United Nations Interpreters: An insider’s view – Part 4

In the fourth and final part of Sheila’s bird’s eye view of what it’s like to be a UN interpreter, she addresses mastering sight translation of complex written speeches and practicing interpreting “densely drafted speech.”  Just another technique UN interpreters develop in their training, which requires tons of practice.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of articles about interpreting for the United Nations!



By Sheila Shermet

[United Nations building - Image by jpeter2 via pixabay.com]

UN Client needs and expectations continued.

The second type of meeting is the one you do not find in the world outside. It is crucial to bear in mind that the United Nations is composed of member states who come together to discuss global problems and possible solutions. The UN is also a world stage where countries can convey their positions on any given geopolitical issue or concern. At the high level segment of the General Assembly, we usually see heads of state speak their country’s views directly. In the GA committee meetings however, on disarmament for instance, the delegate is a diplomat assigned to represent his or her country to the United Nations. The diplomat is performing on that world stage, reading a speech for public record. There is no expectation of a back and forth communication, questions or comments. The speech is read out to inform. The very purpose of the meeting and the communication is vastly different. Thus the form of the communication is also different.

“Each word is carefully weighted and pondered. Some of the words carry special meaning politically back home.”

The diplomat, either alone or with a team, writes the speeches to be delivered at such meetings. Each word is carefully weighted and pondered. Some of the words carry special meaning politically back home. For the UN diplomat is not speaking just to the world at large, he or she is speaking to the domestic audience and press as well. These speeches bear more resemblance to a news article or a book than a speech since each word is carefully thought out in advance. Moreover, the style is written and not oral. There is not repetition, lest it be as a rhetorical device. The language is flowery, the style and grammar are often complex and each sentence is dense with information. Working with this type of material is more like doing a translation than interpretation. There is less interpretation because it is not about intent in this case, but what is on the paper. The words matter as much as the ideas.

The diplomats’ meetings are different from other meetings in terms of the purpose of the communication and its form. Finally client expectations of interpreters and quality assessment are also unique. The client in this instance wants word perfect rendition, meaning the larger story must be conveyed, but in doing so, the interpreter must also account for every single word of the text if possible. The interpreter must adapt the interpretation technique in order to meet client expectations. It means getting in much closer, sometimes sacrificing the elegance of the grammar, and accounting for all the words, the details and the overall reasoning. I have coined a term for this approach, I call it” oral translation.”  In terms of the accuracy and precision expected by the client, it is more like a translation.  It is also more like translation because we are working with a carefully written text, which follows the rules of written language more than the spoken language.

“Most people cannot read out loud in one language, listen to someone speaking in another language and think about whether the two match”

How does the client know if we are meeting their needs and expectations? They often monitor the interpretation. A colleague sitting with the delegation behind the speaker will listen to the English booth (usually) to make sure that the English rendition of the Russian, or French or whatever, is exactly what they want. This is the better scenario. The more difficult situation is when the delegate tries to listen to the interpretation while reading the speech out. Most people cannot read out loud in one language, listen to someone speaking in another language and think about whether the two match – at least not continuously. So, they say a few words and pause, listening to the interpretation and then go on. The problem for the interpreter here is two-fold. First, it is nerve wracking, puts pressure on the interpreter and can negatively impact performance. Second, and this is what bothers me, the way the speaker stops hinders my ability to analyze and parse the information. I work much better if the client speaks continuously and let’s me set my own pace. If they stop at an inopportune moment, I might not have the all the information I need to choose the right words or to commit to a sentence.

I know this all sounds pretty daunting and like an impossible situation. After all, the clients have their communication purpose to fulfill and that cannot change. It is our job as interpreters to help them deliver. So, we do the best we can. One advantage we have is repetition. Speeches are like music: there are repetitive patterns. With enough practice and experience, our brains learn the patterns, which is what keeps us ahead of the curve.

Trainers sometimes ask if it is even possible to teach oral translation and how. A blog is not long enough to answer that question in depth. What I will say is that if a person is well trained in what I now call standard interpretation, meaning they have mastered the simultaneity of listening to one idea while they articulate another in a different language, and they are working with ideas and not parroting words, then a next stage of development is to master sight translation of complex written speeches and finally practice interpreting densely drafted speech.  This technique is best attempted towards the end of a training program and requires a great deal of practice in order to master it.

“And when I retire, there will be a slot open – so be on the lookout”

I hope this four part article has helped to dispel some of the myths around interpreting for the United Nations and given readers a better idea of what is involved. Like any organization or any job, there are pros and cons. Being a typical interpreter, I thrive on variety and new challenges. The beauty of the United Nations is that there is always a new topic or a new place to live. Indeed, my family and I have had some great adventures and look forward to more yet to come before I retire in ten years. And when I retire, there will be a slot open – so be on the lookout.


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 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 by jpeter2 via pixabay.com

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