Bilingual Jobs: How UN Interpreters Make Language Universal

With so many different languages at play, how does the United Nations even function? We spoke with two of the interpreters who keep everything running smoothly.
UN interpreters

There are 193 member states that make up the United Nations, leaving only 54 countries or territories in the world that aren’t members. As you can imagine, there’s an enormous number of languages spoken across the U.N.’s various sessions, committees and missions. This modern-day Tower of Babel could easily fall into a state of total chaos. But much like a team of superheroes swooping in to save the day, one group of U.N. employees stands at the ready to rescue participants from communication breakdown: the Interpretation Service.

Here’s How It Works

The process of interpreting for the U.N. is pretty complex. Interpreters sit in enclosed booths that line the perimeter of the room, which gives them a vantage point to see and hear the proceedings of the session. For most U.N. conferences, the interpreters are expected to perform “simultaneous interpretation” — they are listening and interpreting at the same time. The six official languages of the U.N. are English, Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic and Chinese. At each conference, there are two people interpreting into each of these languages, except for Arabic and Chinese, which have three interpreters each.

This can be difficult to visualize, so we’ll use an example. Let’s say someone is presenting on the floor of the U.N. in French. The interpreters for each of the six languages will listen and simultaneously speak into a microphone, interpreting what’s being said into their respective languages. Delegates attending the conference have headsets, which they set to a channel based on their language. So Spanish-speaking delegates set their headsets to the Spanish channel, and on that channel, they’ll hear what the Spanish interpreter is translating into the microphone in their booth.

Sound complicated? Well, it gets even more layered. If the presenter is speaking Arabic or Chinese, the Arabic and Chinese interpreters translate what’s being said into English or French, and then the other interpreters translate from there. And this is all happening, more or less, at the same time!

Elena Cisneros, a conference interpreter based out of the U.N.’s Vienna office, interprets English, French and Russian into Spanish. She says the simultaneous aspect of the interpretation is a crucial part of how the U.N. operates.

“We don’t want the speaker to pause because then it breaks the flow of ideas,” Cisneros explains. “The more normally and fluidly they speak, the better.”

Interpreters work in pairs (or trios) because of how strenuous simultaneous interpretation can be. Cisneros says she and her colleague switch every half hour or so because interpreting is mentally exhausting.

But simultaneous isn’t the only type of interpretation. In some U.N. meetings, “consecutive interpretation” is requested. This is the form most people are more familiar with from movies and television shows. The presenter speaks and then pauses while the interpreter translates what they said for others in the room. Consecutive interpretation will often be used in meetings between heads of state and the U.N. Secretary-General.

Then there’s “whispering interpretation” — when an interpreter sits with a small group of people who speak another language and interprets quietly to the group during a presentation. It’s technically a form of simultaneous interpretation because the interpreter is explaining what’s going on as it happens.

Interpreter and translator Corine Van Drimmelen sometimes works for the Dutch or Belgian Missions to the U.N. in New York City. She says she uses whispering interpretation when she’s there, sitting with English-speakers in meetings and interpreting the presentation for them.

What’s The Most Challenging Part Of The Job?

For Van Drimmelen, the hardest part of interpreting for the U.N. is having to go in blind. She recalls a time when she was interpreting at the Belgian Mission for a meeting about a criminal case that she didn’t get to prepare for.

“I had absolutely no idea what the case was about,” Van Drimmelen said. “They did not give me any background information … They went immediately into the question and answer session with the defendant in this case. That was extremely challenging.”

Van Drimmelen said she likes to do a little research ahead of time to familiarize herself with the relevant terms, especially if there’s any legal lingo or technical speak involved.

Cisneros also values having the opportunity for pre-session preparation (and sometimes doesn’t get that opportunity), but for her, the biggest challenge lies in the delivery of the speeches.

“People speak really fast,” she says. “It is a challenge to keep up with the speed.”

Cisneros in U.N. Interpretation Booth
Elena Cisneros in the Spanish interpretation booth at the U.N.’s Vienna office.

And The Most Rewarding Part?

“When people feel grateful that they’ve been helped by your interpretation,” Van Drimmelen said. “When they thank you.”

A little gratitude can go a long way, and with a taxing job like interpretation, it helps to know your work is appreciated. Van Drimmelen said after she interpreted for the U.N. delegation from Suriname (they speak Dutch), they were particularly complimentary.

“[They] looked up at us in the booth, at my partner and me, and stuck up their thumb, saying it was great,” Van Drimmelen recalled. “We felt very happy about that.”

For Cisneros, successfully facilitating communication makes the job worthwhile.

“When you feel like you’re contributing to the communication, then you feel like you’ve done a job that’s useful,” she says.

Both women feel the work they do is important, and we would certainly agree. The U.N. is a forum to address the world’s most pressing questions, but these crucial discussions can’t take place if the participants can’t understand one another.

“You’re always in a situation where, without your knowledge of the two languages, people couldn’t speak to each other; they couldn’t communicate,” Van Drimmelen said.

Cisneros takes it a step further, stressing the value in the conversations they’re interpreting.

“We contribute to overcoming the language and the cultural barriers of people who are meeting to get something done, to reach an agreement or to change things, to make the world better.”

Learn more about what it takes to become a U.N. interpreter here.

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