How did you learn the languages you use at work?
Arabic was spoken at home and used as a language of instruction at school. I started learning English from a very young age in school, before it became my main medium of communication during my university years. I learned French during an intensive pre-university year, solely dedicated to the French language.
What attracted you to become a language professional at the United Nations?
I wanted to become a conference interpreter because I loved languages and hated routine. I love the fact that interpreters are confronted with new challenges every time they turn their microphone on. As for the United Nations, I guess the cliché is true: it is the dream of every interpreting student to work at the United Nations one day. It is the birthplace of modern conference interpreting.
What do you consider to be the key traits of a good interpreter?
A good interpreter, inside or outside the United Nations, must master fully their working languages to be able to express ideas easily, regardless of the topic at hand. A good interpreter is someone who is diligent, assiduous, and ready to admit they don’t know everything, but never rests until they do.
What part of your job do you consider the most interesting? Why?
I am constantly amazed by how close we are, as United Nations interpreters, to world events. Whether working at the Security Council, the General Assembly, or any other organ of the United Nations, the issue under discussion is almost always topical. The meetings we service may at first seem too detached, but policies decided during these meetings soon trickle down to affect the daily life of ordinary citizens.
What challenges do you face in your daily work and how do you handle them?
Interpreters are confronted with numerous challenges in the booth, including the speed at which statements are delivered, the myriad of accents with which they have to familiarize themselves, and the wealth of topics they have to cover. There is no silver bullet to overcome these challenges. Interpreters must continue to practice, adapt their technique, and expand their knowledge. It might seem like a lifelong process, but the resulting sense of accomplishment is unparalleled.
How often do you come across words or phrases you are unfamiliar with? How do you deal with them?
Unfamiliar words and phrases are very common in the booth, especially during meetings of a highly technical nature. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of our colleagues coining terminology in the translation services and making it available through the United Nations Terminology Database (UNTERM), our job is a lot easier. There is, of course, the occasional newly created term that is yet to find its way to UNTERM. In these rare instances, the interpreter’s creative instinct kicks in to try to find the best equivalent under the circumstances.
What are some of the most difficult assignments you have worked on?
Technical meetings are usually the most challenging, because they demand a level of knowledge from the interpreter similar to that of an expert. These include meetings of legal, scientific, and medical experts. Publicized and highly sensitive meetings can also put tremendous pressure on interpreters, given their politically-charged nature. These are mostly Security Council and General Assembly meetings, where controversial resolutions are debated and put to a vote.
What do you think about the evolution of technology in your field of work? How has it affected you?
Technology has had a great impact on the work of interpreters, whether in terms of the sound system and interpreting equipment in the booth, or the personal technologies that facilitate our job inside and outside the booth. Thanks to technology, access to information has never been easier. Although the use of these technologies by interpreters is fairly recent, they will inevitably become an integral part of our work, as new research into the matter sheds light on their innumerable benefits. I doubt, however, that these technologies will eventually replace us as interpreters, because no machine, no matter how sophisticated, can convey the subtlety and complexity of human expression.
How does your work fit into the larger framework of the United Nations?
A United Nations interpreter’s raison d’être is facilitating communication in real time. With the wealth of languages spoken at the Organization, United Nations interpreters make sure everyone, no matter where they come from, can speak and be understood on an equal footing.
What is the most memorable story about your work?
An interpreter’s life abounds with anecdotes of slips of the tongue, double-entendres, and names that are impossible to pronounce without a giggle. I was once left embarrassed during a training session, after I had replaced in Arabic the term “heavily indebted countries” (البلدان المثقلة بالديون) with the “less common” expression “overweight countries” (البلدان المثقلة بالدهون). Suffice it to say that the Chief of the Arabic booth was listening at the time, and was kind enough to point it out in front of everyone.
What are your career aspirations?
I believe that interpretation is a lifelong learning process. Every time we are over the moon after conquering a complicated topic, another one comes along and brings us down to earth. I hope that in 25 or 30 years, I will still have the same passion for the job.
How does being multilingual affect your daily life in New York City?
It could not have been more fitting for the United Nations, the paragon of multilingualism, to have chosen New York City, the true melting pot of cultures, as its headquarters. Whether interpreting into Arabic in the booth, chatting with colleagues in English and French, interacting with New Yorkers on the street, or picking up on Spanish words I hear all around, it is all part of life in this beautiful city.
Do you have any advice for budding language professionals? Any tips on how to prepare for the competitive examinations for interpreters?
I think most interpreting students and aspiring interpreters are aware of the tremendous effort it takes to prepare for the competitive examinations for interpreters. They can check the wealth of material available online for them to consult. To them I will only say: Practice does make perfect. But not any kind of practice. It is all about mindful practice that places quality ahead of quantity. Regardless of the speech you are working on, always remember that any human expression, no matter how complicated or simple, is bound by one universal premise: logic. That is your most loyal friend in the booth. As for language, it is a weapon for you to wield, not to be subdued by. There are infinite ways to say the same thing in one language. Conquer these and you will have conquered interpreting.