ACCESSIBILITY AT UNOG A A A A The United Nations in the Heart of Europe


Interpreter at Work
Interpreters at work 4 Interpreter at Work Interpreters at work 3

The Interpretation Service at UNOG is comprised of six language sections staffed by a total of 100 interpreters. Simultaneous interpretation is provided in the official languages of the Organization to an average of 2,700 meetings of United Nations Conferences and bodies per year at Geneva Headquarters and in the field.

What is a Conference Interpreter?

A conference interpreter is a professional language and communication expert who works in multilingual meetings and renders a message from one language into another, naturally and fluently, adopting the delivery, tone and convictions of the speaker.

The work of a conference interpreter is an oral intellectual exercise which is quite distinct from written translation and requires different training and qualifications. Interpreters’ work is subject to constant, immediate and very public scrutiny; no supervisory review or revision is possible before their “product” is delivered.

The ability to interpret is a skill many claim but few truly possess. Consider the process of simultaneous interpretation: interpreters listen to the speaker, understand the message and convert it into another language, speak to the delegates, monitor their output to ensure accurate and elegant delivery, all the while absorbing the next part of the speech. Consequently, they must exercise great concentration while working under constant pressure in order to maintain a high standard of split-second accuracy and be able to assimilate a broad range of subjects and specialized terminology.

International conferences are attended by people who not only speak different languages, but also come from different backgrounds and cultures, and so interpreters provide bridges between varying ways of thinking, attitudes and cultural approaches.

Adapted from AIIC and SCIC

How Do Interpreters Work at the United Nations?

Conference interpretation can be performed in three ways: simultaneously, consecutively and by whispering (chuchotage). In simultaneous mode, the interpreters sit in sound-proof booths where the speaker is heard through headphones and they deliver a running interpretation transmitted through a microphone to participants in the meeting who wear earphones. Consecutive mode, occasionally used, consists of the interpreter sitting at the conference table, taking notes and delivering the statement in another language. Whispering (chuchotage), also occasionally used in certain working environments such as field missions, press conferences, and high-level bilateral private meetings, consists of the interpreter simultaneously whispering the interpretation directly to a very limited audience with or without mobile equipment.

The United Nations relies mainly on simultaneous interpretation because its work generally involves large multiple-language meetings. The organization has 6 official languages : Arabic (A),Chinese (C),English (E), French (F), Russian (R), Spanish (S) and 2 working languages: E, F. All United Nations staff are required to possess at least one of the working languages. Conferences and meetings of the United Nations bodies may be conducted in as many as all 6 official languages. Consequently there are six corresponding language sections (booths) in the Interpretation Service. Normally, only these languages may be used at United Nations meetings. If a Member State wishes to use a non-United Nations language, it must make the necessary arrangements for that language to be interpreted into one of the official languages.

Interpreters are identified by the language they work into, which at the United Nations is always their mother tongue in the E, F, R and S booths. Thus an English (booth) interpreter interprets from other official languages into English. English is referred to as this interpreter’s “active” or “target” language, while the two or more other languages from which he/she interprets are referred to as “passive,” or “source” languages. Because certain language combinations at the level required for interpreting work are very rare, this structure is not applied to the Arabic and Chinese booths, where interpreters work both into and out of their mother tongues. This dispenses E,F,R,S interpreters from having to interpret from Arabic and Chinese directly. Instead, they relay from the Arabic or Chinese interpreters who would be interpreting into English or French.

How to Become an Interpreter ?

For more information, please visit: UN Language or UN Careers.