The ABC of United Nations Interpreting

When it comes to interpreting at the UN, it’s all about focusing on your core languages. 

Since the release of my video1 on the language requirements for interpreters in the United Nations (UN), I’ve been contacted by many aspiring interpreters with questions that are more or less the same.

Basically, they want to know whether they qualify, and they also wonder what else they could/should be doing to merit consideration as a future UN interpreter. At some point in their messages, they’ll offer their own elaborate plan to learn this and that language and travel to this and that place.

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

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 six languages, although I know that is more my ambition speaking than cool-headed thinking.

Note that in one paragraph Hai tries to squeeze all six languages he believes he’ll need to break into the UN, plus Russian as a backup. 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 UN is concerned, Chinese and English is all he would ever need (to qualify as a Chinese interpreter).

Hai’s approach springs from a skewed yet popular notion that more languages—even non-UN languages—may somehow compensate for a less than ideal mastery of the few that do count.

The ABC System

What Hai and many others fail to realize is that working as an interpreter for the UN—whether as a freelancer or staff interpreter—requires specificity. Regardless of how good you are as an interpreter, you’ll only be considered if you understand and adapt to the specific language requirements of the job.

In the high-end conference environment of multilateral organizations such as the UN, the European Institutions, and the Bretton Woods organizations, you’re only supposed to interpret into your native languages. The ways in which you can use the other languages under your belt varies, in greater or lesser degree, according to a number of factors. To better grasp this concept, one first needs to understand the ABC system of language classification used in professional interpreting circles:

  • An A language is usually the language you were born into (a.k.a., your native language). It could also be your main language of schooling, if your education—from high school and beyond—was completed in a different language. It’s a language you totally master and can use confidently and correctly in formal or informal settings. A few interpreters will have two A languages.
  • A B language is a language you understand and speak fully, but which is still a foreign language to you nonetheless. It’s usually a language you learned in school or through on-off interactions and experiences in a foreign linguistic and cultural environment. For use in the booth, a B language must be one you speak impeccably. It’s a language you can interpret from as well as into (under certain circumstances).
  • A C language is a language you understand, but one you’re not fully comfortable speaking. C languages are usually numerous, and in time it’s easy for interpreters to increase their repertoire of passive languages. These are languages one will interpret from, but never into.

In interpreting, less is usually 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, to excel at that level, 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 upon which you rely in the booth. In that context, it would be wise to limit their number. At least while you’re trying to get your foot in the door at the UN.

Now that number will vary depending on the booth you’re targeting. For example, to qualify as a staff English booth interpreter in the UN setup, you must have either Spanish or Russian as a passive language (i.e., C-level), in addition to French. The same holds true for French booth interpreters (in this case, with the addition of English). This is done in an effort to minimize relay, the system whereby interpreters will interpret from other interpreters if they don’t understand the language spoken on the floor.

Now, as a future Chinese interpreter, our good friend Hai will only need two active languages to qualify as UN material: an A-level Chinese and a B-level English (or French). The same can be said of Arabic interpreters. They need a native command of Arabic and a competent, strong command of either English or French. Adding a few more passive UN languages would certainly help and make Hai more versatile, but this isn’t a requirement.

Some Advice

With that in mind, the advice to Hai, and others facing a similar dilemma, is to take the easy route:

Flex your Chinese and English muscle exclusively for some time, until you qualify as a Chinese interpreter.

If you’re more comfortable in English, then you’ll need to polish your French and hammer that Cyrillic script twice as fast into your skull. Few pleasures compare to the joy of being able to converse, read, and interact in beautiful and complex languages such as Korean, German, and Japanese. Yet as non-UN languages, they will do little to nothing in helping you materialize your dream.

Finally, 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 publicly to make a point. Rest assured nothing in my message is meant to discourage you. On the contrary. Frankly, with your drive, it won’t be long before you become a UN interpreter in your own right.

See you in New York. Or Geneva, for that matter.

  1. “So You Want to Become a United Nations Interpreter,”

Ewandro Magalhães is an experienced conference interpreter and interpreter trainer. He has a master’s degree in conference interpreting from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. A former senior staff and chief interpreter in the United Nations system, he is the author of Sua Majestade, o Intérprete—o fascinante mundo da tradução simultânea. He is the vice president of communications of KUDO, Inc., a cloud-based platform for multilingual conferencing and online collaboration. You can read his blog at Contact:

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