Highly skilled interpreters perform a vital service at UN meetings, where delegates come together to present their views in one of the six official languages or in their own tongue. A UN Interpreter, at work in a booth over looking a meeting room. (1965) UN Photo
18 October 2013 – Out of potential linguistic chaos, a corps of over 100 United Nations interpreters brings order and comprehension as speaker after speaker from around the planet takes the podium of the General Assembly to give their annual speeches at the General Debate, discusses war and peace in the Security Council, or delves into arcane details of administrative and budgetary affairs in one of the Assembly’s six specialized committees.
UN interpreters have even inspired Hollywood: the linguistic specialists were featured in a 2005 political thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. The Interpreter, the first movie to be shot inside UN Headquarters in New York, was directed by the late Sydney Pollack, who said at the time: “You have tons and tons of visitors but most of the people…don’t know what the UN looks like and don’t understand how the UN works and don’t know what its day-to-day business is.”
Despite all the possibilities for “lost in translation” moments, the UN Interpretation Service runs remarkably smoothly. “We’ve never caused a problem, a slip of the tongue here, a slip of the tongue there, perhaps,” Interpretation Service Chief Hossam Fahr told the UN News Centre in an interview.
But this does not mean the team has not at times found itself inadvertently embroiled in burning disputes, compounded by the speed at which some delegates speak, such as the issue of the name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
A UN-brokered accord in 1995 between FYROM and Greece committed the two countries to negotiate on the name issue under UN auspices, with the republic to be referred to provisionally as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, pending a final solution. The accord obliges both Athens and Skopje to continue negotiations under the auspices of the Secretary-General to try to reach an agreement.
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