For UN Interpreters, Less is More

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Since the release of my video on the language requirements for interpreters in the UN, I have been contacted by many aspiring interpreters with questions that are, mutatis mutandis, more ore less the same.

Basically, they want to know whether their language combination qualifies and they also wonder what else they could/should be doing to merit consideration as a future UN interpreter. And then they follow that up with their own elaborate plan to learn this and that language and travel to this and that place, as if answering their own question.

The latest of such emails — and by far one of the most gracious — came from Hai, a young man from China/Singapore. After passionately sharing his benign obsession for languages in general and interpreting in particular, he outlined his game plan as follows:

I have a strong mastery of both English and Chinese ( I grew up bilingual), took a good amount of French and a little bit of German in college, self-studied Japanese and Korean, and have been trying to beat the unfamiliar Cyrillic script into my head (…)

One of my personal goals in life is to master 6 languages, although I know that that is more my ambition speaking than cool-headed thinking.

Note that in one same paragraph my dear friend Hai tries to squeeze all six languages he believes he will need to break into the UN plus Russian as a backup. And while I fully understand and sympathize with his desire to have it all (haven’t we all been there?), the irony is that as far as the United Nations is concerned, Chinese and English is all he would ever need (to qualify as a C interpreter).

As indicated in my video on relay, specific passive languages are needed for English and French interpreters in the UN. You basically must have French or English, respectively, plus solid passive command of either Russian or Spanish (or both).

Hai’s approach is typical of that of a dozen other people who have written to me since the video came out. It springs from the skewed notion that more languages — even non-UN languages — may somehow compensate for a less-than-ideal mastery of the few that do matter.

The truth of the matter is that for the most part, in interpreting, less is more. And the reason is simple: focus! To excel as an interpreter, you need to tell the core from the fringe, sort the wheat from the chaff. Only after you’ve discarded what you don’t need can you commit all you have into whatever is left. And believe me. At times it will literally take all you’ve got.

That need to focus continues to hold true when it comes to choosing  your working languages. You’ll need to increase your knowledge and vocabulary exponentially in the languages on which you rely in the booth. In other words, you will need to limit their number to the absolute minimum. At least while you’re trying to break the UN nut open.

With that, allow me to talk directly to Hai now:

If your Chinese is really native, I suggest you take the easy way. Flex your C and E muscle exclusively for some time, until you are through. If you you’re more comfortable in English, then you’ll need to hammer that Cyrillic twice as fast into your skull. Sure, Korean, German and Japanese are all beautiful and useful languages. Few pleasures compare to the joy of being able to converse, read and interact in as such complex languages. Yet they are not UN languages and will therefore do little to nothing in helping you materialize your dream.

And by the way, do invest in that Master’s Degree. Long gone are the days where self-taught interpreters could easily break into the big league. Look for a reputable school and give it your best. Not only will you learn new things, you will also enlarge your circle of influence, guaranteed.

Finally, dear Hai, do forgive me for using your message and concern to make a point. I can assure I have as much admiration for your enthusiasm as you have for my work. Rest assured nothing in my message is meant to discourage you. On the contrary. And with your drive, it won’t be long before you become a UN interpreter in your own right. Mark my words.

Image credit: Personal Creations/Flickr

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Do you want to work for the UN? What is your game plan?
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