What It's Like To Be An Interpreter For The UN


UN security council

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United Nations interpreters are among the world's most important workers that get the least amount of attention, says David Zweig in his new book "Invisibles," which explores the work lives of the most successful people who work behind the scenes.


Zweig profiles one of these interpreters, Giulia Wilkins Ary. Most people probably get the gist of what interpreters do, but don't know the full extent of what the job entails.

Here are five things about UN interpreters that you probably didn't know:

1. Interpreting isn't the same as translating.

By definition, translation concerns text and interpreting speech. Translators have the luxury of a language dictionary, and can determine the best way to say something; interpreters have to find ways to paraphrase a speaker's words while simultaneously listening to what they need to interpret next.

2. The simultaneous interpretation technique became standard during the Nuremberg Trials.

Elite interpreters spend years developing the skill of speaking and listening at the same time. This technique was invented in 1920, but became standard practice during the Nuremberg Trials, in which the Allies tried the defeated Nazis for war crimes. The nature of the trials required a fast-paced and efficient means of communication.


3. Interpreters work in pairs or teams of three, switching off every half hour.

The UN has six official languages: English, French, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. Because interpreting exerts a tremendous amount of mental energy, interpreters work in half-hour shifts to avoid exhaustion. Arabic and Chinese interpreters work in teams of three because they are required to interpret both from and into those languages.

4. Interpreters need to be able to adapt to the unexpected.

According to the United Nations' video "Interpreting in a Globalised World," interpreters need to be mentally agile. The schedule of speakers frequently changes at the very last minute and interpreters are regularly re-assigned to speakers, making thorough preparation impossible. And sometimes delegates decide to deviate from a typical monotone and begin speaking with passion or anger, which requires an even higher level of focus on the interpreter's part to keep up with.

5. Interpreters can be "adrenaline junkies."

Wilkins Ary explains to Zweig that when she's interpreting she gets into a flow, a euphoric state where she feels a deep connection with her speaker, and time seems to pass quickly. It's the same feeling elite athletes get when they're performing at their best. Wilkins Ary tells Zweig that that feeling of being in the zone is what keeps her loving her job.