- There are six official languages at the U.N.: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese. The main languages are English and French.
- Each of the interpreters (also called translators) works with interpreting the spoken word. The written word is only called translation. They must be fluent in their main languages and should know two or more of the other languages in the list of six.
- The U.N. interpreters translation the speech from the speaker (ambassadors, usually) into the other five languages. Sometimes, they have the speech written in advance, but not always.
- They use simultaneous interpretation. That means the interpreter works on the fly, without any lapse between the speech in one language and the interpretation into another language. The other type of interpreting is called consecutive interpretation, which means the speaker and interpreter alternate.
- There are six booths--one for each official language--at the U.N. Two interpreters are in each booth, except for Arabic and Chinese. In those booths, they may use three interpreters.
- Sometimes, a relay system is used. If Chinese isn't known by the English speaker, for example, the interpreters in the Chinese booth will interpret the speech into English or French, and then the rest will interpret that version into their own languages.
- The interpreters work in shifts, usually 15-20 minutes in length, since the work is extremely demanding.
- The interpreters are graded in their languages. An 'A' means that is their native tongue. A 'B' means they've mastered that language. And a 'C' means they know the language somewhat. Usually, the interpreter only works with their 'A' language. These people are considered to be the best of the best in translations/interpretations. The competition is extremely stiff.
- If an ambassador doesn't know any of the six languages, they are permitted to bring their own interpreter.
- The profession started during the Nuremberg trials for the Nazi war criminals of WWII.
It's very interesting to study. I can't even imagine messing up and causing a war because of a missed interpretation...but that might make a great plot some day.
Have a great day!
Lost in Translation -- How does interpretation work at the United Nations?
Language competitive examinations
How I became a UN interpreter
UN Interpreters Make Sure Nothing Is Lost In Translation