United Nations Interpreters: An insider’s view – Part 3

In part 3 of Sheila’s first-hand account of life as a UN interpreter, she takes us through the fundamental objective of our profession—communication—through the UN lens, and also addresses the traditional interpreter–client relationship in the same setting. Stay tuned for the conclusion in part 4! 

Aleyna Maria Tusa, Contributing Editor



By Sheila Shermet

[microphone - conference room]

Two kinds of meetings, client needs/expectations and the resulting two kinds of interpretation techniques used at the UN.

Let’s turn to one last area of confusion and dismay. I say confusion because both teachers of interpretation and newcomers to the field have frequently asked me if UN colleagues interpret “word for word.”  I say dismay because that has been my feeling when confronted with a situation where a delegate was reading a speech at light speed. Dismay can morph into panic if you realize that another member of the delegation is monitoring your interpretation and expecting word perfect accuracy and precision.

Like much at the UN, it has taken me some time to figure out how things work and why. To understand how and why we interpret the way we do at the UN, let’s start with the clients and their purpose or needs. We will then look at clients’ expectations of interpreters in the context of their communication needs and finally how they judge the quality of interpretation.

Let’s first examine the client’s purpose. Be it at a technical meeting of experts on motor vehicle safety, a FIFA executive board meeting, or in the courtroom, the general purpose of clients speaking is to communicate with each other, tell a story of some kind and exchange ideas. Even doctors presenting research and findings at a medical conference do so with the expectation that their ideas will be heard, processed and lead to questions and comments from the audience.  There is a desire for two-way communication. Interpreters for their part, hang their hats on the story and the ideas at the heart of the communication. We generally “go beyond” the words to the “intent” or “vouloir dire” of the speaker. A great example of intent is when a speaker tells a joke. What is the intent? It is to relax the audience, break the ice and make people laugh. In that instance, do the words or even the nature of the joke really matter?

“We generally ‘go beyond’ the words to the ‘intent’ or ‘vouloir dire’ of the speaker.”

What then are the clients’ expectations of interpreters in this fairly common type of meeting? I think most of you will agree that all clients really want is for their story or message to get across. If we can also convey nuance, tone, feelings and details with that message, they are generally ecstatic.  How do they judge the quality of the interpretation? I would venture to say that if they can easily follow the story through interpretation, without too much mental gymnastics on their part, they think it is good. If the communication breaks down completely, they know the interpretation is bad. I might be exaggerating the ends of the spectrum here, but you get the general idea. It is all about the communication: is it happening?

So, you might be wondering, why would it be any different at the United Nations?  In my experience working all over the system, there are two types of UN meetings and clients. First, we have the meetings of “experts” where the delegates are not representing their countries, rather they are at the table because of their professional know-how. These meetings are akin to what one finds in the world outside of international organizations, or what I think of as the “normal world” of the freelance market. Examples would include the lawyers and legal experts who are members of a human rights treaty body (mentioned above for Geneva) such as the Human Rights Committee or the Committee on the Rights of the Child; UNCITRAL meetings of lawyers with expertise in trade law discussing insolvency, or engineers at a meeting of the Economic Commission for Europe discussing the transport of dangerous goods.

Client purpose and expectations are very much like what one finds in the world outside the UN. These experts meet to discuss the development of standards, guidelines, a convention or some other legally binding document in a field of human endeavor. They talk back and forth until they come to an agreement about how to proceed. Usually, they have documents at hand for reference or they are drafting one. They assume the interpretation is working because they are able to communicate. I have never seen communication break down at the UN because most colleagues are highly trained and experienced and have survived a rigorous testing and vetting process to be hired as staff.

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 of conference room by Simah via pixabay.com

Permanent link to this article: http://www.ata-divisions.org/ID/united-nations-interpreters-an-insiders-view-3/

1 comment

  1. Josephine Bacon

    Very much the same situation as interpreters who do not work for the UN, except that in your case, working for a single organization as an employee, your working conditions are strictly applied. As you will know from your past experience before you began working for the UN, conditions can vary massively. As an example, I had an absolutely idyllic experience working for a U.S. organization in Slovakia, accommodation at a five-star hotel, short working hours, almost a vacation! My next assignment was in Copenhagen, staying at a totally budget hotel (my colleague’s room was dirty!) working from a computer screen with videos that were sometimes invisible to the interpreters and being shoved around by security staff. It was horrible! The speeches we had to interpreter were heavily rehearsed and either spoken at breakneck speed or by people with such heavily accented English that they were impossible to understand! Thank goodness it only lasted one day!

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