“At the United Nations, language should not be a barrier”

For Lama Azab, a French and Arabic interpreter at the United Nations headquarters in New York since 2016, impartiality and the ability to adapt are essential qualities for this demanding job.
An inside look at one of the UN interpreters at work on the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly's general debate.

Interview by Laetitia Kaci

What are the main qualities required to become an interpreter?

Apart from certain obvious qualities, such as having a command of the working languages, timing and general knowledge, it is essential for an interpreter to understand the issues at stake in a situation. You must always be aware of what is going on in the discussion.

It is also important to remain impartial. To ensure that all participants are treated equally, we have to set aside our personal opinions and feelings, regardless of what is being discussed. It is a constant challenge to remain neutral, to control one’s emotions, and guarantee equality, while respecting the diversity of views of all the participants. 

What daily difficulties do you face?

Being an interpreter means knowing how to adapt. It is second nature in this profession. You have to be able to pass from one topic to another, from one language to another, without being thrown off by the speed at which a speaker is talking, and so on.  

It is a profession that teaches one modesty, because we will never be as knowledgeable as the experts. But in order to be up to the task, we have to keep learning all the time. This is essential when dealing with subjects as diverse as disarmament, human rights, or the budget. Recently, like most professionals around the world, we have had to learn to work remotely. This has meant a lot of adaptation technically.

Is there anything special about doing this job at the United Nations? 

A UN specificity is the permanent concern for multilingualism. We are committed to guaranteeing that each participant understands what is being said and that they, themselves, are understood. This is essential, as it is the condition for ensuring that all participants can be equal during an exchange. Language must not be a barrier, but a tool for understanding.

Terminology is also important within the United Nations. It ensures that when we talk about something, we all use the same words to convey the values of the UN to everyone. The concept of sustainable development, for example, was hardly used in Arabic a few decades ago. Today, this expression has entered into common language. It is thanks to colleagues from the United Nations language services (translators, terminologists, proof-readers, and editors) that we are able to be properly prepared before going into the booth. The interpreter is one link in a vast chain that makes it possible to hold a conference.

The Courier, a multilingual magazine since 1948

The language coverage of The UNESCO Courier magazine has fluctuated over the years. In 1957, it was published in Russian. Later, Arabic, German, Italian, and Japanese editions followed. In 1967, Hindi and Tamil editions were launched, and from 1968 to 1973, the Courier also appeared in Dutch, Hebrew, Persian, Portuguese and Turkish. In 1988, a record thirty-five language editions were published. Discover our archives here.

Translation: from one world to another
April-June 2022
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