In-depth Analysis of Cuba’s Statement at the HRC


This week I was dummy-boothing at the Human Rights Council.  On Monday, as it was the opening of the twenty-first session, there was an introductory statement by the President and an update on the activities of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights as well as an address by the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon.  Following this, a general debate opened with five-minute statements from various delegations.  One which I found particularly challenging was that given by Cuba.  I know I seem to be harping on constantly about Cuba, but everyone has their weaknesses.  I’ll freely admit that I’m terrified of Cuba because you really have to pay very close attention to what is actually being said, as they will go out of their way to disagree with the majority of other delegations and can be quite outspoken in their opinions (to put it lightly).  I wasn’t completely happy with my interpretation of the intervention, and I was grateful to the English booth colleagues who gave me the transcript of the speech after the meeting to use for vocabulary.  The meeting was public and broadcast live as a webcast, which you can watch here.  Cuba starts speaking at 56:31.


I thought it would be a useful exercise to go through the Cuban statement, looking at how the English interpreter expertly worked around the pitfalls.  The transcript I have is typed, with handwritten annotations by the interpreter which clearly show how to divide backwards-sounding, convoluted sentences into manageable chunks.  I’ve attempted to replicate this in a pdf which you can download here: Cuba Transcript with Annotations.  Most of the comments are self-explanatory but I’ll go through some of the more complicated structures.  Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any way of embedding the image of the pdf into this post without scanning it and losing quality.  If you open the file and read it alongside my explanations here all will become clear!  After analysing the speech sentence-by-sentence I’ll look at the overall structure of the statement and identify the key thematic points.  Finally I’ll provide a vocab list of the words I found tricky or to have an unexpected translation.  The headings below in bold pink italics represent what appears in pink “handwriting” on the pdf file.  Ready?

Page 1

1) President as opposed to “Chair”, because French and Spanish use “President/e/a” to mean either “chair” or “president”.  In this case, the President of the Human Rights Council is presiding over the meeting, so “Chair” is inappropriate.

2) repercussions, both political… rather than the more literal “of a political and institutional nature” – the contraction saves time when working from a pre-written speech read at speed.

3) integridad territorial (the squiggly line around these words) these words will appear reversed in the interpretation: “territorial integrity”.  The upper line indicates the word that is to be said first, the lower line second.  This is a very fast and effective way of ensuring that the words come out in the right order.  Even though you might think the “noun + adjective” construction in French and Spanish is so familiar that it doesn’t need flagging up, these notes were made by an interpreter with 25 years experience at the highest level, proving that you can never be too careful.  Even the slightest stumble at speed can mean you fall off the horse (or wave…) for good!  

4) there must be an end this has a different grammatical structure in English than in the original Spanish, so good to jot down your interpretation to avoid hesitation when live. 

Page 2

 1) matters of crucial import a higher register and more stylistically consistent with high-level language than “crucial matters”

2) (…(….(…)..)..)…) – use of brackets in sentences starting “La Oficina requiere…” and “Si se impusiera…”.  Here you can see how the interpreter used brackets to divide up the sentences into smaller chunks, adding numbers above the individual components to make it clear which clauses or words should appear in which order.  The last paragraph of page 2 also shows how to use circles and arrows to make it clear where the beginning of a Spanish sentence should be moved to the end of an English one.

I think the rest of the annotations are clear enough.  I found them to be very helpful in analysing where I had stumbled in my own interpretation – my problem had been getting all tied up in the “backwards” sentences.  Of course, I was interpreting without a statement and so had no prior warning of those specific complications.  But really, seeing as it was Cuba, I should have guessed.


In terms of the more general thematic structure of the speech, it can be summarised as follows:

Paragraph 1: Thanks and congratulations to the High Commissioner.

Paragraph 2: Recognition of Navi Pillay’s activities and expression of distaste for “scourge” of racism.

Paragraph 3: Rejection of “interference” in Syria and demand for self-determination and an end to the violence.

Paragraph 4: Appreciation for increasing transparency within the OHCHR.  Need for full independence.

Paragraph 5: Condemnation of ongoing “torture” in Guantanamo and military action against Southern states.

Paragraph 6: The role of States in defining the priorities of the OHCHR.

Paragraph 7: Conclusion with need to rectify “geographical imbalance” in Office staff.


Some key phrases which struck me as “tell-tale” Cuba-isms are:

  • “…reiteramos nuestro rechazo a cualquier intento de socavar su independencia, soberania e integridad territorial”.
  • “…agresión militar extranjera…”
  • “…actos terroristas…”
  • “…manipulación mediática con fines políticos…”
  • “Apoyamos el derecho…al pleno ejercicio de la autodeterminación y la soberanía, sin injerencia ni intervención…”
  • “…una herramienta de ricos y poderosos para imponer sus prioridades…”
  • “…preocupantes desarrollos en varios países del Norte del planeta.”
  • “…del centro de detención arbitraria y tortura en Guantánamo.”
  • “…las agresiones militares a los países del Sur … una falsa defensa de libertad…”
  • “…las crisis generadas por la dictadura del capital financiero.”

Perhaps if I can learn some of these “stock phrases” I’ll be more confident about knowing what’s going on when the delegate’s talking at a million miles an hour and frightening me half to death!



Finally, here is the inevitable vocab list.  These weren’t so much unknown words as specific HRC-appropriate translations of familiar words.

voluntad willingness

designación appointment

afrodescendientes persons of African descent

manifestaciones repercussions

cobrar to claim (lives)

preocupante disturbing

falsa alleged

embestida onslaught

desprecio disdain


I hope this analysis will be helpful for others.  My aim in doing it was to look at how speeches are made up thematically and, in the case of Cuba, to break things down grammatically so they scare me less.  I am going to try and do the same for other challenging speeches as part of my preparation for the UN permanent interpretation examination in April next year.  Hopefully, bit by bit, I’ll be able to do the analysis “on the job” to ensure that my interpretation is as faithful as possible.  To conclude, I’d like to extend my thanks to the kind colleagues in the English booth on Monday who scooped up armfuls of used transcripts and thrust them into my eager hands.  Inspiring senior colleagues are the reason I’m taking that exam next year!

An Interpreter’s Summer


After an embarrassingly long break, it’s time to be Getting On It again.  I’ve spent the summer dashing about visiting various friends and family, trying to convince most of them that interpreting is a “proper job”, despite their incredulity at my two months off.  Coming back out into the real world after the conference-happy bubble that is Geneva, it’s alarming to realise how many people just don’t have the foggiest idea what a conference interpreter is or what they do.  The number of times this summer I’ve had to say “Have you seen the film with Nicole Kidman?  Well, that’s what I do.”, which is usually followed by a pause, a frown and a witty remark such as, “What, get shot at?”…*sigh*…well, it gets wearing after a while.  Perhaps we should unite the interpreter community and stage a flash-mob type march through the major cities of the world, wearing headphones, in portable booths installed on floats?  A megaphone blaring out the most important fact of all, “Interpreters talk!  Translators write!  Get it right!”.  It’ll probably never happen, but we can dream.  Perhaps nobody knows what we do because we do it so well that we just melt into the background, undetected.  Maybe.  I think the real reason though is that we serve an “elite”, and rarely do that world and the world of my best friend who manages a ladies clothes boutique collide.


So, what did I do this summer?  Quite a lot, it turns out.  I managed quite a few sneaky trips to the beach and in doing so learnt a new skill – the Impossible Art of Surfing.  It’s hard!  But an enormous amount of fun.  When I first started interpreting I theorised to anyone who would listen that it was just like surfing.  You’re sat on the board, looking out to sea, waiting for that wave.  Suddenly you see one rearing up and off you go, paddling like hell.  You stand up, (if you’re any good) and zoom along, keeping your footing by making adjustments in your stance.  If the wave is particularly violent or you’re just not very good, you’ll fall off, and you’ll be bruised and embarrassed but keen to try again.  I used to think of each wave as a speaker – you look out for one, peering through the glass of the booth, desperately trying to work out if there’s going to be foreign next.  When it comes, “Cr**!  It’s Cuba!” *Paddle paddle paddle* “Chairman, capitalism is poison and…”, you just have to try to stay upright.  As you get better, you’ll be able to ride bigger waves with more success, maybe even throw in a few tricks.  The crucial thing though is that every wave, or speech, is slightly different.  You never really know what’s coming, even if you’ve got hold of a transcript or know the beach break like the back of your hand.  Quite a theory, no?  Except that I discovered that I’m a terrible surfer – I fall off, a lot.  The good thing though is that just as there will always be speeches, there will always be waves.  And that’s a nice thought.


Other than engaging in Fun this summer I did manage to get quite a bit of interpreting in.  Like many of my colleagues, I spent a week high in the Swiss mountains in Caux, near Montreux.  Every year Initiatives of Change holds a series of conferences at Mountain House, a huge, beautiful hotel.  They address issues like “The Dynamics of Being a Change-Maker”, and “Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy”.  Initiatives of Change is, according to its website, “a diverse, global network committed to building trust across the world’s divides. It works on the principle that changes in people’s motives, attitudes and behaviour are not only possible but are the only sure basis on which wider lasting change in society can be brought about.”  It has an international network incorporating a variety of programmes and foundations, and the yearly conferences bring together members from around the world to discuss their work and commit to new initiatives.  This year I interpreted at the Global Assembly, having worked at a different conference last year.  The meetings went on for just over a week and although there was not a great deal of foreign, it was nevertheless a very worthwhile experience and definitely helped to prevent me going too “stale” over the summer.  I highly recommend that any budding or more experienced interpreter wanting to keep up their skills apply  – it’s voluntary but the food and accommodation is provided free of charge.  And believe me, it’s worth it just for the food.  The conference participants themselves make and serve the food, which is plentiful and always very fresh.  For a week you’ll basically just eat, interpret, eat interpret, eat, interpret, eat, and sleep, all set against the stunning backdrop of Lake Geneva and the surrounding mountains.  For more information visit  You can also read more about it on a brand new blog started recently by a colleague, Neil Cumming, who just completed the MA in Interpreting and Translation at Bath.  He writes “In One Ear” at


The final, but perhaps most important discovery I made this summer was something I have been waiting for for a long time.  Called “Do It (Tomorrow)”, it is a web and smartphone app that you can use to put off tasks until tomorrow.  It’s very clear, beautifully designed, and I’m finding it very useful for working my round a freelancer’s unpredictable schedule.  Download it here.  It’s fantastic.


And with that little nugget, it’s back to the interpreting grindstone.  There are contracts to chase, practice to be done and vocab lists to be learnt.  I’ll be back very soon with more material for the blog.  A bientôt!

Back to Bath – Questions and Preparation Tips


This week I returned to the University of Bath, where I did my interpreting training, to talk to undergraduate and A-level students about the course and about my experiences in the interpreting world in general.  It was a wonderful opportunity to meet young people thinking about studying interpreting and translation, and of course to reconnect with the teachers.  I thought it might be useful to recall a few of the questions that were asked after my talk, as they raised some very interesting points.  Overall, I was very impressed with how engaged and inquisitive the students were, all seeming to take their Masters choice extremely seriously indeed.  Both graduate and undergraduate programmes in the UK are becoming steadily more expensive, so the more research one can do into a prospective course the better.

Just some background about the event first of all: it was a “Routes into Languages” initiative, with three main speakers at the initial talk session – myself, Andrew Mann and Teresa Lander.  Both Andrew and Teresa currently teach at Bath, Andrew providing training on translation management and technology and Teresa on précis-writing and editing.  Both are practising professionals.  They spoke for around ten minutes each about their particular area of expertise, and about the possible career paths for a student on the MAIT (Masters in Interpreting and Translation) or TPLS (Translation and Professional Language Skills) courses at Bath.  I then spoke briefly about my own background and route into interpreting, the interpreting course itself, my experiences in Geneva and the “fate” of the students on the course last year.  I highlighted that 4 students were now working for international institutions, and that many more were in the process of taking the institutional tests or were currently working full-time as translators or interpreters.  After my talk there were a great deal of questions, a couple of which I thought I’d include here.  Other questions related to specific language combinations and the possibility of using those in particular institutions, for example.

“What happens if you don’t know a word?”

A brilliant question!  Everyone had a good chuckle at this one, but it’s a very good point.  I explained that realistically, no matter how hard we study, we will never know every single word in our own language, let alone a foreign one.  Even colleagues who have been working for thirty years still get caught out, and not through lack of preparation.  When the worst happens, and we simply don’t know a word, there are several things we can do.  First of all, if we have prepared for the meeting thoroughly, we will know the subject matter, the background and the various viewpoints well.  By knowing who is speaking and what their opinion is before we start work, we can make a reasonable assumption about what they might say in the meeting itself.  I used the example of a Venezuelan trade unionist – those three descriptive words tell us a great deal about what that person will probably say.  Of course, there is an element of luck and risk, but the more experience we gain the more likely we are to make the right assumption and to be able to anticipate what that speaker might say.  The aforementioned Venezuelan is more likely to say something anti-capitalist than not, and so we can use our knowledge about the person and the subject under discussion to fill in the gaps.  Of course, this is easier said than done, but the more time we spend on “live mike”, the more we realise that we must get something out for the benefit of our listeners, that silence simply isn’t an option.

A good way of overcoming a vocab “blank” is to generalise.  If we know that a word refers, for example, to a hyponym (more specific sub-type e.g. “hatchback” for “car”), then as long as we know the category we can say “this particular type of car is often sold at…” rather than “………er….um…these are often sold at…”.  As long as we make it clear as soon as possible, in the next sentence if we can, that we are in fact talking about “hatchbacks” (after a frantic search on then we are safe.  I remember in a meeting on the torture of young women in DRC where a speaker was telling the story of a girl who had been kidnapped and forced to eat “le mollet”.  At the time, the word for “mollet” (FR) completely escaped me and I felt like a fish for a few split seconds, my mouth opening and closing in panic.  So I said “she was forced to eat a part of her own body…” *desperate wordreference search* “…her calf muscle, which had been cut off and cooked on the fire”.  Phew!  Everything helps in a situation like this – being aware of the atrocities committed in the country before I went into the meeting meant that I was able to make an assumption that turned out to be correct.  The grim, disgusted faces of the Francophones listening to the speaker confirmed it too.

“How much preparation do you do before a meeting?”

Another good question, but one that’s difficult to answer.  It really depends on what type of meeting it is.  If it’s the first time I’ve worked for a particular organization, I’ll spend up to two or sometimes even three days learning about the institution and gradually working inwards towards the topic to be discussed at the specific meeting.  That’s when I have the luxury of knowing what meeting I’m on and what the subject matter will be.  Last week I didn’t know what meeting I was on until ten o’clock the night before, and even then all I knew was the time and place.  It wasn’t until I arrived, an hour early, that I found out anything concrete.  In that situation it’s best to keep up to date with the news on the website of the relevant institution, as they usually publish daily reports of meetings especially if it’s a large-scale conference.  You can also make contact with colleagues and try to find out extra information that way.  Sometimes I am actually thankful that I don’t know what to prepare – overpreparation can sometimes be dangerous as it can make you very nervous and sometimes unable to sleep.  As a freelancer, I’ve got used to expecting anything and nothing at the same time.  There is simply no point worrying about something unless you know what it is!  Being under-prepared (through no fault of your own) also forces you to use your languages and your raw interpreting ability, which is always good.

I’d say that the most important thing to work on when preparing is a one-page vocab list in all your languages of the key concepts and institutional words that you’ve gleaned from your research.  One-page, because loudly turning over bits of paper in the booth is annoying for your colleague and time-consuming for you.  I usually print out as much info as possible in foreign, read it, highlight the unknown or important words (in different colours, of course), write out a vocab list long-hand and then type it up into a neat spreadsheet later.  That way you see the words in context and then write them down twice.  If I have time, I read the foreign words out loud with a few seconds’ gap after each term, record this, and then listen back, using the recording as a test.  This is a really good way of learning vocab as it’s perfect practice for the booth – sometimes learning words orally is more appropriate for interpreting.  You can also save the mp3 onto your music player and listen to it on the bus.  Just don’t say the words out loud!  If you’re feeling super-brave you can do the following exercise.  Play your recording, but don’t say the translation of a word until two more terms have gone by.  That way, you practise staying behind a couple of words but still remembering the first term, while listening to the new words.  This trains your brain and mouth to work at different speeds and it means you become used to the “lag” which can be very important during a speech, especially in languages such as Spanish where the sentence is sometimes backwards and those few extra seconds can be essential.

The aim of all this preparation is to ensure that when we’re actually working, we hit that sweet spot of saying what the speaker really means.  And we can only do that if we really know what he means!  So I’d say that preparation time is unquantifiable really, depending on the individual and on the meeting itself, and of course on how long you can stand being indoors in front of the computer on a scorching Genevan June day.  Soon I’ll write a post about all my preparation techniques – hopefully they’ll be useful for both students and practising interpreters.


The workshop

After the talks we moved to the interpreting department’s labs, where three current Bath MAIT students and I led a workshop.  There were also workshops led by Teresa and Andrew running parallel to this.  We asked the students to play “just a minute”, to demonstrate the need to be able to speak fluently in front of a new audience.  They each wrote a topic on a piece of paper, which we then had them pick out of a hat at random.  The students did very well, and I was impressed with their ability to think on the spot.  We then asked for volunteers to speak for one minute about a chosen topic, while the rest of the group took down 5 words or symbols, and then attempted to give the speech back as fully as possible.  Again, I was glad to see that they were all engaged and very creative, some thinking up very clever symbols encapsulating a whole sentence.  Finally we had the students sit in the booths and have a go at “shadowing” (English to English), while we gave short speeches from the floor.  We then had them try from their foreign languages.  I was amazed at how quickly they took to it and how much they seemed to enjoy it.  I can see that being an interpreting teacher would be very rewarding!  Afterwards, the different workshops reunited and we had some final questions and answers.

Generally, the day was very useful and I was thrilled to be there.  Interpreting is such a small profession that I think the more we can retain links with our training schools and upcoming generations of colleagues, the better.  Hopefully the event was encouraging for those who attended.  I look forward to seeing some of them join me in the booth one day!


WTO – Economic Underpinnings


A while ago I promised that I would write up what I learnt about the WTO.  I have finally come to the end of one of the e-learning multimedia presentations, so here’s my version of it.  The title of this module is Economic Underpinnings and it explains some of the key concepts behind trade and liberalisation.  I apologise if some material is repeated from what I may have written in previous posts, but I felt it best to stick as close to the content of the original presentation as possible.  The lecture and slides can be found here, and the .pdf script here


Why do countries trade?

Countries trade to acquire goods that they may not have access to on the domestic market.  Even if they are able to produce a certain good, they may still trade if their trading partner has a comparative advantage in the production of that good.  So, without barriers to trade, companies can sell to a larger consumer base and thereby reduce costs.  This benefits the country as a whole.  Consumers have a greater variety of goods to consume and greater innovation and technology transfer as a result.  Research and development also increases.

Comparative advantage is when one country produces a good more efficiently than another.

The theory of comparative advantage states that both economies in trading partnership benefit from trade when they specialise in goods with a comparative advantage, even if one country has absolute advantage over both goods.  Specialisation will increase the global production of both goods.

Economies of scale means that as production output increases, cost decreases.  Doubling the number of workers more than doubles production.  So, specialising in one particular good makes sense.  With trade, companies produce a smaller range of goods but consumers will have a larger range of choice.

Opportunity cost is the cost of a chosen activity measured in terms of the discarded activity.  This process is used to make decisions about what to produce.  For example, if a company can produce 1 million computers or 2 million roses with the same resources, how many roses could have been produced with the same resources used to produce a given number of computers?  If the company decides to produce 2 million computers, the opportunity cost will be 4 million roses.  Of course, the computers and roses will have a different value per unit, so this must be taken into account too when making the decision.

Most trade is between similar countries and up to fifty per cent of trade is intra-industry, or within the same industry.  Because of this, trade liberalisation is easier between similar countries.  When trade liberalisation takes place between non-similar countries it is based on comparative advantage.


What are the effects of trade?

Static effects of trade include increased consumer choice.

Dynamic effects of trade include innovation, technology transfer and growth.

When reallocating resources towards specialisation, adjustment costs are incurred.  Specialisation involves moving workers and capital from the diminishing import sector towards the increasing export sector.  Adjustment costs depend on:

  • credit markets
  • labour markets
  • quality of infrastructures and utilities
  • quality of domestic institutions
  • credibility of the reforms

In order to facilitate adjustment, national governments can implement policies to minimise costs and to compensate those who lose out.  Developing nations tend to have higher adjustment costs because of worse or more unstable factors.  Open, export-oriented economies tend to succeed in their development efforts as their income increases.


What are the instruments of trade policy?

Tariffs can either be specific (fixed charge for each unit of the imported good) or ad valorem (a percentage tax on the value of the imported good).

Quotas are the best known form of non-tariff barriers to trade.  A quota is the maximum quantity of a good that can be imported.

Export subsidies are used when governments distort trade by supporting export activity

Non-tariff barriers include standards that increase the cost of production for foreign producers, and time-consuming customs clearance procedures that eventually increase the overall transport cost of the goods.  NTBs can have the same impacts on trade as tariffs.

Without tariffs, consumers would pay the world price for a good.  With tariffs, consumers are worse off.  Domestic producers gain because they can increase the price but keep it below that of the imported good.  The government also gains through the import tax.  Therefore, tariffs translate into a net loss for a small country.  For a large country however, with less import consumption the world price of the good may rise.  This is known as Terms of Trade Gain or TOT.

Very few countries have truly adopted free trade, with the exception of Hong Kong, for example.

Why are tariffs imposed?

  1. During political protectionism as a result of lobbying from import-competing industry sectors, leading to government policy change.
  2. For economics reasons:
  • TOT Argument: This theory states that there is an optimal (low) tariff rate where the gains offset any distortionary losses.  However, this is only valid for large countries and can cause retaliation or a trade war.  This would eventually lead to losses for all.
  • Infant Industry Argument:  A new industry may need time to develop a comparative advantage, for example manufactoring sectors in developing countries.  However, they continue to need government intervention, so generally they are never successful in the long term.  This argument does not lead to the development of a comparative advantage and it is often difficult for a government to identify industries with a potential comparative advantage.
  • Strategic Trade Policy Argument:  If two competing companies, one domestic and one foreign exist and the government subsidises the domestic one, the foreign one will often pull out.  The domestic company will now have the monopoly over the good in question and if its profits are greater than the subsidy, national welfare will increase.  However, the subsidy given by the government must be large enough to deter a competitor.  This is a beggar-thy-neighbour policy and may lead to a trade war.
  • Increased Fiscal Revenue Argument:  Tax collection is difficult for some countries but tariffs on import are easy to collect – the goods have to cross a physical barrier or border.


That pretty much sums up what the multimedia presentation was all about.  I’m going to continue working through the various modules and will update the blog with summaries as often as I can.  There will eventually be a nice juicy vocab list with all these concepts in French and Spanish too.  I wouldn’t hold your breath though, next week is going to be spent in the booth from 9 am Monday to 6 pm Friday, so bear with!

What Not to Say When the Red Light’s On


Every interpreter has those awful moments, those embarrassing slips of the tongue, those mispronunciations at which it takes all one’s self-composure not to laugh out loud mid-speech.  I’ve had my fair share, both when training and live.  We even had a facebook group at one point, called “Interpreting Bloopers”, where we’d jot down our colleague’s gems to cheer us up when in the doldrums.  I thought I’d seen and done it all about a month ago when I said that the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo was holding an erection.  Luckily, my English customers were few, so the only person who appeared to notice was kind enough not to fall off her chair as I hastily and loudly corrected myself, “or rather an ELECTION! AN ELECTION!”.   Little did I know, there was much worse to come.


This week I had a two-day contract at UNOG.  Wednesday morning started normally enough – I arrived about an hour early and sat in the booth preparing the documents and vocabulary.  It was a committee meeting I’d been working on last week and so I felt reasonably confident and familiar with the issues and the speakers.  When the clock read 9.55 I thought to myself that it was a little unprofessional that my colleague hadn’t turned up, but given the debacle that was last week’s first day in the booth, I wasn’t surprised or distracted enough to be worried.  Meetings very rarely start on time, but nevertheless when fifteen minutes had gone by and I was still alone, a colleague from the French booth popped her head round the door and said that as our Spanish colleague’s boothmate hadn’t turned up either, she would phone the office in a few minutes to tell them.  Those few minutes went by, and we were both still alone.  By this time the meeting had started, and I was happily pottering along mostly giving the floor to the various participants.  The intensity gradually increased, to the point where a discussion between the Francophone chair and vice-chair and Mexican member was in full swing and I was really going for it.  By this time it was about 10.25, and I was starting to get annoyed.  Where was my colleague?


A few minutes later, I was given some respite by a reasonably long English intervention and my French colleague came into the booth.  “Nobody’s answering the phone!”  she mouthed, cross.  “I’ll have to phone the boss.”  She did so, and then took her turn back in her booth.  It was left to a Russian-booth colleague to do the running around.  He appeared at around 10.35 with a piece of paper saying “Your colleague will be here in 20 mins”.  OK, I thought, I can do that – that still only means an hour of constant work.  By this stage I was working maybe 80% of the time but still felt able to carry on, having realised that the quieter I spoke and the more concise I made my interpretation, the longer I was going to be able to keep going.  It took more concentration to sum the interventions up into simple sound-bites, but I had decided that was the best strategy for longevity.  Fine, I thought, just keep plugging away.  No problem.  The only slight issue was that having had a large coffee and three glasses of water, I rather needed the toilet.


At 11 o’clock I was still going solo.  The committee was arguing in Spanish.  I was sweating, wringing my hands, and starting to feel weak.  Bladder discomfort was becoming a distraction.   By 11.15 both hands were plunged into my crotch, my legs firmly crossed in a desperate bid to keep things “in”.  Every time I switched the mike off with a reluctant jab of the elbow I thought, “This is ridiculous.  I can’t do it anymore.  Please stop!”.  But they didn’t.  They were really enjoying themselves.  Presently my French colleague came back and put a handwritten list of requests under my nose.  She had written, “Coffee?  Tea?  Juice?  Water?”.  I nearly cried with frustration when I saw it, wanting exactly the opposite.  I gave the floor to the English-speaking member and turned to her, writhing, and said “No, I just really need the toilet!”  She pulled a concerned face and shrugged, leaving the booth.  I turned back to the console.  The microphone was still on.


In horror, I stabbed at the red button and grabbed my pen, trying to look studiously at the document in front of me.  “Don’t look up!” I ordered myself, knowing full well that the whole committee had just heard me complain that my bladder was bursting.  My face felt like it had been exfoliated with chilli sauce.  I was shaking.  I felt like I was in a nightmare.  When would it end?


A few minutes later the door of the booth opened and a man sat down at the other console.  He put the headphones on and switched the microphone on.  I looked at him, open-mouthed.  My saviour!  I hastily scribbled “Thank you!” on a piece of paper and left it by his elbow.  Leaping out of the booth and down the corridor to the ladies’ room, I dodged past who I thought was a maintenance worker with his bag of tools.  He looked bemused.  We did the corridor-dance for a horrible few seconds before I scrambled round him and got just in time to the safety of the WC.  Relieved, I looked at myself in the mirror.  I had pen smudges on my temples, there were sweat patches down to my elbows and my hair looked like I’d been dragged through a hedge backwards.  My colleague would pay for this!


Back in the booth, I saw not only my saviour still working away but also the maintenance man I’d nearly jumped over in the hall.  on closer inspection he turned out to be an English-booth colleague in gym kit.  He’d been called in from the other side of Geneva on his day off to replace the one who hadn’t turned up, who wasn’t the other man there either.  He was a Russian colleague with an English B who’d crossed the meeting room in full view to come to my rescue.  At that moment, naturally, the meeting broke for coffee.  I fell into the chair vacated by the Russian, after thanking him, and turned to my new boothmate.  “What’s going on?”.


To cut a long story short, my original boothmate had simply not turned up because her option hadn’t been confirmed.  Instead of ringing the programme anyway, she had assumed the option had been cancelled.  A permanent had to be called in to replace her as she was uncontactable.  My new colleague was, in his words, “dripping with sweat” in the gym and had a hasty shower before coming straight in.  What a palaver.  Surely I’ve seen it all now?  I certainly feel like I’ve said it all…from erections to the toilet it has been an embarrassing, but entertaining entry into the interpreting profession!

Useful Resources for Keeping Up With It All


A colleague asked me recently what I do on a daily basis when I’m not in the booth to keep the practice up.  I think it really depends on how much time I have – if I only have a morning or a couple of hours then I will make sure I read / listen to the news.  If I have a little more time I like to do some more general research.  If I have a whole day before me (very rare bliss!) then I sometimes just like to “potter” around the internet.  This mostly involves finding an interesting website or Wikipedia article related to a point of news or conference and just seeing where the links take me.  Alternatively I use the time for practice – see below.  I thought it might be useful to write a post about what all these resources are, where they can be found and what I use them for.  I’ve built up this collection over the past few years, starting mainly during my first Bachelor’s degree in languages.   I’ve classified them here according to how much time I have available – this way it’s easy to tailor-make your own routine.


Up to Thirty Minutes – Working Days

  1. BBC World Service :  News bulletins on the half-hour, good to wake up to.  If you have a smartphone there are various apps like TuneIn Radio which will switch on automatically in the morning – this takes the effort out of listening to the news and means you can’t “forget” to do it.  This app, which has a web-based version here is great for listening to foreign-language radio stations too.  There are several hundred Spanish and French-language stations, from every country imaginable.  A good way to get used to non-European accents is to choose a different station for each day.  For example, you can programme a Togo station to wake you up on Monday, a Peruvian one for Tuesday, a Haitian one for Wednesday and so on.
  2. UN Radio (French) and UN Radio (Spanish) are particularly good because each programme is under fifteen minutes long.  I usually listen to these if I get to the booth very early – I take down any new vocab and sometimes even practise interpreting the broadcasts.  They are usually very fast and well-written so are perfect to get your brain into gear in the morning.
  3. The Economist (print edition).  This never leaves my side.  Even if I only read one article on the bus, I still feel like I’ve had contact with “the real world” and with proper written English.  Beware: this newspaper has quite strong views on some subjects so it’s good to find a contrasting source of news if possible.  Keep an ear out for the “alternative” version, which can sometimes  be quite surprising.


Up to Two Hours

  1. Of course, the “blogosphere” is the perfect place to start.  I won’t list here all the blogs I regularly peruse for interpreting / translation / world news, but if you have a look at my twitter followers you’ll see a list of those I really recommend reading.  Twitter is a fantastic way of keeping up with what’s going on out there, particularly as the news is so easy to digest.  If you look at my blogroll, “Interpreting Blogs and Sites”, you’ll find an ever-increasing list of the people I like to keep up to date with.  This list isn’t exhaustive, however as new blogs and sites are born every day.
  2. BBC Mundo and BBC Afrique are invaluable if you  have a little more time on your hands.  They not only provide a very good source of news, both in written, audio and video format, but also have “country profile” sections.  If a conference relates to a particularly State Party I always look here for information.  Make sure to balance this with information from other sources too, however.  Wikipedia and the BBC, like all sources, are great but must always be read “from a distance”.  At the end of the day no source is completely impartial, even the impartial ones!
  3. A very good site which I use less these days, simply because I’m “UN” and not “EU”, is Presseurop .  As the name suggests, it focuses on European news and is fantastic for vocab-learning.  Articles from national papers are translated into other languages, so a Le Monde story can be found in Italian, for example.  The best way I found of using this site was to print three versions of the same article in French, Spanish and Italian and compare them with the on-screen English translation or original.  There is also a handy smartphone app available for the site here.
  4. Other good sources of European-based news are:


A Whole Day

I really don’t have these any more, freelancing life being very “bitty”.  I know some readers are working towards taking the UN interpreting examinations, so I thought it might be useful to include my own practice routine here.  If I had a whole day free, I would certainly adopt this method again and intend to do so in preparation for the permanent examination next year.  The UN has a version of this method which is very well explained here.

  1. Choose a subject area and relevant webcast.
  2. Interpret the original language recording cold, with no documents or preparation and record yourself.
  3. Listen back with the written statement in the original language.  Note down “misheard” words and propose translations.
  4. Interpret again and record yourself.
  5. Listen back, this time with the written English translation of the statement.  Note down any incorrect word choices, building up a vocab list.  Then put this away.
  6. Interpret a third time and record yourself.  Listen back, and then listen to the English interpretation.  Note down alternative word choices.
  7. Learn the vocabulary you didn’t know.  Use flashcards, either electronic or handwritten.
  8. Create a practice spreadsheet.  Mine is obsessive and colour-coded, as you might have guessed, but I did find it very useful to keep track of time spent practising and how I felt about each speech.  You can download my UN Practice Log and use it as a template for your own practice.


I discover new practice methods and news / information sources all the time.  I’ll try to keep a record of them and perhaps write another post in the future.  For now, I hope these are useful.  Do feel free to suggest others, just leave a comment below or send me a tweet.

First Contract – UNOG


Herbal tea: check.  Incense burning: check.  Wah! chanting in the background: check.  Highlighted booth notebook: check.  Looks like I’m ready to start working through this last week’s adventure.

I turned up on Tuesday morning at half-past eight for a meeting that started at ten.  I set myself up in the booth, laid out all my “tools”, and started on-sight translating the documents I’d found already there.  I was feeling nervous, as the committee in question was going to be doing a country review, which would mean a long and very fast statement by the State Party and then probing questions by the committee.  However, thanks to my incessant dummy-boothing at similar meetings I felt ready and excited to be doing it for real.  It was 9.55 before my boothmate showed up.  I was relieved to see her but not prepared for her greeting of “You’re being replaced!”.  I was stunned for a moment and didn’t know what to say.  She ushered me out of the booth, and soon another senior interpreter turned up to replace me.  I spent the whole of my first day sitting in the rest area outside the booths trying desperately to catch what was going on through the half-open technicians’ door.  It being placement week for ESIT students, I couldn’t even dummy-booth.  I found out later that because I was a beginner, and a previous beginner had done so badly on their first country review that formal complaints were made during the meeting, I had been pulled out and replaced.  Paid nevertheless of course, but it didn’t stop me feeling seriously disappointed and quite hurt.  I might have been fine!  Speaking to colleagues over the rest of the week however, it became clear that the decision had been made to protect me.  It was not a personal decision, simply a practical one.  Apparently there was a rule never to put beginners on country reviews but that rule had not been followed by the programmer.  The upshot of all this was that I was much more likely to have a “good” first contract and come out feeling confident and positive, which in the end I did.

The downside to the programming confusion was that I was put on three separate and totally unrelated meetings in as many days.  I felt every day like I was starting all over again, and wasn’t in any meeting long enough to really get a feel for what was going on, or to get used to the speakers.  Finally, by Friday at about five-thirty I began to feel really happy with what I was doing, wishing I could have another day in the booth just to sustain that.  I think though, on balance, it was an ideal first week.  Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, almost, and I learnt a lot about myself and my own ability and about more general “dos” and “don’ts”.  Some of these are:



  • Check who has what languages in both your own and the other booths.  Know who to take on relay and how to do so if there is Russian on the floor and yourrussisant colleague has just stepped out of the booth.
  • Clarify before the meeting starts who is going to take the first half-hour.  This might depend on who has what language in the other booths.
  • Hand over any documents of which there is only one copy to your boothmate when their half-hour starts.  If they have to ask for them or drag them out from under your laptop while they’re working, it’s too late and could mean their interpretation suffers.
  • Make sure you are both happy with the level of lighting and air conditioning.  It can be very distracting if you’re suddenly lit up like a Christmas tree when you didn’t expect it, halfway through a particularly difficult speech.
  • Try to avoid taking relay if you can.  Even if this means working in your colleague’s half-hour and vice versa, it is safer and more accurate to take the floor directly.  Senior colleagues should really stay with a beginner for as long as possible during their half-hours off, and to some extent they did for me.  One or two colleagues however decided that twenty-minute shifts were largely sufficient and I was left starting five minutes before my half-hour, and finishing five minutes after.  I’m not sure whether this is worthy of a complaint or being taken up with the head of booth.  I will do some digging and ask other freelancers to try to find out.



  • Leave the booth’s headphones unplugged if you have used your own during the meeting.  It is extremely annoying if a colleague has to suddenly replace you and does not have their own.  Leave the booth as you would expect to find it.
  • Be too shy.  If your colleague really doesn’t mind who starts, and it doesn’t matter for language/team leader reasons, make a decision based on your own preferences and tell them.  Indecision can be disastrous if the meeting suddenly starts and you both turn the mike on at the same time.
  • Be afraid to ask colleagues for vocab or any other advice.  Most will be only too glad to share their techniques or terminology – in fact the ones I have asked have gone into far too much detail.  As long as you make it clear that you’re not questioning their choice of translation for a particular word, they will be happy to help.


That’s about it for the more general advice.  I do appreciate that some of those pointers might seem obvious, but when you’re actually “doing it” for real for the first time, nothing seems obvious.  Despite having logged at least two hundred hours dummy-boothing, and around fifty doing volunteer interpreting, nothing prepared me for how much my whole body would be trembling before switching that mike on.  I was so pumped with adrenaline that evening that even after coming home and going for a 5k run I still felt “on it”!

The vocab I have is largely human-rights based terminology.  I have put it all together to try to avoid making it clear what meetings I was on.



assister à la tribune  to take the floor

orientation  pointers

conciliation  conciliation

en suspens  pending


à l’antan  at the outset

recevabilité  admissibility

garde à vue  custody

retention   holding

detention preventive  pre-trial detention

observation générale  general comment

servitude pour dettes  debt servitude

voté  approved

diaboliser  demonise

debiteur d’obligation  duty-bearer 

destinataires  host-country

effet dissuasif  deterrent

à ce date  hitherto

embarcations de fortune  makeshift boats

liste de questions  list of issues

notion bien consacrée  well-established concept



camisa de fuerza  straightjacket

ponderación  weighting

tema medular  central topic

onus probante  disproportionate burden

diáfano  clear / transparent

justiciable  justiciable / can be brought before the courts

litis  litigation / case

zanjar  settle / decide

denegar  deny

sede judicial  court

órgano collegiato  collegiate body

quedar en el pensamiento  to be food for thought

dictamenes  opinions

obviar  to avoid / obviate


I have two more days this week and so will report back on those with vocab and so on.  Overall my first week was a very good experience, and I wish I could do it all over again.  I just hope the contracts keep coming!