When it came to writing about interpreting, we all agreed, being fans of 2005 film, The Interpreter, it would be amazing if we could get a UN interpreter to chat to us. We imagined they’d be impossibly elusive and hard to track down but being the determined editorial team we are, we saw this as a bit of a challenge, so started with an email to their press team. When they replied pretty promptly assuring us they’d find someone, our jaws dropped a bit. We were excited and couldn’t wait to chat to whoever they lined up, knowing already that they would be the perfect person to inspire interpreters of the future – after all, what could be more exciting than reciting the speeches of some of the world’s most prominent leaders? I didn’t want to hold my breath though – surely most UN interpreters would be too busy changing the world to chat to the likes of us?
Turns out my view of interpreters as some fantastical breed, different from the rest of us because of their ability to translate words in real time, was actually kind of wrong. It wasn’t long into my interview with Laurence Viguie before I discovered that interpreters for the UN, even ones who have been working for 20 years in the industry and speak four languages, are actually just normal down to earth people who read the morning newspaper (albeit in different languages!) and have to do the school run. And by the time we had finished, I was left with a unique insight into what it’s like to juggle family life and normality alongside one of the most important jobs in the whole world...
How did you come to work as a UN interpreter?
I have always been fascinated by languages. After graduating from the Ecole de Traduction et d’Interprétation in Geneva, I worked as a freelancer for the European Union and Geneva-based international organisations for over 10 years and then became a United Nations staff interpreter in New York in 2006. I am French and my working languages are French (mother tongue), English and Spanish and additionally, I speak German.
What’s a working day like for you?
I start my day helping my children prepare for school, and I take them to school before going to work. During my morning commute, I usually read the newspaper in my languages. Morning meetings last from 10am to 1pm; then during my lunch break, I meet with colleagues, breathe some fresh air or read, as it is essential to take a real break to be fully operational for the afternoon meeting. My afternoon assignment is confirmed at 2pm, and I prepare for the meeting if needed. Afternoon meetings are from 3 to 6pm.
After work, I go out or spend time with my family. I receive the next-day assignments around 7:30pm and read the necessary documents once my children go to bed. Preparation can take from 20 minutes to two hours, depending on the subject. Usually, the more experience you gain, the more elaborate your files and glossaries on each topic are, the less time you can spend on preparation, but it is not always the case. We have a few half-days off per week, which prove essential for us to be able to concentrate better and prepare for our meetings.
What are the meetings like?
The topics of meetings vary from day to day. Last week, for instance, I was assigned to Security Council meetings on Burundi and Cyprus, to meetings on marine biodiversity, to a meeting on women, I interpreted a phone call between the Secretary General and a head of state, and worked on an IT project to improve access to our glossaries.
Wow – that sounds so varied! What do you enjoy most about the job?
I have always loved my job. I really enjoy the intellectual process itself, ie the challenge of interpreting a sentence and a thought simultaneously into another language. Moreover, interpreting constantly broadens my horizons and helps me familiarise myself with a wide variety of topics. This profession has also enabled me to travel to fascinating places. Last but not least, interpreting for the UN means contributing to the UN’s mission around the world and frequently seeing history in the making.
What do you find most challenging?
Very technical speeches and complicated speeches delivered at a very fast pace can be particularly arduous. Obviously, interpreting in high-level meetings broadcast around the world brings additional stress. In my case, very emotional speeches pose a particular challenge and some of the most difficult presentations I have had to interpret so far were descriptions of scenes of torture or murder in conflict situations, or of children suffering from famine.
What qualities do you think makes a good interpreter?
To become a good interpreter, you must have a perfect command of your mother tongue and a complete mastery of your non-native languages; be familiar with the culture of the countries where your non-native languages are spoken, which means you must have spent time in those countries; have a good training; have a broad general knowledge and intellectual curiosity - constantly learn about the world and new topics has to become a way of life; have the ability to understand difficult concepts quickly; be patient, flexible, ready to adapt instantly to different situations; be able to work under stressful conditions; and lastly respect the principles of neutrality and confidentiality.
That’s quite a list – it doesn’t seem like an easy job at all. You’re often interpreting for very high profile people delivering very important speeches in real time; does the pressure ever get to you?
The better prepared you are to face a stressful situation, the better you withstand the pressure. The same goes with interpreting. Therefore, I prepare for my meetings well and I regularly update my glossaries, follow current events, and read books or watch documentaries on different topics. If I know in advance I will be interpreting a very high-profile figure, I analyse and read past speeches. I also strive to maintain a good work-life balance. It is important to use lunch breaks and half-days off intelligently, to go out, have other centers of interest and get enough sleep. If you are tired, finding the right word will prove more difficult.
Can you tell us about any particularly interesting or exciting speeches you’ve had to interpret for the UN?
I am lucky to have had the opportunity to interpret many interesting speeches and work in fascinating meetings here at the UN and in my freelance career. The list is long but I will never forget seeing Mandela in person, or hearing Bill Gates explaining the Internet of the future 15 years ago.
It is also a very interesting experience to accompany the Security Council on a mission to Africa, or to interpret phone calls or bilateral meetings between the Secretary General and heads of state. Sometimes, the situation itself is captivating as the meeting you are working in is (or will soon be) on the front page of newspapers.
Do you ever feel uncomfortable interpreting something you disagree with or that might be a bit controversial?
Yes, but interpreters must be neutral. We are trusted because we respect the principles of neutrality and professional secrecy. Besides, as long as people engage in a dialogue, negotiations can continue on and conflicts might be solved or avoided.
What advice do you have for people hoping to follow in your footsteps?
I have lots of advice to offer! First of all, make sure this is the right profession for you; read about it and meet professional interpreters if you can. Secondly, be aware that your languages will determine your market; choose well based on your interest and the needs of the market.
As it can take years to be really established in the profession, be prepared to do another job on the side, but choose a side job that gives you enough flexibility to accept your first contracts, even at the last minute. I taught and did many translations on the side. Doing written translations helped me to be much more precise in my choice of words.
I would also say, be constantly curious and broaden your general knowledge. Read, talk to experts, watch documentaries, take courses in person or on line on the topics you should be familiar with (economy, current affairs, law, history, etc.). I always recommend students and beginners to read every day an article on a topic they are not interested in and/or know nothing about. It improves your knowledge and vocabulary, and lowers stress when a speaker broaches this topic!
Choose a good interpretation school, with teachers who are professional interpreters and know the market, and spend time in the countries where your non-native languages are spoken. Never forget that your mother tongue is key though; the better you express yourself, the better you master all the nuances and registers of speech, the easier it will be for you to find the right word. Read specialist magazines but also good literature.
Study hard. I do not believe in shortcuts. Your languages might be so attractive or sought after that you will land many contracts quickly… but your flaws will be easily noticed if you do not know your topics and languages well. Remember you can still become an interpreter if you were not born in a family where languages are spoken on a daily basis, which was my case, but it takes hard work.
I think that’s the most advice any of our experts have ever imparted – thanks! If you like the idea of being an interpreter, a course could be just the start. Have a look at the ones on offer and who knows, you could be joining Laurence in working at for the UN one day!