The UN interpreters

Trinta anos Thirty years later, I remember well the first time I entered the building where the UN interpreters work, in that huge room of the General Assembly. I wasn't yet an interpreter, but I soon noticed the booths upstairs. – There are the conference interpreters. The UN has 6 official languages. And I thought how was it possible...

Onde trabalham os intérpretes da ONU– There are the conference interpreters.

The UN has 6 official languages. And I thought how was it possible for the interpreters to do the simultaneous translation of all these languages. Bilingual since childhood and already trilingual in 1985, I tried to imagine how the thinking of someone capable of simultaneously translating all those languages ​​would work, with that eloquence and richness of subtle details that fill the speech of diplomats.

I left the visit convinced that the UN interpreters were the most intelligent people in the world, owners of a different brain, capable of thinking about very complicated ideas in 6 different languages, an inaccessible people.

But my friend's neighbor, who was staying with me in Mercer Street, was a Spanish interpreter at the UN, a person we knew, apparently normal, discreet, who did not even remotely indicate that she had such exceptional intelligence. Rather, she appeared to be just an ordinary lady, more of a middle-aged New Yorker. But my friend, who was studying music, soon told me that she was not American and that she had a very special profession.

One day, leaving the little building for college, I saw that lady sitting in the cafe, alone at a table on the sidewalk, and I didn't hesitate: my chance had come to talk to that UN interpreter.

She was kind, I thought she spoke English like a native, but she told me in a low voice that she was Mexican, and that she worked as a freelancer, interpreting Spanish in the Committees, not in the General Assembly, she insisted on clarifying. And then, to my utter disappointment, she explained that her working languages ​​were only Spanish and English.

– But what do you do when a delegate speaks Mandarin, or French?

- We have relay - she said.

And he explained that the common language of interpreters at UN headquarters was English, that they all spoke English, in addition to their own language, into which they interpret. She said that UN interpreters always work into their mother tongue. Thus, listeners of the interpretation always hear the speech of a native interpreter.

When a delegate speaks in another language, Arabic for example, the English interpreters translate from Arabic into English, and all the interpreters for the other languages ​​listen to English, which serves as the backbone for building the interpretation in all other languages available in the translation channels. Thus, I understood that our neighbor UN Spanish interpreter always heard the lines in English, through the translation of the English booth, even if the speakers spoke in Russian, Swedish or Japanese.

I was a little disappointed. The fantasy that I had created, that there were humans capable of thinking, speaking and understanding 6 languages ​​at the level of international diplomatic discourses, was just a fantasy.

Thirty years later, I learned that interpreters are people who study a lot, every day, on the most diverse subjects and who master two, three languages, some rare exceptions can master four languages, and they study, all the time, always curious, looking for learn more, from each record, in each of your working languages.

Today, if someone asks me what interpreters have in common, I think that's it, they don't stop studying, in the name of their excessive belief in dialogue, in conversation as an invincible weapon for understanding between people.

Text written by Andréa Bianchi