Interpreting at the United Nations

Interpreting at the United Nations

One of the most exciting simultaneous interpreting assignments I ever had took place at the United Nations in Geneva. I interpreted for a German delegation from the Federal Foreign Office who participated in a Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council. Since German is not among the official languages of the United Nations (English, French Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese), the delegation brought me and another colleague along so we could interpret the German statements into English and the other Member States’ statements into German. I felt very humbled to interpret in the very impressive Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room.

Source: United Nation - UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Meeting the colleagues

Equally humbling were our colleagues interpreting the review, staff interpreters of the United Nations. Upon arriving in the booth area, the English booth colleagues contacted us to inform us that they had a German C in their combination and would interpret our delegation into English. However, after consulting with our delegation, we had to inform our colleagues that we would interpret the German statements into English (our B language). Since we had received and prepared the German transcript of the initial statement and participated in a comprehensive briefing with our delegation before the meeting, they had asked us to insist on working into our B language – a concept that freelance interpreters are used to, whereas international organisations have their interpreters work from several C languages into their A language, whenever possible. Therefore, our colleagues were not amused, to say the least, but had to accept our delegation’s decision – however not without stating that they would keep a close eye, or rather ear, on our rendition into English.

Mastering the challenge

Needless to say that I was sweating blood during the German statements that needed to be interpreted into English. The other parts of the meeting were equally challenging: every Member State present had a certain amount of time to comment on the German report on human rights. Naturally, we were confronted with lots of non-native English speakers, while relying on the relay from our colleagues for others. In addition, due to the limited time every speaker had, the speed of their statements was impressive. What is more, the UN staff kept handing in the draft statements of the Member States during the session, which meant that lots and lots of paper was given to us while we were live. So while one of us was interpreting, the other one would scan all the papers and try to organise them in the order of speakers in time for the colleague to use during the interpretation – very stressful!

I was lucky to share the booth with a very experienced colleague, together with whom I felt ready for the challenge. Nonetheless, although the meeting “only” lasted for a few hours, I have never felt as exhausted after an assignment as after this meeting. It was comforting to see that my much more experienced colleague felt the same – and even more comforting when the English booth colleagues came to say goodbye and to compliment us on our performance into English – in the end, there were no hard feelings, as it should be between professional colleagues.

Being grateful for the experience

In total, I have benefitted a lot from this unique experience – not only did I get the opportunity to interpret in a truly humbling setting and for a very important cause, I also tested my skills in a really challenging environment, boosted my confidence and learned incredibly much in the process.

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