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English at the UN


At virtually any official meeting held at the United Nations speeches are made in one of the Organization’s six official languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish, and are simultaneously – that is, instantly – interpreted into the others.

The staff of the Interpretation Service are thus responsible for ensuring that delegates and others present at a meeting are able to understand what all others are saying, and to do so at more or less the exact time that they are speaking. They provide simultaneous interpretation from and into the six official languages for meetings of the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and all of their subsidiary bodies, as well as many other intergovernmental bodies and conferences. A team for a six-language meeting requires 14 interpreters: three per booth for Arabic and Chinese, because those interpreters work both from and into those languages, and two each for English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

English interpreters provide interpretation of speeches or statements given in two other official languages. 

To give an example of the work-load and the dedication of the interpreters, the Service provided continuous interpretation coverage for the final meetings of the General Assembly from 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, 23 December to 4:45 a.m. on Friday, 24 December 2010.

In addition to simultaneous interpretation, the staff of the Service are called upon to provide consecutive interpretation at certain meetings. They speak after each participant has spoken, interpreting his or her words as precisely as possible so that the others in the meeting can follow the exchange. Instances of this type of interpretation include meetings of Heads of State or Government with the Secretary-General, consultations with the President of the Security Council or the President of the Economic and Social Council on specific political situations, official missions and special investigations overseas, and press conferences and occasional special events.

The interpreters are housed in enclosed booths that allow them both to see and to hear the officers and the participants of the meeting for which they are working. They must have readily available all information and documentation regarding the meeting. In that regard new computer-based technologies have made their lives a bit easier. What once was a three-foot pile of documents and reference material on the interpreter’s desk is now instantly accessible by computer or electronic reader. Glossaries and compendiums – in essence vocabulary and terminology records in all official languages – are available on line. As the language of international diplomacy changes and moves into new fields, those records are constantly updated.

Jean Gazarian on learning to speak UN-ese

Jean Gazarian
About Jean Gazarian

"As in everything – there is a specialization. If you deal with industry there is a special vocabulary. If you deal with arts, there is also a special language. At the UN - I’m not saying that we speak foreign languages, because the word ‘foreign’ does not exist, but at the UN we had to adjust to the lingo of the Organization. And something that we do at the UN may not necessarily be done across the street. For instance, the word ‘session’ is not understood the same way it is understood in the United States. We use the word ‘meeting’ for that. And there has been over the years an evolution of the language at the UN and now we go by norms, which to those of us who have been at the UN look normal, but for those who may start – new translators, new interpreters may be not ready until they get acquainted with the UN way of saying and writing things."


Interpreters working at the United Nations must be able to recognize, understand, and – in a split second – find the right word or phrase in another language for any of a myriad of issues. The range is as broad as are the concerns of the world, ranging from political discourse to legal affairs, from climate change to human rights, from finance and administration to questions of economic and social development. Because of the knowledge required even before the interpreters step into the booth, their presence in meeting rooms is only the most visible aspect of their duties. They must constantly maintain and improve their language skills and their awareness of new developments in current affairs. No United Nations interpreter is ever at a loss for words.