Lost in Translation?

Kelly Schulz

Multilingualism is, for me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the UN. Yesterday as I encountered a language barrier, I was reminded of how important the interpreters are for the work of the UN. After mustering up the courage, I approached the delegate from Paraguay to thank her for the statement she had delivered on the importance of solidarity. As soon as I saw the blank look on her face, I knew we had a problem—I didn’t speak Spanish, and she didn’t speak English. Thankfully, her English-speaking colleague came to the rescue and the communication crisis was averted.   

Each day at the Commission, we listen to speeches given by delegates from all over the world in many different languages. This is made possible by the UN’s interpretation system, which consists of a team of interpreters and a special listening device at each seat. Every word spoken in the conference room during the Commission is simultaneously translated into the six official languages of the UN: French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and English. Each seat is equipped with a rather ridiculous-looking plastic earpiece (see above). You can select the language of your choice by switching channels. At one point I was so in awe of this system, that I cycled through all six channels over and over again even though I could only understand the English channel!