Candidates for interpreter posts must take the corresponding competitive examination in their main language, which is normally the language in which the candidates did their higher education studies. Please note that the information on this page is for English interpreters only. For information about the recruitment of interpreters who work into another official language, please switch to the version of this website in that language.
A first-level degree from a university or institution of equivalent status is a requirement for employment for all United Nations interpreters. Many, but not all, United Nations interpreters also have a degree from an accredited school of interpretation. The ability to interpret into English from French and from either Russian or Spanish is essential.
In the examinations for English interpreters, candidates are asked to interpret three speeches of progressively increasing difficulty, in terms of complexity and speed of delivery, from each of their source languages. The speeches are approximately 5 to 10 minutes each.
Examinees must demonstrate:
– Excellent passive comprehension of their two source languages;
– Accuracy in interpretation into grammatically correct English;
– Ability to construct complete sentences;
– An understanding of appropriate style and register;
– An ability to keep up with speed;
– Intelligent editing of logically redundant words and phrases;
– Ability to cope with difficult or dense passages;
– Good diction and delivery.
Candidates who fail to interpret any speech in a satisfactory manner are automatically eliminated. Successful candidates are convoked to a competency-based interview.
Please note that the content and format of the examination, as well as eligibility requirements and instructions on how to apply, may vary from one examination session to the next. Applicants should therefore check the corresponding examination notices carefully in order to be duly prepared.
Sample examination notice (En/Fr)
Sample examination for interpreters
While the United Nations competitive examination for interpreters is among the most rigorous, it also lends itself to strong preparation due to the wealth of well-organized, easy-to-use information available on the United Nations website. The suggestions presented here can be adjusted in most cases to fit any language combination.
Practising with UN materials
The following steps make use of the impressive volume of UN meetings (dialogues, statements, remarks) available through the UN webcast. Take the time to familiarize yourself with these resources.
At the very bottom right of the screen click the link that says, “Previous Webcasts (2001 - May 2012).”
That brings you to archived webcasts, which offer a list of different United Nations bodies and their meetings together with a wealth of material for your use.
If you click on a speaker/country, you get a page that offers, in many cases, the webcast video in the original language, the webcast video in other languages (interpretation), the text in the original language, and the text in translation in other languages.
For each study session, choose a speaker/country and complete the following steps for that speaker/country before moving on to the next speaker/country.
1. Record yourself interpreting a speech from the webcast without using the written text and without specific topic preparation. This will simulate exam conditions. Avoid stopping/starting over, since you cannot do this during the examination
2. Listen to your recorded interpretation while following in the original language text of the speech (when available). This will allow you to check for omissions, additions, and accuracy. This will also allow you to develop reflexes for key UN concepts, organs, vocabulary, titles, etc. You will be able to see where you struggled, figure out why you struggled, and develop an appropriate strategy or remedy.
3. Listen to your recorded interpretation while reading the text translated into your target language (when available) for comparison between your interpretation and the United Nations interpreter’s version. This will allow you to establish whether your language choices match preferred United Nations language choices.
4. As you perform tasks 2 and 3, underline salient text (key UN concepts, organs, vocabulary, titles, things you got wrong, things you got right, things that you know will come frequently, etc).
5. Cross-check underlined salient text in all of your languages, either in the translated texts (when available), in UNTERM or in other sources, and then feed this vocabulary into your working glossary (preferably indexed with indexing software such as DT Search for quick queries). Study that glossary in your downtime. Highlight language that repeats in your study sessions. As the glossary gets long, create an additional glossary of just the highlighted high-frequency language.
6. Listen to the UN interpreter’s version (when available). This gives you an idea of the delivery sought from UN staff interpreters.
7. Reinterpret the speech until you get it perfect. (And then do it again a few weeks later).
8. It is important to do all of these steps for a given speech before moving on to new material. On days when you do not have a lot of time, choose a short speech (the speech length is shown on the screen). Completing all of these tasks for a 5 minute speech can take a full half hour, and sometimes that might be all the time you have. It could be better to have regular, short, complete sessions instead of irregular, longer, haphazard ones. A methodical, step-by-step approach will keep things from falling through the cracks.
Note: If you are looking for more or different material than what is found in the archived webcasts section, look for “See the latest” at the centre left of the webcast main screen. Just below that there is a horizontal scroll bar with links to sundry UN meetings, conferences, and events.
Additional ways to prepare
1. Listen to United Nations Radio and United Nations RSS feeds and podcasts in your languages.
It is worth getting familiar with the content of this site. Much of the content can be downloaded into your device of choice. The downloadable content has an old, anachronistic floppy disc icon.
The calendar at the top left of the screen allows you to see UN Radio content for any day/month in the recent past. You can download to your device a full month of UN Radio programmes in your three languages. Listen to the material wherever you may be, on public transportation, at the doctor’s office, walking to work, riding your bike, etc. Some of the radio programmes are news shorts, while others are feature pieces. Both are helpful, but the news shorts are generally found to be more efficient for assimilating UN-specific content. It is important to note key UN concepts, vocabulary and titles and to research them in order to ensure that the content of your UN Radio listening gets turned into booth solutions.
Along the left-hand side of the screen, near the bottom, there is a link for subscribing to Podcasts and RSS feeds.
2. UN Organizational structure in all of your languages
3. Read the UN Charter in all of your languages. You should be thoroughly familiar with the wording of the Preamble and other key articles.
4. There is sample test material from the UN at:
Since this is sample examination material, you may not be ready for this material until the end of your preparation. That said, listening to it when beginning preparation can offer an idea of the type of material used for the examination.
Creating your own study library matching audio/video files with corresponding official meeting records
The United Nations website offers rich resources for preparing for its competitive language examinations in all official languages. It is very useful for universities participating in the United Nations MoU network and to individual students to use such resources to create their own study libraries, in which different United Nations speeches can be categorized by topic, level of linguistic complexity and in which audio/video files can be matched by their official transcriptions prepared by the United Nations Verbatim Reporters. Saving the library on your computer hard drive would also allow you to study without interruptions when you do not have an Internet connection and ensures that even if the United Nations database managers remove your study materials from the web site, for whatever reason, you will still have them.
Follow the simple steps described below:
1. Create several directories in your My Documents folder and name them using the categories featured on the UN website: peace and security; development; human rights; humanitarian affairs; international law.
2. Within each directory, create three subfolders: difficult; medium; easy.
3. You will gradually fill the subfolders with matching audio and text files as you work with them to hone your interpretation skills. Below is an example showing how to extract matching files.
STEP 1: FIND A DOCUMENT:
• Go to http://www.un.org/en/index.shtml
• Choose General Assembly (GA) or Security Council. For the sake of this example, the GA directory has been selected: http://www.un.org/ga/
• Select Documents tab http://www.un.org/ga/64/agenda/
• Select topic (here – international peace and securityhttp://www.un.org/ga/64/agenda/A-peace.shtml
• Select agenda item (here - The role of diamonds in fuelling conflict). You will see the following screen:
Out of the documents available (here – 33 documents), select one containing “PV” in its symbol (in this example – No.5). Save documents in all languages you work with. Note the meeting date and number.
STEP 2. Find matching audio/video file
• Open new Internet browser
• Go to same GA page, select "Newsroom", "Webcast".
• Select year (here – 2014), find your meeting
• Point mouse at Archived Video file, right-click and select "Save Target As".
Now you have a matching audio file of the speeches which you can practice interpreting. Check your interpretation against the official transcript; note mistakes and new vocabulary, as recommended above.
If you add files to your collection regularly, soon you will have on your hard drive an impressive library of speeches for unlimited practising.