UN interpreters provide the world with essential work. They live and make history every day, fighting cultural and language barriers at global levels, dealing daily with some of the most important and influential people on the planet, and speaking for them during meetings and conferences.
It seems like the perfect job, but nothing is simple when the slightest translation error can have serious consequences in world politics. UN interpreters are fully aware of the responsibility they bear.
The Interpreter, film directed by Sydney Pollack, starring Nicole Kidman
UN official languages
The organization edits and publishes documents in all its official languages, but generally uses English and French for internal communication. The other languages are used during discussions in the Regional Commissions.
Mastering a language is just the first step in becoming a good interpreter. In a UN guide aimed at those looking to become linguistic experts, the job appears to be a mix of a diplomat, engineer, and traffic driver.
“A good translator knows the techniques for dealing with difficult situations, has nerves of steel, doesn’t freak out, and can keep up with fast speakers”, says the guide.
In 1946, English and French were the only working languages. Due to the UN development, all six official languages have become working languages too.
The majority of speakers at the United Nations communicate in one of six official languages. The delegate or guest can also bring along a qualified interpreter to translate the message if he or she doesn’t speak or want to use any of these languages.
Interpreters translate the interpretations using a relay system that allows mistakes and misunderstandings. That’s why the UN only admits one intermediary language during its events.
Interpreters and Translators who are native speakers or high-level speakers of Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese or Turkish, may find that there is a need for them at the conference interpreting level in the United Nations. These are the languages with the potential of becoming official UN languages in the future.
United Nations Translators speak at least three languages
Translators and interpreters who work in the United Nations Interpretation Service need to speak at least two UN working languages besides their mother tongue.
Discussions and meetings at the United Nations include topics like politics, economic, social matters, human rights, and many other subjects of interest. It’s not an easy task, it requires permanent study and efforts to remain updated and have their translation skills improved.
What do UN translators do?
The United Nations uses simultaneous interpreting to make easier communication during meetings and events. The interpreters don’t have any breaks during the speech.
They have to juggle, listen, translate, and talk at the same time. They must travel and be objective when translating arguments that they don’t agree with and they often work under extreme stress. These professionals need years of training to accumulate the skills needed to interpret during meetings and conferences.
A United Nations Translator works in groups of 2 or 3 for each language pair. They alternate every 20 to 30 minutes to make it possible to keep the speaker’s rhythm.
Staying for a long time in the booths with no breaks can lead to exhaustion and breakdowns.
During the UN General Assembly in 2009, one of Muammar Gaddafi’s personal interpreters collapsed after 75 minutes of interpreting the Libyan leader’s statement (which lasted 96 minutes in total!).
Nowadays, the UN encourages languages professionals to work for a maximum of 7 to 8 three-hour meetings per week to avoid weariness.
A United Nations Translator’s journey
“I was going to do French and German. I talked to my advisor of studies, who was a philosopher, and he said to me, “you’re the kind of person who needs to do something difficult. You should do Arabic”, and I went”, said the chief of English Translation at the conference at the UN, Nicole Maguire.
“I was in Syria teaching English to some kids when I saw an ad in the newspaper for a language competitive exam in the United Nations. I just thought, well, I’m gonna go through this and see what happens. Now I’m here. This is real.”
“The Trump bombing had created serious problems that kill Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. And they were looking for people who were going to help out with the translation department. So, I was asked if I would go on a mission by my chief. What do you think I said? Sure! When I left the investigation they had dinner, the chief investigator said he couldn’t believe that a mere translator could move from the periphery for an investigation.”
Camille Beydon, French Translator at the United Nations, says:
“My working languages are French and English and Chinese. In the UN, I translate any document that the organization needs to have translated into French. This can be reports of the Secretary-General, or resolutions and decisions of the General Assembly or the Security Council, or diplomatic correspondence budget documents, etc.
A good translator has, first of all, to have very good writing skills, they have to have excellent grammar and a good style.
They also have to be very detail-oriented, and they have to be willing to always find ways to improve their skills as translators. However, it would really mean a lot to us if you can take a moment to think about all the ways in which translation is making your life more interesting, more fulfilling, and perhaps more peaceful.”
Films based on interpreters work
The attraction behind this profession hasn’t gone unnoticed by the movie industry. Some of the most popular actresses have played UN interpreters in different films. Among the most famous stars to become language professionals:
- Audrey Hepburn played an interpreter in “Charade”
- Nicole Kidman was a UN interpreter in the movie “The Interpreter.”
- Lost in Translation. The Interpreter doesn’t interpret all of what the director says because of cultural reasons.