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March 13, 2019 |

7 Interesting Facts About UN Interpreters

UN interpreters make the world go round, but they’re never in the spotlight. Almost invisible, they’re heard but rarely seen–and they live through and make history every day.

Often traveling from Geneva to Nairobi to New York or wherever they’re needed, they seem to have the perfect job. They get to meet and work with some of the most fascinating and influential people on the planet and talk for them during meetings, and conferences.

But nothing is simple when the smallest translation error could have severe consequences on world politics. UN interpreters are fully aware of the responsibility that lays on their shoulders.

Here are seven interesting facts about UN interpreters and how they counter culture and language barriers at global levels.

1. The United Nations Has Six Official Languages

The UN has six official languages. These are English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. The organization edits and publishes documents in all its official languages, but the Secretariat staff generally uses English and French for internal communication. The other four languages are used during discussions in the Regional Commissions.

In 1946, English and French were considered the only working languages. As the UN developed, all six official languages have become working languages as well.

Most speakers at the UN deliver their messages in one of the six official languages. Interpreters then translate the speech into the other five. If the delegate or guest doesn’t speak or want to use any of these languages, he or she is expected to bring along a qualified interpreter to translate the message into English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, or Arabic.

In this case, interpreters translate from that interpretation. It’s a relay system that leaves plenty of room for errors and misunderstandings. So the UN only admits one intermediary language during such events.

2. UN Interpreters Speak at Least Three Languages  

Language professionals who want to work in the United Nations Interpretation Service need to speak two UN working languages in addition to their mother tongue. Besides excellent language skills, the job requires in-depth knowledge in a wide range of interpretation subjects.

Discussions and meetings at the UN include topics such as politics, human rights, economic and social matters, finance and legal affairs, among many other subjects of interest. An interpreter should be able to provide the equivalent of almost any word or expression a delegate says in two different languages from his or her mother tongue.

It’s a rather complicated task, which requires permanent study and efforts to remain up-to-date with developments in currents global events.

3. Interpreters Listen and Speak at the Same Time

The United Nations uses simultaneous interpreting to facilitate communication during meetings and events. This means that interpreters don’t have any breaks for interpretation during the speech. They must translate and speak what they’ve heard in a loud voice while listening to the next sentence to be interpreted.

Most of the time, interpreters stay in isolated cubicles called soundproof booths, with headphones on one ear and speaking into a microphone. While on duty, they’re juggling listening, translating, and talking at the same time.

They can also interpret directly from the conference tables for smaller audiences, during private meetings or press conferences. In all cases, this activity requires a high amount of focus, as the interpreter’s attention is divided between three different tasks.

UN interpreters need years of training to accumulate the skills needed to interpret during conferences and high-level meetings.

Candidates who want to go through the UN Competitive Examination for Interpreters need to have at least 200 days of relevant work experience in the language service industry as a translator, editor, or conference interpreter.

4. UN Interpreters Interpret into Their Mother Tongue

The general rule is that every interpreter translates into his or her mother tongue for high-quality interpretation. However, this is valid for only four of the six working languages.

In the Arabic and Chinese booths, interpreters are often required to interpret into English or French as well, due to the small number of qualified native interpreters.

UN interpreters need to demonstrate excellent comprehension of the two source languages they speak. For many of the delegates and speakers at the UN, any of the official languages may be their second or third language, making interpreting challenging for language professionals.  

Besides an extensive vocabulary in all three languages, UN interpreters are also expected to learn UN-specific terminology, which is helpful during events and summits and during regular meetings and press conferences.

5. Interpreters Have Seven or Eight Three-Hour Meetings per Week

Interpreting is so demanding that language professionals work in groups of two or even three for each language pair. They alternate at every 20 to 30 minutes to be able to keep the rhythm of the speaker.

Staying for too long in the booths without taking breaks can lead to exhaustion and breakdowns. Such an incident happened in 2009 when one of Muammar Gaddafi’s personal interpreters collapsed after 75 minutes of interpreting the Libyan leader’s statement before the UN General Assembly (which lasted for a total of 96 minutes!).

Currently, the UN encourages interpreters to work for a maximum of seven to eight three-hour meetings per week to avoid fatigue.

6. The UN Only Adopted Simultaneous Interpretation in the 70s

The UN is one of the few institutions that supports language professionals and recognizes the importance of their work for global security and world peace. However, things haven’t always been this way.

Early interpreters at the UN weren’t language professionals, but rather natural polyglots with a background as government employees or professionals in colonial empires. Furthermore, delegates didn’t always trust interpreters in this job. So the UN Security Council fully adopted simultaneous interpreting at the beginning of the 1970s.

Simultaneous interpreting was first used at such a high level during the Nuremberg Trials, in which judges from the Allied powers (the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union) defeated major Nazi criminals between 1945 and 1946.

7. Several Films Were Made Based on Interpreters’ Work

The fascination behind this unique profession hasn’t gone unnoticed in the movie industry, where some of the most popular actresses have played UN interpreters. Among the most famous stars to become language professionals, Audrey Hepburn plays an interpreter in “Charade” and Nicole Kidman is a UN interpreter in the film “The Interpreter.”

In the latter, Nicole Kidman does an excellent job in pointing out how important and demanding this job is, as well as how even the smallest mistake can change the course of a conversation at these levels.

However, despite some films and articles in the Sunday newspaper, there’s so much about the exhausting work of UN interpreters (and other language specialists) that we don’t see. They travel, have to remain objective when translating arguments they don’t agree with, and generally work in conditions of extreme stress.

Always under pressure, UN interpreters are essential in bringing nations together and making the world a safer place for the next generations. In fact, the UN has recognized the importance of translators and interpreters in the modern world and declared September 30 International Translation Day.