Effective communication is critical to diplomacy. However, clear communication becomes even more important to diplomatic affairs when the parties involved do not speak the same language. Enter the conference interpreting services of the U.N. Interpretation Service. Born during the 1946 Nuremberg Trials when the sheer number of Nazi war criminals required efficient legal translation services to quickly move the proceedings forward, the interpretation services of the U.N. play a critical role in the perilous realm of global affairs. In a world dominated by major nuclear powers such as the U.S. and China, translation errors can lead to misunderstandings that increase tensions. One notable error occurred during the Cold War when a line from a speech by Nikita Khrushchev was literally interpreted by Western translators as “we will bury you” rather than the more figurative “we will outlast you”. Thus, the U.N. goes to great lengths to find the best government interpreter candidates for their Interpretation Service.
Becoming a UN Government Interpreter
Becoming a U.N. government interpreter requires calm under pressure, speed, and fluency in at least three of the six official languages of the U.N. (Mandarin, French, Russian, English, Arabic and Spanish). To ensure fast and accurate translation, interpreters use a relay system to quickly transform a speaker’s remarks into each of the official languages of the U.N. Under this system, 12 interpreters in 6 booths (for each official language) work in tandem, taking breaks in 20 minute intervals due to the taxing nature of the job. For instance, if a U.N. delegate is delivering a speech in Arabic, a government interpreter fluent in Arabic will translate the speech into English or French for other interpreters who specialize in the other official languages of the U.N. These interpreters will then transmit to the delegates on the floor. This task can prove difficult for even the most experienced translators, especially when world leaders fail to speak in one of the official languages. During one notable meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi spoke for over an hour and a half in a Libyan dialect of Arabic, causing his personal translator to collapse from exhaustion.
Understandably, the U.N. Interpretation Service is highly selective when it comes to hiring new interpreters; in 2009, only 10 out of 1,800 candidates for Chinese interpretation passed the U.N. language examination. In spite of the Service’s selectivity, in recent years, the U.N. has introduced new hiring initiatives to find interpreters fluent in critical languages such as Arabic, as many long-time U.N. interpreters have reached retirement age. Currently, the U.N. Interpretation Service employs 120 interpreters out of its total staff of 460 people. This staff also includes professional linguists, who translate documents related to U.N. activities. Clearly, the U.N. Interpretation Service provides a crucial function for humanity by demonstrating the importance of global translation services to maintaining civil international relations between countries.
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