Winding Path to UN Interpreting Ends (Hopefully) With Appointment

United Nations Interpreter Exam

Interpreting for the United Nations is nothing if not high stakes. (For context, the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials are widely considered the start of professional simultaneous interpreting.) It follows, then, that the UN rigorously vets potential linguists, from translators and editors to interpreters.

The breadth of subject matter and perfect command of language required for UN interpreters make these positions revered among language professionals as signifying the elite of interpreting.

First, candidates must qualify for the Competitive Examinations for Language Positions (CELP) to even be in the running. Although requirements vary by exam, candidates — no older than 56 years old, to account for mandatory retirement by 65 — must hold a degree relevant to the job in question and take the exam in their “main” language, which may or may not be their native tongue.

Meetings of the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Economic and Social Council are conducted in the UN’s six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Naturally, interpreters must also have an excellent command of other official languages of the UN.

Arabic and Chinese interpreters work into their main languages as well as into English or French, the UN’s working languages; while English, French, Russian, or Spanish interpreters need high-level oral comprehension of two other official languages.

The UN recently finished screening applicants for German translator positions (likely to support the small German translation team working out of New York headquarters), plus a round of potential French translators, editors, and verbatim reporters.

For some sense of scale, the organization identified 38 applicants from 2020 invited to interview for Spanish translator, editor, and verbatim reporter positions. Upcoming CELPs include a 2021 examination for English interpreters and 2022 examinations for Arabic and Chinese interpreters.

Cream of the Crop

Part 1 of the exam is a career-specific skills test; that is, interpreters are judged on their ability to interpret. It can take up to four months for Part 1 tests to be graded. According to the UN, candidates with unsuccessful applications at this point in the process “should not be discouraged, but continue building [their] education / experience to apply for future examinations.” In fact, there is no limit to the number of times a candidate can apply for the CELP.

For those invited to move forward, Part 2 of the exam comprises additional skills-based tests and an interview, conducted in either English or French. The goal of the interview is to determine whether a candidate’s skills, abilities, and personal qualities are a good match for the job. The interview and tests may be held remotely or in person at a testing center, in which case candidates must submit handwritten responses.

Then come the results, by e-mail and, for a select few, posted (by application number) on the UN website. Once interpreters make it to this stage, they are placed on language-specific rosters. The UN “recruits” interpreters from this pool which, in many ways, represents the cream of the interpreting crop.

Even so, according to the UN, “placement on a roster does not entail an automatic offer of employment and that openings may not arise for several months or even a few years in some cases.”

And while some of these opportunities may be temporary or contractual, the UN highly recommends that linguists accept an offer of appointment, “as declining may affect their prospects of receiving a subsequent offer.”

There is no limit to the number of times a candidate can apply for the Competitive Examinations for Language Positions — United Nations

Linguists are typically offered an initial fixed-term appointment at the P-2 or entry level, although very experienced professionals may start out at the P-3 level. After a trial period of two years, they are considered for a continuing appointment and possible promotion.

With that goal clearly in mind — as former UN staff interpreter (now Chief Language Officer at remote conference interpreting platform KUDO) Ewandro Magalhães attested in the blog post, So You Want to Become a UN Interpreter — the multi-step process “can drag on for a considerable amount of time, so…try to add patience to the list of virtues you will need to demonstrate.”