The United Nations employs 142 simultaneous interpreters, whose job it is to orally translate speeches at the very moment they are being delivered.
A simultaneous interpreter listens to words spoken in one language and instantly relates in another language what is being said. Unlike translating a written document from one language to another, simultaneous interpretation is live, it is done almost instantaneously, without recourse to reference books or other aids.
The work has been likened to “driving a car that has a steering wheel but no brakes and no reverse.”
All UN speeches are simultaneously interpreted into each of the organization’s six working languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. A UN diplomat who wants to use a language other than one of these six, Tamil, say, or Quechua, must provide his own interpreter.
The first step toward becoming a UN staff interpreter is to take a comprehensive language test, which is open to anyone with a college degree in languages. The exam consists of oral and written sections that are designed to test speed, accuracy, clarity of accent, and familiarity with idiom.
The UN administers tests when it decides it needs more interpreters. It may be given at any of the UN’s sixty-seven information offices scattered around the world.
A job candidate who passes the test is granted a personal interview so that the UN may learn more about the candidate’s character and background.
Interpreters must be able to interpret all speakers accurately and dispassionately, regardless of their own political opinions. Since interpretation is more a scholarly exercise than a political one, candidates are not screened specifically for political biases. Such policing is not necessary: a staff interpreter who editorializes on the job will not last long at the UN.
Although the interview is not, theoretically at least, a further test of language skills, the interviewer might well use more than one language during the session; once a person has passed the test, the superiority of his language skills is accepted without question.
A few things can happen to a candidate who successfully negotiates the interview. If there are staff openings, the candidate can be recruited for a job, sometimes just on a temporary basis to help out when the work load is especially heavy.
If there are no immediate openings, he can be placed on a roster of qualified candidates from which future openings will be filled. UN officials have found, though, that many test takers are angling for an altogether different option: a letter of recommendation that says they have been positively screened for UN interpretation.
That letter can be worth quite a bit more in the private sector than at the UN, where salaries for simultaneous interpreters start at just over $20,000 a year, scarcely a livable income in New York City.