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Interpreters

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.

  • Challenges of being a UN Interpreter: the level of accuracy required the political nuances of statements the range of topics and meetings coping with the speed of delivery, different speaking styles and accents performing consistently often in politically-charged and high-profile meetings keeping abreast of the news keeping up to date on evolving subjects, vocabulary and acronyms.
  • Rewards of being a UN Interpreter: opportunity to gain insight into world affairs and international diplomacy being part of and witnessing the intergovernmental process in action learning about a wide range of subjects working in high-profile meetings working as a member of a team learning other official UN languages travelling on mission to other countries.

Meet a UN Interpreter

  • A high level of concentration and split-second accuracy
  • Ability to work under continuous stress
  • Ability to assimilate a broad range of subjects and specialized terminology
  • Ability to tailor language, tone, style and register to the speaker’s statement and to the audience
  • Excellent comprehension of accents and regional language variations
  • Sensitivity to speakers’ cultural backgrounds, attitudes, perspectives and outlooks, and ability to render these nuances accurately in the target language
  • Ability to work collaboratively and willingness to learn from others
  • Ability to work effectively with people of different national, linguistic and cultural backgrounds, with sensitivity and respect for diversity
  • Readiness to share credit for team accomplishments and accept joint responsibility for team shortcomings
  • Conscientiousness and efficiency in meeting commitments and achieving results

United Nations interpreters must:

  • Pass the United Nations competitive examination for interpreters.
  • Hold a university degree from a recognized school of interpretation in which at least one full year is devoted to interpretation,

OR

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.

  • Have as their main language one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
  • In the case of English, French, Russian and Spanish interpreters, have a perfect command, respectively, of English, French, Russian or Spanish, which must be their main language and an excellent knowledge of at least two other official languages of the United Nations. In some booths special language combinations are required. English interpreters, for example, must have French.
  • In the case of Arabic interpreters, have a perfect command of Arabic, which must be their main language and an excellent knowledge of English or French.
  • In the case of Chinese interpreters, have a perfect command of Chinese, which must be their main language, and an excellent knowledge of English; knowledge of another official language of the United Nations is desirable.