Paul (Interpreter)

How did you learn the languages you use at work?

I have a bachelor's and master’s degree in French and a total of 15 years of experience in French-speaking countries, studying and working. My Spanish came through university courses and almost five years of living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Both languages are constantly being upgraded and maintained.

What attracted you to become a language professional at the United Nations?

Following university in Jamaica (University of the West Indies), I wanted to do something more practical with languages, so I trained at the School of Translation and Interpreting at the University of Geneva (ETI), first as a translator then as an interpreter. After leaving ETI in 1997, I worked alternately as a translator, reviser, and interpreter with various international organizations in Geneva, Brussels, Washington, D.C., Panama, Mexico and The Hague.  By 2008, I decided it was time to focus on interpreting alone and stop flitting back and forth between the two disciplines, especially since there were few institutions that allowed staff to do both. I sat and passed the competitive examination in 2011, then jumped at the chance of joining the United Nations as a staff interpreter when offered a position in 2012. I have never looked back.

How do you find working for the United Nations different from your previous jobs?

One of the bonuses of working as a staff interpreter at the United Nations is that there is still almost as much variety for the in-house interpreter as for any freelance interpreter out there on the open market. The variety of bodies, subject matters, forums, and venues make for an ever-changing environment with unpredictable challenges.

What do you consider to be the key traits of a good interpreter?

A sharp intellect, a curious mind, nerves of steel, and the flexibility to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Dedication and belief in the ideals of the United Nations are antidotes to cynicism and jadedness. 

What part of your job do you consider the most interesting? Why?

There are so many interesting aspects to my job. The good thing is I never know when an assignment will be forever etched in my memory and for what reason. The most memorable assignments so far, however, are those where I interpret for people whose personal stories put a human face and voice to the situations and crises that the international community is trying to resolve. It is always a privilege and a rare opportunity to be their voice and convey not just their words and meaning, but also their emotions and feelings so the world can connect in a meaningful way with their story. 

What challenges do you face in your daily work and how do you handle them?

Speed, speed, and then speed! More and more statements are delivered at breakneck speed and we often do not have a text to follow.

How often do you come across words or phrases you are unfamiliar with? How do you deal with them?

Not very often, thankfully. Whenever I do, a combination of context, attentive colleagues, experience and a handy laptop usually conspire to bring solutions in the nick of time.

What are some of the most difficult assignments you have worked on?

Some of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) drafting sessions are about as technical as it ever gets for me. The fields and vocabulary are highly specialized and require pinpoint precision as the delegates cast and recast the language of the legal provisions to home in on their intended purpose.

What do you think about the evolution of technology in your field of work? How has it affected you?

The changes are increasingly fast and frequent and for the most part work in our favour. We are constantly in dialogue as a service to determine how best to use technology to optimize our service delivery in step with the other teams of our Department.

How does your work fit into the larger framework of the United Nations?

We are critical to the operations of the United Nations, and a cog in a series of essential wheels in the United Nations system. It takes a great deal of work behind the scenes before delegates convene for a meeting; we get to play our part in the grand finale that was many weeks and months in the making by our other hard-working colleagues.

 What is your most memorable story about your work?

This may not be as funny telling it as when it happened, but I'll try. Let’s just say that a delegate may have had a cold or I might have simply misheard… Anyway, the result was that the equivalent of "everything but arms” came out sounding like "everything but the trees”, which is what I said before immediately realizing the mistake and promptly correcting the error. Needless to say, there was a good round of belly laughter in the room, correction notwithstanding. It helped that I was able to laugh at myself too after all, it was funny in the moment!

Do you have any advice for budding language professionals? Any tips on how to prepare for the competitive examinations for interpreters?

Read widely in all your languages, including in your mother tongue; develop your analytical skills; take a genuine interest in the work of the United Nations and learn all you can about its programmes and operations; use our webcasts to practice and learn to become your best cheerleader and critic!










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Working Languages: 


English (main language), French, Spanish