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Language and the United Nations Essay

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Updated: Jan 7th, 2022

The prevailing diversity of people, as witnessed in the United Nations (UN) has, is, and continues to draw the attention of different people. How the nations came together and how they understand and work together despite their variations remains the biggest question. However, one can ask, ‘What is the United Nations?’ The UN, first used by the former US president Franklin Roosevelt, and founded in 1945 immediately after World War II, is an organization, whose sole agenda is to foster international peace, friendly relations, social progress, and security, among others. Currently, the UN has a membership of 192 states with its work reaching all the corners of the world. It is obvious that these nations differ in many ways, politically, economically as well as communication-wise. This paper addresses the latter though all make use of language. Therefore, following the wide range of languages used around the world, one can be curious to know whether the nations experience any barrier as far as communication is concerned. He/she can also seek clarification on the number of languages represented in the organization. Building on these mind-triggering questions, as experienced by many people, this paper seeks to clarify the facilitation of communication in the UN. Do they use interpreters?


Whether the UN does or does not use interpreters triggers the minds of many people. While some insinuate that, UN officials employ a common language in their communication, others, following the difficulty associated with the aforementioned possibility, imagine the use of interpreters in the organization. It is possible to tell which can and which cannot work between the two possibilities. For instance, with a hint of the organization’s coverage, it might prove hard for all the UN to employ a common language comprehensible to all members. However, this is possible but the conditions are too high for one to meet. Every official in such a scenario will be required to familiarize himself/herself with such a language, which may not be friendly to the majority. The issue of interpreters remains the only possible option. Therefore, the UN has a department that strictly checks the issue of interpretation, otherwise referred to as ‘The United Nations Interpretation Service (UNIS). This service as Howard says, “…provides interpretation from and into Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish for meetings held at UN Headquarters, and those at other locations which the department is responsible for servicing” (23). Expounding on this issue, the UN has come up with a standard number of languages demanding each official to familiarize himself/herself with at least one of them to minimize the number of interpreters required. The issue of captioning too triggers the minds of many people.


The question of whether the UN employs captioning of languages is subject to discussion. Captioning is possible but it can be of no use to other people still in the organization. However, some plausible reasons exist explaining why captioning is not worth employing in the UN. One has to consider the number and the diversity of the people accommodated by the organization. For instance, there is a diversity of languages and bearing in mind that captioning can be effective if only one language appears on the screen, the language chosen to appear will not be familiar to the majority and hence not a good way of facilitating communication. In addition, blind people are also featured in the organization. As a result, it will make no sense to communicate using a model that requires people to use their eyes, while some cannot see at all. Moreover, what appears on the screen corresponds with the speed of the person bringing it, and therefore there are high possibilities of his/her speed differing from the speed of the reading of the audience. Therefore, some words will just be disappearing unread, affecting the message he/she wants to deliver to the audience. Captioning is possible but not a conceivable mode of communicating in the UN. Since the use of interpreters remains the only effective way, one can be curious to know how the organization chooses the interpreters.

Criterion of Choosing

Before one is preferred for in any job, there are underlying qualifications he/she should possess and interpreters are not an exception. Language is a key requirement for these people. The interpreter must have majored in at least one of the UN’s preferred languages. It is possible for one to have majored in one of these languages but still fail the test of a UN interpreter. Therefore, they must go through other protocols. For instance, for one to pass for a UN interpreter, he/she must be a college graduate. In fact, Lisbon comes in handy to say, “A university degree is required to become a United Nations interpreter” (11). However, this is only the ‘pass mark’. Fluency is an additional requirement that goes hand in hand with the language majored in. Experience is a crucial necessity considered by the UN in their choosing of their interpreters. One has to have several-year experience in the interpreting sector before he/she scoops a chance as a UN interpreter. Another question of where the interpreters come from arises.

Where do they come from?

The issue of who provides the interpreters too is subject to debate. While some think that each country provides its own, others claim that they (interpreters) are part of the UN staff. The former claim that each country provides its own interpreters is far from being true. This follows from the fact that an organization cannot have 192 of them interpreting at ago. Clarifying this issue, Charles asserts, “UN Interpreters belong to the Interpretation Service, which is part of the Meetings and Publishing Division” (para.3). The interested reader then realizes that the interpreters form part of the UN staff. However, these interpreters work from behind scenes. They are not visible to all in session, a case that makes sure that the audience remains attentive to the speaker. Their pay remains a question to many.


Following the various categories of UN interpreters, their pay is different and not standard for all. There is the one whose job is to translate text from a given tongue to another. The other category “…is the simultaneous interpreter who… translates speech from one language to another while listening contemporaneously” (Charles Para. 2). The pay for the latter is approximately $850 per day while the former receives between (15-25) cents per word. The organization also takes care of the deaf.

The Deaf

Worth noting is that there exist sign language interpreters for the deaf, who take care of the deaf incorporated within the organization. These interpreters, just like the others, are part of the UN staff and not freelance. Following the keenness and proficiency exercised by UNIS in selecting their interpreters, issues of misinterpretation or lack of access to language interpretation have never been observed. As Thomas confirms, “…language barrier is removed, due to the fast interpretative services, these linguists provide” (12). Therefore, it suffices to declare UN interpreters the smartest in terms of facilitating communication.

Works Cited

Charles, Jean. From Russian into English: An Introduction to Simultaneous Interpretation, 2003. Web.

Howard, Elena. United Nations Interpretation Service: Information for Incoming Headquarters Staff, 2000. Web.

Lisbon, Geoffrey. .

Thomas, Jacqueline. How Does a United Nations Interpreter Spend a Workday? Britain, Rutledge, 1999. Print.

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