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The Makings of a United Nations Interpreter

25th August, 2016 I by Erin Lipp

The interpreting world is a colorful place, consisting of numerous types of interpreters with varying linguistic backgrounds, skill sets and experience. Each interpreting job is unique; some interpreting positions require degrees and certifications, and some don’t. No matter what type of interpreter you are, it is known industry-wide that interpreting for the United Nations is a whole different beast.

The UN has six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese and Russian. Typically, interpreters work in groups of two or three and they switch between speakers every 20-30 minutes, as the task of interpreting is mentally taxing. Most people who interpret for the UN are expected to be fluent in at least two of these languages. In addition to this requirement, the interpreters must have full comprehension of the various accents and dialects associated with the language they’re interpreting. UN interpreters must also be able to adapt to any speed and style used by the speakers.

A UN interpreter is expected to have a solid understanding of worldly affairs and UN activities. They should have a tight grasp on the subject matter of the meetings to which they’re assigned. There are many technical terms that interpreters need to know in order to adequately convey the information that they’re interpreting. “UNese” is the nickname given to the lexicon of the organization; interpreters should have full comprehension of these terms as well.

In order to stay true to context, it is the responsibility of the interpreter to find comparable cultural representations when there aren’t direct translations. For example, Germans have a term, kummerspeck, which is used to explain one’s binge-eating after some emotional trauma. The word’s literal English translation is “grief bacon”, which obviously doesn’t convey its true meaning. In this case, the interpreter would be obligated to find the most similar way to translate this information in a way that makes sense in the target language. This requires a native-like knowledge of the various cultures encompassed by the language in which they’re interpreting.

To become an interpreter for the United Nations, candidates must undergo a multi-faceted, competitive examination. The testing process is different for each language but the minimum requirement for any UN interpreter is a Bachelor’s Degree from a university or institution of equivalent status. For more information on the examination procedure, please visit https://languagecareers.un.org/content/examinations-interpreters.

What are your thoughts on the complex requirements and examination process for UN interpreters? Share your thoughts below!


You may also be interested in the following:

Ebook: A Resource for Working With Interpreters and Interpretation Equipment

Article: How to Become a UN Interpreter

Article: The World’s Ten Most Translated Authors

Article: Simultaneous Interpretation and the Brain


2 responses to “The Makings of a United Nations Interpreter”

  1. Alhnet says:

    Well said. Thank you!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great Article, thanks!

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