Today, as every 24 October since 1948, we celebrate United Nations Day, which marks the anniversary of the entry into force in 1945 of the UN Charter.
The United Nations is the world’s largest universal multilateral international organization, with the legitimacy, convening power and normative impact like no other. Their mission of maintaining peace, advancing human rights and promoting justice, equality and development inspires people from around the globe, counting with offices in 193 countries and 37,000 employees.
The United Nations is also one of the world’s largest employers of language professionals. For that reason, we’ve brought together some very interesting facts about the work languages professionals, who work at the forefront of international affairs facilitating communication and decision-making among Member States. You’ll be surprised!
The UN is one of the few institutions that supports language professionals and recognizes the importance of their work for global security and world peace.
There are six official languages of the UN. These are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
The UN edits and publishes documents in all its official languages. However, the Secretariat staff generally uses English and French for internal communication, while the other four are used during discussions in the Regional Commissions.
At meetings and conferences of Charter or mandated bodies, participants may speak in any of the six official languages. Their words are simultaneously rendered into the other five languages by conference interpreters, who interpret into their main language (usually mother tongue). As an exception, Arabic and Chinese interpreters work both from and into their main language.
Simultaneous interpreting got its start at the Nuremberg Trials, in which judges from the Allied powers (the US, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union) defeated major Nazi criminals between 1945 and 1946. Up until this point, consecutive interpreting had been the typical mode of interpreting, however the trials required a faster technique to help expedite the procedures.
The UN Security Council fully adopted simultaneous interpreting at the beginning of the 1970s.
Most of the early interpreters of the United Nations were natural polyglots who were uprooted by wars and revolutions. For years, the only criterion used to select potential interpreters was the knowledge of two international languages the interpreters had to communicate in.
Interpreting is so demanding that language professionals work in groups of two or even three for each language pair. They alternate at every 20 to 30 minutes to be able to keep the rhythm of the speaker.
Language professionals at the UN are not only translators or interpreters, but also editors, verbatim reporters, terminologists, reference assistants and copy preparers/proofreaders/production editors.
Besides excellent language skills (speaking two UN working languages in addition to their mother tongue) the requires in-depth knowledge in a wide range of interpretation subjects such as politics, human rights, economic and social matters or finance and legal affairs.
Happy United Nations Day to you all! Dedicated to all those language professionals that make international cooperation possible every day.