At United Nations meetings and conferences, participants may speak in any of the six official languages of the United Nations. Their words are simultaneously rendered into the other five languages by United Nations conference interpreters, who generally interpret only into their main language. Arabic and Chinese interpreters, however, work both from and into their main language.
A wide-ranging knowledge of world affairs and United Nations activities is essential for all interpreters, as well as knowledge of the subject matter (including technical terms) to be covered at the meetings to which they are assigned. Moreover, they must master the specific vocabulary of the Organization, nicknamed “UNese”. However, for the purposes of the competitive examination (the recruitment test), prior knowledge of UN-specific terminology and style is helpful but not required.
Because the United Nations has only six official languages, many delegates must speak in a language other than their main language, and this poses a special challenge. Interpreters must be able to comprehend every imaginable accent, in addition to coping with issues of speed and style. Moreover, interpreters must find proper cultural equivalents and take cultural context into account. A thorough knowledge of both language and culture is thus required.
Normally, interpreters are assigned to interpret seven or eight three-hour meetings per week. They work in teams of two or three and usually switch every 20-30 minutes. On occasion, interpreters are expected to travel to service meetings held away from their duty station.
United Nations interpreters must:
Hold a degree from a university or institution of equivalent status at which the language of instruction is the language into which they interpret, and have 200 days of work experience as conference interpreters and/or work experience in the field of translation, editing, verbatim reporting or other related fields.