It is the duty of the United Nations Interpretation Service to facilitate debate among representatives from all 193 member nations. Let’s take a closer look at how this seemingly impossible feat is carried out.
The Big Six
When the UN was founded in 1945 the charter did not explicitly denote official languages of the United Nations. Of course it would be a logistical nightmare to conduct the United Nations in all the official languages of every state, so the first session of the General Assembly promptly established English (specifically British English with Oxford spelling), French, Russian, Spanish, and Chinese its official languages. It wasn’t until 1973 that Arabic was finally added to the list making up the six official languages that exist today.
These languages have both a very large number of speakers and are also geographically widespread; about half of the world’s population speaks at least one of the six languages. The geographic requirement has been a major stumbling block for proponents of adding languages such as Hindustani, which represents a large portion of the population, but a relatively small area.
How Does it All Work?
All representatives at the United Nations are supposed to speak in one of the six languages. The only exceptions being if they bring a written translation of their speech in advance or if they have their own interpreter translating into one of the six languages (which is how Gaddafi was able to give his hour and a half long diatribe in his native Libyan dialect.)
There are 6 sound-proof booths, one for each language, each manned by two interpreters. Audio and video of the speaker is transmitted to the interpreter who provides translation in real time. This method where the speaker and interpreter speak at the same time is referred to as simultaneous interpretation and was first introduced during the Nuremberg trials. The members of the assembly can tap into the feed from any of the six booths using their headphones and thereby hear the speech in their language of choice. As you can imagine the work is pretty intense so the two interpreters switch off every 20 minutes. Also as interpreters only ever translate into their native language if the speech is already in their native tongue they can take a break.
Despite what you may think UN interpreters usually aren’t fluent in all six official languages; three is much more common. Sometimes it’s necessary to use a relay system between the interpretation booths to get everything translated. For example if the Chinese interpreter only knows English and French they can still translate a Russian speech by tapping into the Russia interpreter’s booth which is translating from Russian to English. Typically only one “in-between” language is allowed to minimize translation errors.
What Does it Take to Become an Interpreter?
The minimum requirements are native level fluency in at least one of the six languages and mastery of at least two more, which usually entails about 4 years of training or professional experience along with some time spent living abroad. Prospective applicants must then take the UN’s National Competitive Recruitment Examination before their 32nd birthday and move through two rounds of interviews. While these are the bare minimum requirements UN interpreters are understandably among the best in their field and there is fierce competition for these positions.