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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.