Enjoy learning more about UN interpreters. So much fun to be a fly on the wall!
By Sheila Shermet
Like most people, I associated the United Nations with New York City and the General Assembly. Indeed, after passing the staff interpretation exam and the interview, I just assumed that I would be offered a job in New York. Rumor had it that everyone had to start at headquarters to get a more comprehensive understanding of the UN. Imagine my surprise when human resources called and asked if they could make me an offer in Vienna, Austria. At the time, I vaguely knew that the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) was in Vienna and that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. Now, having worked in Vienna, Geneva and New York (my current residence) over the last 15 years, I believe that I have a better grasp of how the substantive work of the UN is distributed over the four main duty stations. Here is how it works, starting with New York.
The first week of the General Assembly (GA) in September, what we call the “high level week” when heads of state and government address the assembly, is really just the beginning of a session that typically lasts until Christmas. The agenda for the GA consists of hundreds of items – far too many for a body of 190 members to cover in three months. They are therefore divided by theme to be covered by six major GA committees. The First Committee, for instance, deals with all disarmament related issues, including nuclear weapons, conventional, small arms and light weapons, all the way to chemical. The Second committee deals with finance and development issues, the Fifth with the UN budget,the Sixth with legal matters, ranging from international treaties to human rights law. A number of bodies that meet outside of New York then report to one of these committees (because they report to the GA), according to the topic. The Third committee, for example, deals with social and economic development, which covers a wide range of subjects. Thus, both the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs report to it.
Much of the substantive work of the UN is done in one of the three duty stations outside NY, i.e., Geneva, Vienna or Nairobi. I often compare my working at three UN duty stations to Goldie Locks and the Three Bears. Remember? One chair was too small, one too big and one just right? One was a great place to live, but the work involved the same six topics all the time. Another was a boring city but the work was interesting. One had a lot of variety but also a lot of stress and unpredictability. You get the picture. So, I lived in Vienna for almost five years. For my family, it was the best duty station in many regards. Our three boys were ages 18 months, four, and nine years old respectively when we arrived. It is a great place to raise kids. For instance, every park has different playground equipment and there is a free pool for kids in every district (what you can afford when you don’t spend all your money on B-52 bombers). Vienna is the opposite of New York in that all “collective systems,” be it public transportation or health care, provide excellent service. There are no subway delays, the airport never shuts down for snow, and the power never goes out because of a storm. I could go on and on about what a livable and affordable city it is. Turning to the work, Vienna is a more a technical duty station. It covers nuclear non-proliferation, narcotic drugs and outer space. UNCITRAL, one of my personal favorites, is the UN body that works on International Trade Law addressing topics such as insolvency, electronic commerce and secure transactions. These meetings and their documents are both legal and technical in their detailed focus.
Geneva is the center for human rights – with the Human Rights Council based there. It conducts the “Universal Periodic Reviews” of member states’human rights records. I personally loved working for the human rights treaty bodies, which oversee implementation of the many human rights conventions such as Rights of the Child or Political and Civil Rights (considered the most important). The CD (Conference on Disarmament, which negotiates disarmament treaties), UNCTAD (trade and development) and the International Law Commission (International Treaty Law, Humanitarian Law, etc.) are some of the other substantive bodies that meet in Geneva. The area is beautiful with the Alps as a backdrop to life. Because it is expensive, people live scattered in towns around Geneva and across the border in neighboring France. It was my favorite duty station from the point of view of the work. Nairobi deals with biodiversity and the environment. It is a smaller duty station and colleagues tell me that about 40% of the work is travel – mostly around Africa and the Far East. I have not experienced it yet personally – but there is still time!
The teams of staff interpreters in the four duty stations vary in size. Geneva and New York have some 20 interpreters in the English booth alone, with all languages accounting for well over 100 staff members; whereas Vienna and Nairobi are smaller, where all six booths are staffed with a total of some 20-25 interpreters.
In the next part of this ongoing article about working at the UN, I will address client needs and expectations and how that impacts our interpretation techniques.