A story of innovation at the UN as told by the sidekick
One Saturday morning in January 2007 the phone rang as I emerged from the shower. I ran to answer. I had only been in Geneva for about six months, having transferred from Vienna where I served for almost five years. The Chief of the English booth was on the other end.
“Would you like to go on mission with the new Secretary General, traveling to seven countries in ten days. We need someone with consecutive skills to work French, English both ways.”
So, it was, that my colleague, Roger Kaminker, and I accompanied the new Secretary General (SG) on his maiden international voyage, culminating in the Summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa. In Addis he was supposed to meet with many African presidents in the sidelines of the meeting.
Roger, a senior interpreter at the time and since retired, is a forward thinking person with the courage to take risks and the skill to navigate change in the UN. Indeed, he hails from an illustrious family of interpreters- two of the founding members of AIIC were his grandfather and great uncle. Even his father was UN, albeit not an interpreter. With his vast institutional knowledge of the UN, its culture and history, I nicknamed him Mr. UN. It came as no surprise, therefore, when he proposed something radical.
“Listen, I think this new SG would be open to the use of the “bidule” (portable interpreting equipment).”
“How and where will you show it to him?” I asked, somewhat skeptically.
“I’ll just bring it along and see what happens.”
Roger had first encountered the bidule when working with a private market colleague on mission. He saw its potential for use on human rights missions to investigate a country’s record (in the area of torture or summary executions, for example). He convinced the Chief Interpreter in Geneva to purchase one set on a trial basis. The improvement in mission efficiency and client satisfaction was immeasurable because simultaneous saves so much time.
We flew Paris to Kinshasa on a UN military use plane, adapted for civilian use. We worked almost non-stop for the SG from the moment we landed at two in the morning (welcome meeting at the airport) until our departure from eastern DRC after visiting the peacekeeping troops. By this time we had established some rapport with our client. Roger availed himself of a moment of relaxation on the flight back across the continent to bring out the equipment, padding over to the SG’s seat in his slippers to demonstrate it. Ban Ki Moon was very receptive to the idea and agreed to let us try it during the bilaterals (meetings between the SG and a Head of State) in Addis.
To make a long story short, the bidule was a resounding success. SG Ban Ki Moon was a practical man and a savvy consumer of interpretation, as former foreign minister for the Republic of Korea. The equipment made it possible for him to save time and see more people but also to communicate more effectively because he could watch the facial expressions of his interlocutor as he spoke and gauge their reactions. In sensitive diplomatic discussions this could be vital and made for more intimate communications.
Soon, we were using the bidule for all of the SG’s interpretation needs on mission – he even had me use it for a breakfast meeting once. Due to headset and acoustics limitations, we continued to use consecutive for situations where there were more than 20 people, such as press conferences or when the SG addressed peacekeepers or staff abroad. The SG asked if we could get the equipment in at UNHQ, even though Roger and I were based in Geneva. Subsequently, I transferred to New York and had a chance to fulfill the SG’s request. It took some doing to get it adopted by New York (another story for another time), but it has become the standard and even smaller duty stations like Vienna and Nairobi have sets.
Now that you have heard the story, I would like to leave readers with a question- to start a conversation about this. This technology has been around for well over a decade. Why haven’t colleagues introduced the bidule to their heads of state to use on a trial basis and give their clients a chance to make an educated choice?
My experience working with European heads of state in bilaterals with the SG was that they hardly even noticed how we were interpreting. Their attention was focused on the business at hand, not the interpretation. It’s like your car: do you care how it works as long as it turns on and gets you places?
I am not advocating the abandonment of consecutive. Good interpreters need to have several skills available to meet client needs- and sometimes they need time rather than speed in their communications (in negotiations). I am just asking whether it’s time to start thinking about moving beyond tradition to effective service for our clients. Is it time for change?
The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.
Sheila Shermet has been a permanent staff interpreter in the English booth at the United Nations for 14 years. She is currently posted at UN headquarters in New York, as a senior interpreter. Before joining the UN, Ms. Shermet freelanced out of California for 15 years, and has interpreted a variety of topics. She has worked for the U.S. and Canadian governments, FIFA and the Olympics/IOC, for private market entities and with the Organization of American States and Pan American Health Organization.
Ms. Shermet was also full time faculty at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation for 10 years. She co-chaired the Spanish department, ran professional development courses in Brazil and Argentina and for the Arabic and Chinese booths of the United Nations. She has taught Trainer-of-Trainers courses and designed and ran the first on-line/in-house hybrid training course for Russian speaking English booths at the UN.
Image kindly provided by the author.
07/20/2019: This post has been edited lightly and now shows the correct image.
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