How to Become a UN Interpreter

The United Nations was founded on the 24th of October, 1945. 50 countries were represented in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization. There, they drew up the United Nations Charter. The goal of the UN is to maintain international peace and security. Many interpreters dream of working for the UN. It is a prestigious organization. So, how does one become a UN interpreter?

First and foremost, interpreters are required to be fluent in multiple languages, not just two. The simultaneous interpreting requires lightning fast thinking, recognizing, and understanding words from one language to another. The topics covered are broad, including politics, human rights, economic and social issues, legal affairs, finance, and administration. Interpretation is provided into the six official languages for conferences of the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Councils, and all of the subsidiary bodies. If all six languages are utilized, a team of 14 interpreters is required. Two for English, French, Russian and Spanish, with three per booth for Arabic and Chinese.

The UN is broken down into the following main bodies:

  • General Assembly
    • GA President
  • Security Council
    • SC President
  • Economic and Social Council
    • ECOSOC President
  • Trusteeship Council
  • International Court of Justice
  • Secretariat
    • Secretary-General

According to the UN website, language requirements include:

Perfect command of one official language of the United Nations. English, French, Russian or Spanish interpreters must also possess excellent oral comprehension of two other official languages. Arabic or Chinese interpreters must also possess excellent command of English or French, as required.

A United Nations interpreter has to keep up with current world affairs and UN activities. More importantly is a mastery of the specific vocabulary used by the Organization, called “UNese”. While not required for the competitive examination/recruitment test, it is helpful to know beforehand. As with any conference interpretation, interpreters must be able to comprehend the accents, speed, and style of each speaker. Moreover, interpreters must find proper cultural equivalents and take cultural contexts of both languages into account at all times.

Typically, interpreters work in teams of two or three and switch every 20-30 minutes or so. Three-hour meetings are common, with interpreters being assigned seven to eight meetings per week. Travel to service meetings away from the duty station does happen on occasion.

While challenging, becoming a UN interpreter can be the opportunity of a lifetime. For more information, please visit the United Nation’s official website.

You may also be interested in the following:

Ebook: A Resource for Working With Interpreters and Interpretation Equipment

Article: Common Myths about Simultaneous Interpretation

Article: The World’s Ten Most Translated Authors

Article: How Language is Processed in the Brain



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