In this tiny space, history is witnessed © UN PHOTO

Lost in interpretation
An interpreter’s work is full of surprises at the General Assembly
1 Sep 2023

During my long career as a UN interpreter, which has spanned nearly four decades, I have had the distinct privilege of witnessing some truly historic moments. It was also full of many unexpected events, some of which were quite funny in retrospect. A particularly notable event was that of a lost interpreter during an important speech at the General Assembly. Rule 53 of the General Assembly Rules of Procedure states that “any representative may make a speech in a language other than the languages of the General Assembly. In this case, he shall himself provide interpretation into one of the official languages of the General Assembly.”

In one such instance, exercising this right, a head of state of a Central Asian country decided to speak in his native tongue. He brought along an interpreter who would interpret his statements into English. Before taking the floor, the Head of State had a meeting with the Secretary-General in room GA-200. His interpreter accompanied him and following the meeting, the President was escorted to the General Assembly Hall and was welcomed by its president and invited to address the Assembly. However, there was a small problem, the interpreter had decided to leave by himself and had gotten thoroughly lost in the labyrinth of the corridors leading to the English booth. There was an English translation available in all of the booths but there were no interpreters who knew a single word of the original language of the speech.

Interpretation facilitating international diplomacy © Shutterstock

The Head of State started his speech and yet his interpreter was still nowhere in sight. Faced with an enormously embarrassing situation, owing to the lack of interpretation for the speech of such a dignitary, a colleague in the English booth made a courageous (some might even say reckless) decision to start reading the translation in an attempt to keep pace with the speaker even though they understood nothing from the ongoing speech. By some miracle, she managed such an unprecedented feat without allowing her voice to betray the state of utter panic she was clearly in. At that point all the phones at the Interpretation Service and the Conference Officers’ table in the General Assembly were literally ringing off the hook. Meanwhile, several people were dispatched to the long corridors around the General Assembly Hall and the many staircases that lead to the booths searching for the missing interpreter. In addition to running like headless chickens in all directions, the many search parties faced another problem. They were looking for somebody they did not know and, worse still, they had no clue what he looked like.

After what must have seemed like an eternity to the colleague who continued bravely to ‘interpret’ the statement, the missing interpreter was finally located. He entered the booth, drenched in sweat and panting loudly. At last, he took over the impossible task. Upon completion of the speech, the interpreter turned to the colleague who had filled in for him and said something in his mother tongue. To his amazement, she replied that she did not speak a word of the language. “How come? You did not miss a beat of the president’s statement!” was his stunned response. 

* Hossam Fahr is the former Chief of the Interpretation Service, UNHQ.
Read more articles about UN MEMORIES