpreter's work. Because any situation can be fraught with the danger of misunderstanding or embarrassment, Leybovich has to keep an eye on everything. Once, for example, a Soviet delegation wa,; to dine in a prestigious French restaurant. One high-ranking official took his seat and was immediately nonplussed. There were four forks before him, and he didn't know which one to use-until Leybovich conveniently whispered in his ear.

Cultural Pitfalls Abound

Jokes are a particular minefield, for often the punch line depends on specific cultural knowledge. Once, a Soviet delegation was told the story about a pig and chicken who came upon a restaurant with a sign reading "Ham'n'Eggs-99-cent special."

Great," the chicken said, "Let's eat."

No," demanded the pig. For you, it's a contribution. For me, it's participation."

The joke should have worked, but didn't, until Leybovich recalled that there's no concept of voluntary participation in the Soviet Union.

Such cultural gaps are exacerbated when it comes to technical and financial terms. Not only must Leybovich be familiar with them, he has to know how much each side doesn't know so that he can make things clear. The Soviet Union, for example, has no concept of depreciation, so Leybovich must explain that-and other concepts fundamental to a market economy-before negotiations can continue.

Besides acting as an economist, sometimes Leybovich has to play lawyer. When a Soviet delegation was buying equipment from a Chicagobased firm, Leybovich saw that they wanted extra parts, an arrangement not explicitly spelled out in negotiations. When it came time to draw up the papers, Leybovich pointed out the oversight-roughly $100,000 worth of free parts. The result: two agreements, one for machinery, the second for extra parts.

Service Beyond the CA of Duty

Naturally, the interpreter's job doesn't end when daily negotiations are over. Because he is the country's link to the host city and vice versa, an interpreter is often called upon to help with afterhours activities. Some delegates -especially Eastern Europeans in America-come bearing extensive shopping lists, notably for clothing and expensive gifts for wives, girl friends, or both. Others prefer things a little more on the wild side, and a good interpreter is supposed to be knowledgeable about the local scene-and be discrete.

Soviet delegates might also ask Leybovich to help choose clothes that will improve their image. "The requests run the gamut," says Leybovich, "from a search for Moscow nightlife to a dozen cans of mace for Soviet officials worried about rising crime rates back home."

Sometimes requests verge on the impossible.

One time a visiting Soviet economist, and something of an amateur poet, had a few too many and decided to give a reading. Pressed into service, Leybovich had to translate on the fly. "It was awful," he recalls. "Basically, I had to invent my own poems."

There was polite applause afterward-and one American woman even kissed the man. "I composed the stuff", Leybovich huffs. "She should have kissed me."

There are rewards to his job, though, and Leybovich is the first to admit it. In Moscow, for example, he had the opportunity to interpret for a historic US $2.2 billion joint venture, the largest ever between the United States and the Soviet Union, to build a western Siberia petrochemical complex. As negotiations went on, night and day, Leybovich got thinner and more haggard. Finally it was over. Leybovich celebrated with the traditional vodka toast-and collapsed into bed.

"When I lived in the Soviet Union," Leybovich recalls, "we were surrounded by propaganda about building communism. Then, when I first came to this country and began interpreting, I used to worry that I was helping them. But now there's Gorbachev. Coming back from that trip, I thought, maybe I'm changing things. Maybe I'm helping them build capitalism."'
COPYRIGHT 1990 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:interpreters
Author:Mendelson, Abby
Publication:Communication World
Date:Aug 1, 1990
Words:1628
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