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Best in Class: UN Initiatives to Prepare Interpreters for the Language Competitive Exam

10 BULLETIN July-August 2017
‘We were asking for $1m, and we
eventually received $840,000. Then
we started the process of recruiting
trainees. We advertised on the UN
careers portal, social media and at
the universities we have memoranda
of understanding with. We held 400
interviews with potential candidates,
who also had to do exams. Eleven
were chosen, but one quit after two
months because the pressure was too
high. We had seven trainees working
with English and Arabic, and three
with French and Arabic.
‘With regard to the composition
of the training, the trainees worked
eight or nine hours daily and they
had homework, plus work to do over
the weekend. They were trained on
at-sight interpreting and also online
for speeches. Starting in the third
week of the training, they had to do
two to three hours per day of booth
work. For every session, they were
monitored by senior interpreters or
lecturers from our partner
universities, who were recruited to
work for us as freelancers. Every two
months or so, we held a mock exam
that had the exact characteristics of
the real exam in terms of duration,
complexity, etc.
‘As for the curriculum, we covered
everything related to the UN
committees, Security Council, the
Economic and Social Council and all
the topics the UN discusses. To give
you an example, in the first week, we
started with two days of preparation
on the Security Council. The
trainees were asked to read up about
the Security Council and the
sanctions committee. Then they had
a briefing from the director of the
Security Council for 45 minutes, and
they had the chance to ask questions
for two hours about things they could
not find during their preparation.
This was followed by three days of
Security Council speeches, both live
and recorded.
‘We applied the same method
to all other subjects. The trainees
would always have two or three
senior interpreters listen to them
while they worked in the booths.
Sometimes, half of them would go
into the booth and the other half
would give them feedback. I wanted
them to become comfortable with
critiquing each other’s performances.
We used recorded speeches, but also
live meetings, depending on the
nature of the meeting. I would
take them to the Security Council,
for instance, and place them in
three dummy booths. By the third
month, the trainees who had made
good progress were allowed to work
in live situations.
‘We held an exam at the end
of the course, and for the first time
in 35 years, 13 candidates passed –
eight from the training and five
from outside. They were all
recruited, so this enabled us to
fill all the vacancies.’
One of the trainees who passed
the LCE for Arabic, Marwa
Shamy, spoke to me about the
difference the training course had
made to her. She said: ‘The training
allowed me to gain a deep
understanding of the institutional
setting of the United Nations,
familiarise myself with the format of
different types of meetings, and
enhance my knowledge of a number
of relevant topics. In the exam
situation, this knowledge helped me
contextualise the exam speeches and
facilitated understanding of the
underlying message.
‘In addition to raising the trainees’
awareness of the UN context in
general, the training dealt extensively
with the nitty-gritty of relaying the
To become a staff interpreter
at the United Nations, one
must pass the Language
Competitive Examination (LCE).
This exam has always had a low pass
rate that has seldom exceeded 20 per
cent. With many staff interpreters
due to retire by 2018, the UN
realised several years ago that it
needed to address a shortage of
qualified interpreters in certain
language combinations. As a result,
in 2007, it launched an outreach
programme to help candidates
prepare for the LCE and get to know
the UN work environment. In this
context, initiatives were developed in
some booths to better prepare
candidates for the LCE. In this
article, I will look at the initiatives of
the Arabic and French booths.
The Arabic booth conducted six
months of training from July 2015 to
January 2016. I interviewed Ashraf
Kamal, chief of the Arabic section at
the UN headquarters in New York,
to learn more about this training. He
started by shedding light on the
background: ‘In the past, when we
held LCEs in the Arabic booth, the
success rate was usually low – one or
two people. That was a big problem,
because the exams are costly.
‘We also had the issue with staff
interpreters retiring, and we were
facing difficulty in replacing them –
particularly in the English-Arabic
language combination. We had been
lobbying the administration for 10 to
15 years to allow us to hold training
programmes, but they had always
told us that there was no budget for
this. At one point, the number of
staff interpreters went down so much
that the cost of recruiting freelancers
became higher than the cost of
covering the training for six months!
Maha El-Metwally gives an overview of how the
UN has developed its recruitment of interpreters in
recent years, including new training programmes
Best in class
The trainees worked
eight or nine hours
daily and they had
homework, plus work to
do over the weekend
Maha El-Metwally is a
UN- and EU-accredited
freelance conference
interpreter withArabic
A, English B, French and
Dutch C. She is a member
of the Board of ITI.
10-11 UN.indd 10 22/06/2017 06:44
ITI BULLETIN JulyAugust 2017
to it: an independent, sovereign,
viable and contiguous state.
‘Overall, the training provided the
appropriate conditions for us to
increase our linguistic resources and
enhance our interpreting skills
through strategic action. But
ultimately, the result depended on
what each candidate made of it, ie to
what extent they were aware of what
they needed to improve on and
whether they engaged in deliberate
practice to hone their skills.’
Tarek Abboud is another trainee
who did the Arabic booth training,
passed the LCE and is now a staff
interpreter at UNHQ. He described
how the training helped him as
follows: ‘It provided me with a
unique environment in which to
grow and experiment with different
techniques, an environment that I
had not been afforded earlier. I was
not given a set formula to follow. I
was provided with an abundance of
material, time and space to make
mistakes and improve individually.
Thanks to the training, I can now
look at my performance from a
critical perspective and alter it
accordingly, which is an important
skill for any interpreter willing and
ready to grow professionally.’
The French booth had two
initiatives: one at the UN
headquarters in New York, and the
other at the UN office in Vienna
(UNOV). Alice Ryckmans, French
interpreter and outreach focal point
coordinator, spoke to me about the
nine-week traineeship at the French
booth in New York. Out of 175
applicants, seven were chosen to
participate in the traineeship – four
with Spanish and English, and three
with Russian and English. The
training course consisted mainly
of three-hour sessions, six times a
week, with a full day on Wednesdays.
The participants were offered a
range of exercises, from sight
translation to simultaneous speeches
(with or without text). Most of the
material used was original recordings
of UN speeches.
As with the Arabic booth training,
the participants were briefed on
UN-specific topics. In addition, a
special stress management workshop
was organised with the help of a
staff counsellor from the Medical
Service Division. The French booth
was able to recruit 10 successful
candidates from the LCE that
followed. Even though only one of
them had participated in the
traineeship, seven had participated in
previous unpaid internships since
2012. This shows that efforts do not
always bear fruit immediately, and
that the whole initiative has to be
seen in the longer term.
Marie Diur, head of interpretation
at UNOV, participated as a jury
member in the marking of the 2013
LCE. Based on that experience, she
told me: ‘LCE speeches present
specific challenges. Lacking
knowledge about the way the UN is
structured or not understanding the
differences among the committees
might represent an added difficulty.’
As a result, she has designed a three-
day intensive course that focuses on
UN terminology and features of
speeches in an attempt to help
candidates prepare more effectively
for the LCE, thereby increasing their
chances of passing. The course is
divided into two exercises. The first
exercise looks at navigating the UN
website, using the information in the
Secretary General’s report, the
monthly work programme of the
Security Council, regional groups at
the UN, researching world affairs,
preparing glossaries and sight
translation. The second exercise aims
to teach trainees that the information
given at the beginning of each LCE
speech can help them deduce what
might come up during the speech.
Based on the above, I would say
that the UN LCE is like a sports
competition: it requires adequate
training and preparation for the
result to be satisfactory. In order to
have enough time to prepare, future
candidates are advised to regularly
check the UN careers portal
(, where all
language-related vacancies and
exams are announced.
message from the source to the target
language. Trainers suggested
concrete strategies to deal with the
different challenges that we might
encounter in the booth. Some of the
difficulties were not language-
specific, but others were associated
with the structural discrepancy
between English and Arabic.
‘An example of a non-language-
specific challenge is the high delivery
rate – which, due to limited speaking
time, has become the norm rather
than the exception. Trainees were
instructed, for instance, to reduce the
lag to one second in order to keep
pace with the speaker. The duration
of the training allowed me to practise
the recommended strategies and
apply them, so that by the end of the
programme, coping with such
difficulties had become second
nature and did not take up much
processing capacity.
‘Other challenges include dealing
with different accents, and relaying
the flowery Arabic style into a terse
English style. The training also gave
me an insight into the interpreting
norms that prevail in the
organisation. UN interpreters are
held to very high standards. Only
minimal recourse to omissions or
generalisations is condoned. Points
are deducted in the LCE, for
instance, when a noun is preceded by
four non-synonymous adjectives and
the interpreter only renders three.
Take the example of the Palestinian-
Israeli conflict. When the future
Palestinian state is mentioned, I need
to use the four adjectives pertaining
I would say that the
UN LCE is like a sports
competition: it requires
adequate training and
preparation for the result
to be satisfactory
The UN
in New York has
been developing
new ways to
help interpreters
pass its highly
selective LCE
10-11 UN.indd 11 22/06/2017 06:44
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