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'You Have To Have Speed': What It Takes To Be A United Nations Interpreter

The American flag flies with other nations' flags outside the United Nations in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The American flag flies with other nations' flags outside the United Nations in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Lynn Visson is a teacher and writer, and was an interpreter at the United Nations for 22 years, interpreting French and Russian into English for politicians like former President Jimmy Carter.

Speed is key when doing high-stakes interpreting with delegates and other notable figures, Visson tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson.

“You have to be able to listen, immediately grasp what someone is saying, and put it into another language, and put it into grammatical sentences and full sentences,” she says. “One of the worst things an interpreter can do is not finish a sentence.”

Interview Highlights

On the difference between an interpreter and a translator

“The difference — and a lot of people confuse this, even some interpreters and translators — is that with a translator, you give the person a written text in one language and the person will give you back a written text in another language. With an interpreter, you will speak to the person in one language and the person will really interpret that and speak in the other language. It’s the difference between written and oral.”

On notable people she’s had to interpret

“Well I’ve done quite a few, not necessarily at the U.N. … I interpreted for Boris Yeltsin when he was the president of Russia. He was quite easy because he spoke very slowly. I interpreted for Jimmy Carter when he was receiving a Russian Baptist minister, and Carter was quite easy to do because he had very good diction and spoke very clearly. And then there are all kinds of U.N. delegates — some of them go like bats out of hell at 100 miles an hour. And others realize that the interpreter needs time and they slow down.

“You want to be sure that you’re speaking in grammatical sentences, that you’re using proper intonation. It is very difficult to listen to a monotone when somebody is not varying the sound of their voice … because eventually, you’ll lose your audience. And one thing when you train interpreters, you train them in the use of intonation, and intonation in the language into which they’re interpreting, not from which they’re working.”

On if there’s a tendency to try to soften harsh language while interpreting

“That happens, but that’s not your job. Your job is to interpret what is actually being said, even though it may be very unpleasant, or it may be something that you personally find repulsive or disagree with. It’s a bit like acting. There are plenty of great actors who act murderers, even though they’d never in their lives kill anybody.”

On situations when something just doesn’t translate

“I think every interpreter I know, every professional, has at some point been stumped. And anyone who tells you they haven’t been is not telling the truth. What you learn is how to cope with it.”

On the importance of language learning

“It’s something the majority of Americans — I would add unfortunately — don’t do. I wish there were more of it. I think there is far too little emphasis now on the learning of foreign languages. It’s very useful, both in terms of thinking and learning the structure of other languages, and of course for travel and for getting to know people and for literature. Reading a translation is not the same thing as reading a book in the original.”

On the one language she’d like to go back and learn

“At the U.N., where I worked for 22 years, there were free language courses for any U.N. staff members, any of the six official U.N. languages. So I took Spanish, I took Chinese and I took a little Arabic. And that was great fun. And if I had the chance, I’d love to go back to Chinese, because I didn’t have the time to keep up with it, and I really enjoyed those courses and they were very well taught.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.