By William Plummer Paul Hofheinz Chris Phillips
December 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Pavel Ruslanovich Palazhchenko has the face no one remembers. His mustachioed visage has appeared on the cover of TIME and Newsweek and in the pages of sundry Soviet publications. Yet he is not famous in either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. He has chatted intimately with American Presidents and Soviet leaders and has been in the middle of every important international summit for the past four years. And yet, he has claimed, “I don’t like being the center of attention.”

This week Palazhchenko will again be at the center of the world’s attention. As Mikhail Gorbachev’s chief interpreter, Palazhchenko will be at the General Secretary’s elbow during the meetings between Gorbachev and President Bush to be held alternately on U.S. and Soviet Navy ships just off Malta. The “floating summit” in the Mediterranean will give the two world leaders a chance, in Bush’s words, “to put up our feet and talk” and pay special attention to the electrifying changes taking place in eastern Europe. And though every word Pavel utters will be weighed and considered by Gorbachev, he insists the responsibility does not make him nervous. “An interpreter’s first commandment,” according to Pavel, 40, “is never to be at a loss. So the nervousness factor has to be cut off. An interpreter must know how to be in complete control of himself.”

Palazhchenko got his own first earful of English from his mother, who taught the language in his hometown of Monino (pop 18,000), 22 miles outside Moscow. In ninth grade he decided to immerse himself in the alien tongue, and after high school he enrolled in the prestigious Maurice Thorez Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. “The Beatles helped greatly in this respect,” he says. “I was a big fan and got to know practically all their songs by heart.” In 1974 he began a five-year stint as a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations in New York, then caught on with Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he worked as a translator. He first interpreted for Gorbachev in May 1985, when the Soviet leader met with journalists on the eve of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Moscow—and he has been the chief Kremlin translator ever since.

When not traveling with Gorbachev, Pavel, who earns 430 rubles ($684) a month—lives with his family in a one-bedroom apartment in Moscow. Married and the father of two children—Nikolai, 11, and Elizabeta, 2½—he loves classical music and American fiction, but boning up on the issues of day, such as nuclear arms and conventional weapons reductions, leaves him little time to pursue these interests. There are also the ongoing challenges of translating. “The thing about any language,” he says, “is that it sometimes contains certain words and phrases that reflect very special ways of thinking. Gorbachev’s language certainly has that, just as the language of President Bush and Reagan has.” Pavel takes special precautions, he adds, “to avoid phrases that may tempt you as catchy or showy, but can also be dangerous. You have to keep a cool head.”

Pavel recalls one minor mishap early this year, when Gorbachev met Queen Elizabeth in London. “We got put in different cars, leaving me to run and catch up with him in the receiving line.” Otherwise, he has had no embarrassing incidents, but that doesn’t mean he’s resting easy for the upcoming summit. “No matter how prepared you are,” he says, “there are always surprises.”

—William Plummer, Paul Hofheinz in Moscow, Chris Phillips in Washington