UN Interpreters are skilled linguists who specialize in translating to and from at least three of the six main languages spoken at the United Nations. These interpreters work for the UN Interpretation Service, which is a part of the Meetings and Publishing Division, in the General Assembly. There are over 100 UN Interpreters currently in service.
UN interpreters are divided into two types: freelancers and permanent workers. Regardless of employment status, all UN interpreters must go through rigorous training and testing, before being admitted to the interpretation program. They must be fluent in at least two of the following languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. The six languages are the official for all official UN meetings. There are also textual or simultaneous interpreters.
UN interpreters who work as simultaneous interpreters wear an ear piece and listen to a live speech or discussion while translating what they hear into another language over a microphone. This microphone feeds into headphones that are disseminated to those needing the interpretation service. Interpreters who work primarily with text work to translate written content from one language to another.
UN interpreters hold a valuable position in world diplomacy. She must translate correctly, not just literally word for word, but also the spirit of the words, in order to convey a message as it was intended.
Interpreters were first used in the 1920s with the UN’s predecessor, The League of Nations. UN Interpreters first evolved as a group of naturally bi-lingual individuals. Working on the same podium as the speaker, these individuals would consecutively translate a phrase whenever the speaker paused. In the late 1940s, the UN began providing simultaneous interpretation.
According to UN interpreters who do simultaneous interpretation, it is necessary to translate in pairs. Two interpreters take turns at translating for 30 minutes each. It requires the ability to listen, translate and forget, in order to avoid confusion. If the interpreter attempts to synthesize what he is hearing, he may lose focus, slow down the process of translation, and frustrate the listening audience. It takes a special skill and mental dexterity to be a UN Interpreter.