Sheila Shermet, a veteran UN interpreter, shares an insider’s view in this first of several articles focusing on how things work at the UN, its duty stations around the world, resident teams of staff interpreters, the different interpretation techniques used and much more.
Enjoy being a fly on the wall!
By Sheila Shermet
When I graduated from interpretation school in the eighties, the word on the street was that to get a job as a staff interpreter at the UN, you had to wait for someone to drop dead. With the advent of the internet, urban myths are much easier to dispel. Indeed, if the reader is interested in working for the UN, the place to start would be the outreach website for language professionals. A quick google search of “interpreting at the UN” will bring you to several sites. One is for the Department of General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM), which is the largest department in the UN secretariat and provides all services for meetings of the member states. Many of these services are document related and include editing, translation, verbatim reporting. Conference service officers ensure the smooth functioning of the meetings and provide documents to both delegates and interpreters. Interpretation is no doubt the smallest section within DGACM. The second site that google will find, pertains specifically to “outreach.”
Outreach is a relatively new activity in the organization and has become necessary because of the difficulties in filling staff positions in DGACM, especially in the language professions. The current hiring crunch and the fact that there were fewer openings when I graduated can be explained by demographics and history. Retirement has been mandatory, at age 60 or 62, for all staff since the establishment of the organization a little over 70 years ago. Once the organization was up and running, people were hired to fill needs as they arose until there was no longer a need for as much hiring. The baby boom generation filled most of the slots over the last 50 years and all turned 60 or 62 at the same time, leading to mass retirements. The language situation is further complicated because Arabic did not become an official language until the 70’s.
A little over ten years ago, the UN started looking ahead and realizing that a wave of people was about to retire, which would have ramifications in a few areas. The first consequence is that it would have to fill so many posts at once. The second major impact would be for the retirement fund. A number of measures have been taken to address the issues. For staff hired after January 2014, the mandatory retirement age has been raised to 65. Starting in 2017, current staff will be able to voluntarily postpone retirement until age 65. Staggering retirements is one approach to the problem of replacing staff.
However, these solutions do not entirely solve the problem in language professions, which are more specialized. Native English or French speakers with translation or interpretation skills who also speak French and Russian are not exactly hanging around on street corners! Thus, DGACM decided to create the Outreach program to help hiring managers in “succession planning.” As part of this effort, a special “Outreach” website was created.
Although the languages required are listed on the sites, the way we work is perhaps worth further explanation. There are six booths and each one works slightly differently.
English and French are both “official” and “working” languages of the UN, which for the purposes of interpreting means that the French and English booths are “pivot” booths, i.e. the other booths take relay from us for the languages they do not speak. Now, this is difficult to explain, so hang on and try to visualize. The English booth is staffed with one interpreter who works from French and Spanish and the other from French and Russian. In the French booth, one person covers English and Russian and the other English and Spanish. We work in half hour shifts like most conference interpreters, but the Spanish speaker in the English booth (called the hispanisant) needs to work the same half hour as the Russian speaker (russisant) in the French booth. In this way, all languages are always covered in the event that someone steps out of the booth. If the hispanisant is absent from the English booth when Spanish is spoken, the russisant colleague will take from the French booth. Booths that typically take relay from English, such as the Chinese, will then be on “double relay,” which is not optimal. English and French booths therefore rarely leave for full half hours and will delay leaving if they know a Spanish or Russian speaker is about to take the floor. The Spanish and Russian booths work much like the freelance conference world. They each have two passive languages. Spanish has French and English. Russians have English and either Spanish or French. The Arabic and Chinese booths are bilingual booths and work in teams of three. Interestingly, the Chinese work in twenty minute shifts while the Arabs do half hours. The Arabic booth is usually staffed with some colleagues working into French and others into English. In Chinese, most work into English.
Stay tuned for the second part of this article, which focuses on the four main UN duty stations around the world with resident teams of staff interpreters and the substantive work of each. Given the confusion I often encounter about how we interpret at the UN, it would be worthwhile to explore the different interpretation techniques we use and why we change our approach, depending on the nature of the topic and expectations of our clients.
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 etereuti via pixabay.com