The Ordeals of UN Interpreters

UN Interpreters Make Sure Nothing Is Lost In Translation

Think you’re good at languages? Try applying for one of the toughest translation jobs on earth — working as a language specialist for the United Nations. RFE/RL takes a behind-the-scenes look at the world of interpreters.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


UNITED NATIONS  — When Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi delivered his notorious 96-minute speech before the UN General Assembly last autumn, no one may have been more aware of each passing minute than his personal translator, Fouad Zlitni, whom he had brought along for the occasion.

Nearly three-quarters of the way into Qaddafi’s address, Zlitni collapsed, undone by the effort of translating the Libyan leader’s rambling, at times angry speech from Arabic into English for nearly 75 minutes straight.

Hossam Fahr, the Egyptian-born head of the UN’s interpretation service, says Qaddafi’s translator went far beyond the normal limits of what an interpreter can reasonably be expected to do.

“It was a very unusual situation, because every member state has the right to bring its own interpreter. [Qaddafi] had his own interpreters; they were already installed in the booths. So we let them do the work, and then unfortunately, one of them just collapsed a good 75 minutes into the statement,” Fahr said.

“I take my hat off to him — he did a very good job under the circumstances.”

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The incident served to highlight the grueling nature of simultaneous interpretation, a profession which few ordinary people have occasion to observe.

But at the United Nations, which brings together 192 member states and a profusion of mother tongues in its day-to-day pursuit of international diplomacy, interpretation is at the very core of its operations.

The annual General Assembly — which every autumn brings together the entire UN membership for a massive two-week series of speeches and policy reviews — may represent the World Cup of professional interpretation.

But even on a day-to-day basis, the UN’s councils, committees, and publications produce enough work to keep its language staff of nearly 460 people busy on a full-time basis.

Barry Olsen, who heads the conference interpretation program at California’s highly respected Monterey Institute of International Studies — from which a number of UN translators have graduated — says UN language specialists are generally considered the best in the business.

“A translator or interpreter who works for the United Nations has reached what is very much one of the pinnacles of the profession. It is an organization that is respected and the linguistic work that goes on with the United Nations is of the highest order,” Olsen says.

Iron Nerves And A Sense Of Style

Although the official working languages at the United Nations are English and French, the UN has six official languages into which the bulk of its official documents and publications are automatically translated — English and French, plus Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish. (In instances where other languages are needed, the UN will hire freelance interpreters or country delegations will bring in their own translators.)

UN interpreters, most typically, translate from their acquired languages into their native tongue. With language like Chinese and Arabic — where accomplished translators are more difficult to find — interpreters will translate both into their native language as well as their adopted ones.

It’s an intense experience that can drain even the most accomplished interpreters — to avoid a Qaddafi-like marathon, in fact, the UN abides by a strict timetable in which interpreters work in teams of two, with one typically working no more than 20 minutes at a time before switching to his or her partner. (General Assembly speeches, moreover, are usually kept to 15 minutes or less.)

Mastering a language is only the start to being a good interpreter. In a UN guide for would-be language specialists, the job appears to be equal parts diplomat, rocket scientist, and traffic cop. “A good translator,” it reads, “knows techniques for coping with a huge variety of difficult situations, has iron nerves, does not panic, has a sense of style, and can keep up with a rapid speakers.”

Igor Shpiniov of the UN Training Section, Hossam Fahr, the chief of the UN Interpretation Service, and Stephen Sekel, the former chief of the UN English Translation Service.

Stiff Competition

Such people, it appears, are hard to find. Despite salaries that are among the highest in the profession — top-rank UN interpreters can earn $76,000 a year — the United Nations is suffering a severe shortage of qualified language personnel.

“We’re looking for people with good comprehension skills. Sometimes people who translate from French or English into Russian do not necessarily speak fluently in English or French,” says  Igor Shpiniov, a Russian-born translator who runs the UN’s language training division.

“Sometimes, paradoxically, they can translate a text about atomic energy, but if you ask them to buy milk at a French supermarket, they’ll be at a loss.”

Competition for the jobs is stiff. Out of 1,800 applicants looking to work as Chinese interpreters last year, only 10 passed the UN examination. For Arabic, only two out of 400 made the cut.

Many UN language experts work as translators for the vast numbers of publications and documents that pass through the international body each year. But the most prestigious position is that of the simultaneous interpreters when language experts sit in soundproof booths and provide a running translation of often highly technical or politically charged speeches.

The Comma Affair

The profession was first developed during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals in 1946. Now both the General Assembly and Security Council have eight translation booths — one for each of the UN’s official languages, and two for alternate language translations. (According to UN rules, the media is barred from sitting in on live interpretation sessions.)

When working at important events like Security Council meetings, interpreters are often allowed to prepare with advance information about the proceedings, allowing them to familiarize themselves with the concepts and terminology of the debate. The agenda for the General Assembly is often planned months in advance, allowing the translation team ample time to estimate how many interpreters will be needed for scheduled talks.

Still, no amount of advance planning can completely protect interpreters from anxiety when the time has come for them to translate. Some studies have shown that during intense debates, interpreters often experience an increase in blood pressure and heart rate as they struggle to translate different terms, nuances, and arguments into smooth, comprehensible phrases.

Movies like “The Interpreter,” starring Nicole Kidman as a UN translator and filmed inside the United Nations compound, brought an aura of Hollywood glamour and intrigue to the role of interpreters. In reality, the job can be far more prosaic, although constant worries about involuntary bloopers and misinterpretations can keep tensions high.

In one instance, a firestorm was raised when a single comma was removed from the text of a UN resolution involving two unnamed former Soviet republics in the thick of a border dispute. One of the countries, angered by the omission, demanded it be replaced. But the UN translators, undaunted, said the comma had distorted the meaning of the text. Not everyone was happy, but in the end, the comma stayed out.

Mistakes And Applause

Interpretation head Fahr also recalls a mistake he made as an Arabic-English interpreter when the Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali was sworn in as UN secretary-general in 1992.

“What comes out of my mouth is, ‘I congratulate you upon your election as secretary-general of the United States.’ And everybody in the General Assembly laughed,” Fahr said.

“So the president of the General Assembly asked the then-secretary-general, [Peru’s Javier] Perez de Cuellar why are they laughing, and he said ‘The English interpreter made a mistake.'”

In the end, Fahr says, he received a forgiving round of applause.

Stephen Sekel, former chief of the UN’s English translation service, says such mistakes are quite common and that UN staff only occasionally demand an interpreter be sanctioned for making a mistake. Overall, he says, the skill and professionalism of the UN translation team ensures any they remain an indispensible, behind-the-scenes asset — and that their errors will be few.

“We expect our language staff to bring a great deal of general knowledge to the job, a high level of education and a lot of intellectual curiosity,” Sekel said.

“They are expected to be continuous learners. They wouldn’t survive otherwise. Perhaps that explains why we don’t have too many examples of terrible mistakes that brought us to the brink of a major international crisis.”

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