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Department for General Assembly and Conference Management

Interpretation Service

In the beginning is the spoken word.  At virtually any meeting held under United Nations auspices that word will be uttered in one of the Organization’s six official languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish, and it will be simultaneously – that is, instantly – interpreted into the others.

The staff of the Interpretation Service (IS) 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.

In addition to simultaneous interpretation, the staff of the Service will be 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 other special events.

The interpreters work in enclosed booths that allow them both to see and to hear the participants of the meeting for which they are interpreting.  They must have readily available all information and documentation regarding the meeting. 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.

Interpreters working at the United Nations must be able to recognize, understand, and – in a split second – find the right word or phrase to interpret 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.

Interpretation Internship Programme

As a part of its outreach and training activities, the IS embarked on an ambitious in-house training programme for prospective interpreters starting in 2015. Such programmes were held for Arabic, English, French and Russian interpreters. The results were impressive; most vacancies have been filled or are in the process of being filled, succession planning has been guaranteed and the rosters of free-lance interpreters have been expanded.


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