At an institution where dozens of different languages are spoken, the potential for miscommunication is substantial. However, according to an insider, nothing has ever got lost in translation at the United Nations (UN). In an article published this week by the UN News Centre, interpretation service chief Hossam Fahr revealed that while there may have been a slip of the tongue here and there, the UN’s interpreting department has never been responsible for a significant communication problem. However, there have been occasions where interpreters working there have become caught up in disputes.

Diplomatic relations

The main difficulty arises as a result of the fast pace people speak at, particularly when talking in the General Assembly. The interpreter has to translate what that person is saying and convey it to the listener, while attempting to echo the tone and nuances of the speaker, and also matching their pace – hardly an easy task.

Mr Fahr details one occasion, when a speaker mentioned “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM) and the interpreter, trying to keep up, said simply “Macedonia”. This may not seem like a big deal, except that since 1995 there has stood an UN-brokered accord between the FYROM and Greece under which the former was to be provisionally referred to as the ‘former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ when the two countries were negotiating the name. By referring to it as “Macedonia”, the interpreter sparked heated debate. “Greece was up in arms [and] very, very angry, and I just literally ran to the General Assembly hall and I sat behind the representative of Greece and I apologised profusely on behalf of the interpretation service for this terrible and unforgivable mistake,” Mr Fahr explained. The linguist tried to ease the tension by pointing out that the interpreter who made the error had to use the “shortest version possible” of what he was translating in order to keep up with the pace of the speaker. While it was an “error of judgement”, there was no disrespect meant, he concluded.

This summer, the UN released a short film detailing what it’s like to work there as an interpreter. With 193 countries represented, it is certainly a job that keeps linguists busy. As of September, Mr Fahr works with a team of 137 linguists and the number varies depending on the size of the assemblies planned. Due to the number of languages spoken and the nature of the work that goes on at the UN, Susana Reyes Arreaga, editorial assistant for UN Development Business, noted in the UN Web TV film that effective communication is vital. “It’s really, really, really important that we communicate clearly. Not just among our team, [but] as well with clients from all over the world,” she explained.

Linguistic slip-ups

There are six languages officially spoken at meetings of the Security Council and Assembly and into which all documents are translated: English, French (the two original working languages of the UN), Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Limiting communication to these languages is designed to keep things simple and avoid miscommunication – but of course, many more languages are spoken in the corridors. Indeed, it is the right of representatives of member states to speak in the language of their choosing, providing they supply an interpreter into one of the six official languages.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty interpreters at the UN face is when they hear a word they are unfamiliar with and do not know how to translate it for their listeners. Another difficulty is when the speaker has a thick accent or speaks in a dialect the interpreter is not familiar with, which can also make interpreting tricky. Mr Fahr explained that in these cases the interpreter has a choice: they can either keep quiet and leave a gap, or risk attributing something to the speaker that they did not say. In most cases, linguists go with the first option – although it’s impossible to remain silent for the duration of the speaker’s speech.

Mr Fahr himself made a faux pas when he first began working at the UN. It is not unusual in the majority of languages to have two words that sound the same, and it was this that caused him to slip up. While interpreting for an Arabic-speaking delegate, he misheard the Arabic for ‘independence’ as ‘exploitation’ – a mix-up that completely alters the meaning of what the speaker actually said. Luckily the interpreter realised and corrected his mistake, but the error left him lagging behind the speaker for the rest of the speech.

Ready, set, interpret

A further challenge is the speed at which the delegates the linguists are interpreting speak. To cope with this, many interpreters employ a traffic light system during speeches, where green means fast, yellow means very fast and red means “supersonic”, according to Mr Fahr. The delegates usually only have around five minutes in which to say everything they want, and as the time approaches four to five minutes the light will switch from green to yellow, and once five minutes is up it will change to red.

Earlier this month, the UN launched an essay-writing competition for which it invited college and university students to submit an article about the role multiculturalism plays in a globalised world. The essays must be written in one of the UN’s six official languages and should follow the theme Many Languages, One World.