Marie Diur, Chief Interpreter at the UN © Judy Fadel

Once upon a time, a Chief Interpreter
Marie Diur, possibly the first black-African chief interpreter at the UN Office in Geneva, is retiring this month after 23 years of UN service
1 Jun 2024

You know a person a bit better, even differently, when you visit their home, ride in their car, meet their parent, partner, progeny, or pet – or, as is the case here, when you read the inspirational posters they picked for their office walls: “Life is unfair but, sometimes, it is unfair in your favor,” which is one of Marie Diur’s darling one-liners, from among seven or eight gratitude maxims that she had gingerly framed in vivid colors, bringing a personal touch, almost a young-girl vibe, to the otherwise no-frills, Swiss-austere office she will be vacating as Chief Interpreter in just a few weeks.

You also know a person slightly better when you hear their ringtones. The steady stream of incoming emails and text messages dinging on Marie’s two smartphones punctuated our interview, refuting my dreamy assumption that, with her retirement just around the corner, there would be fewer matters to tend to – not least to allow for brave ballads down memory lane, reminiscing on a career journey that spanned three Duty Stations and nearly a quarter of a century at Planet Earth’s best-known multilateral organization.

Before becoming an I-got-your-back type of manager leading a 100-strong interpretation service – or a recipient of a UN Secretary-General award for her workforce diversity advocacy in 2022, or just an all-around wholesome interpreter beloved by colleagues and admired by students – Marie was once a starry-eyed high-school graduate hailing from the Global South with big dreams and no fixed plan, landing in late-1970s Italy from her native Lubumbashi with grit as her main currency.

“At the age of 18, I moved to Italy – for no special reasons,” Marie recounts, sitting with her Uggs crossed over the chair in a self-styled pose suggesting a mix of comfort, focus, and nostalgia. “It happened to be Italy; it could have been any other country.”

This pivotal move was not the first in Marie’s life. When she was still a baby, her family moved to France in the early 1960s. The state of flux in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the time was such that the country would change its name under Mobutu Sese Seko, officially becoming the Republic of Zaire from 1971 until Mobutu’s ouster and death in 1997.

With this wheel of history grinding in the background, Marie would end up spending nearly her entire childhood in Paris, including nine years in boarding schools – starting at age five – alongside her two older sisters, before returning home to finish high school in Lubumbashi, the DRC’s second-largest city and the crown jewel of its copper and cobalt mining industry.

In Rome, after a period of toying with college credits and odd jobs, including housekeeping and clerical gigs, Marie would get her first break as a junior freelancer at FAO while continuing to slowly build her résumé, obtaining at uneven intervals a BA in English and Spanish followed by an MA in applied languages from France, an interpreting diploma from London, and, much later, a PhD in humanities from Spain.

In 1992, she joins AIIC, the well-reputed, referral-based union of conference interpreters, and begins to eye staff-interpreter openings within the EU ecosystem, which corresponded best to her language profile: active French, with passive Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese, and Swedish. 

The plan might well have worked out if fate hadn’t perfected the art of objection. In 2000, Marie sat the UN exam on a whim and, in March of the following year, there she was on the mic in New York as a staff interpreter, soon to be lending her French voice to global movers and shakers, including a certain George W. Bush.

“When I passed the competitive examination, I did it without knowing anything about the UN,” Marie admits. “There was no real internet at the time; there was nothing. The UN had no website; it was really, completely different … Then, suddenly, I was thinking: Well, it could not be bad to get into the UN!”

New York’s abracadabra will seal the deal. It was an early springtime Sunday in pre-9/11 Manhattan when Marie, still in the fog of recent arrival, casually realized that: “Wow! I made it!”, as Gotham’s cityscape unfurled before her and under the tiny feet of her then-toddler daughter, Léa.

While Marie’s warm eye contact, hug salutations, and “Nice day” email sign-offs might give away some meditational leanings, she has never actually practiced any Zen, yoga, or mindfulness. However, the way she appears to waltz her way from aspiration to accomplishment, from stasis to change, calls to mind the sensational concept of “law of attraction,” the popular-psychology term synonymous with “manifestation,” referring to the postulate that one gets what one wills.

“I don’t know why, but the reality is this: I’m always there, at the right place, at the right time – always,” Marie points out. “I’ve been very lucky, throughout my life … And, there is also something else, which can be both positive and negative at the same time, which is self-confidence. I am self-confident. I do believe in myself – a lot,” she affirms, adding with a laugh: “Otherwise I would not have made it.”

After her UNHQ experience, Marie moved to Vienna in 2008, becoming Chief Interpreter there in 2016. During those years, on multiple occasions, she would be the designated interpreter for Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General then, flying with him one time on a small plane from Bamako to Timbuktu to make a statement following the murder of two RFI journalists in Mali. In fact, for a while, she would become the quasi-personal interpreter of the Secretary-General on his travels in French-speaking Africa, with his office once sending her direct messages to arrange a mission, skipping the intricate hierarchies of the UN conference machinery. 

During this Viennese chapter, she would lay the groundwork for what would later become her success story in promoting workforce diversity in Geneva. Piqued by the extreme rarity of black interpreters at the UN, Marie put forward a hypothesis: the quasi non-existence of black interpreters in UN conference booths could not be the result of their scarcity, incompetence, or indifference, because they were demonstrably plentiful, skillful, and willing. Rather, she surmised, something must be off in the examination process, from its advertising to its grading.

“What surprised me the most is not the fact that there were no black-African interpreters, but the fact that nobody was saying anything about it,” she notes. “It’s like it was normal; meanwhile, it was not. And when I started saying that, loud and clear, people were sort of like: ‘Woah, woah, woah! But it’s true!’”

Marie would put her hypothesis under methodical scrutiny. In fact, she would embark on an entire PhD-level survey just to examine the shortcomings that potentially led to uneven recruitment outcomes from the LCE, the former version of the Competitive Examination of Language Professionals (CELP), a.k.a. the Olympics for interpreters interested in a career at the UN.

“I sent the survey to the people grading the LCE and I asked: ‘Are you grading for mastery level or entry level?’ – Half said mastery level and half said entry level,” she reports. Such a wide discrepancy in basic grading scales was both a shock and a validation.

With evidence in hand and some allies in the wings, Marie decided to pay out of pocket to travel around and present her data to colleagues and executives in Geneva and New York, and to push for a revamp of the entire examination structure in favor of more coherence, scientific rigor, and transparency. The idea, she says, was not to cry foul, play victim, or replace one bias by another.

“All I wanted was to create one level playing field for everybody,” she insists. Now, come 2017 and, with it, the last leg of Marie’s UN expedition: Geneva, where the first ripple effects of her equal-opportunity campaign will start to be felt.

Before Marie’s arrival at UNOG, hardly any black-African interpreter had graced the interpretation booths at Palais des Nations on more than a freelance contract, if that. But the situation would start to improve with Marie’s appointment as Anti-Racism Advocate in 2022. Indeed, four black-African interpreters from East and West Africa, all women, have since joined the French and English booths on TJO contracts, i.e. crafty, temporary contracts, typically lasting 11 months. 

Not ideal, perhaps, but you got to start somewhere. “This could not have happened without the help of colleagues from all four Duty Stations, who spent their free time coaching and encouraging African interpreters,” Marie notes. “I really want to pay tribute to them as well.”

Yet, race dynamics at the UN are not unknown to top management. Secretary-General António Guterres has, since 2020, acknowledged the existence of racism within the organization and introduced a strategic action plan to combat it. Still, a shadow of fear looms large over anti-racism action, Marie suggests.

With impressive composure, she drops these grenades: “The real problem at the UN is fear. Everybody is scared. White people are scared of being labeled as racist if they say something, and non-white people are scared to report any discrimination because they do not trust the system and they do not want to be perceived as disruptive. Note that the stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ is still alive and well. Fear is what’s happening at the UN right now, and it is that fear that we need to overcome.”

Indeed, in her role as Anti-Racism Advocate, Marie has observed problematic staff situations across departments. “For me, racism exists everywhere, in all societies, in all countries, in all organizations, so the idea that it would not exist at the UN simply cannot be,” she explains, insisting that raising awareness about racism must continue to be encouraged institutionally for more ease and clarity in handling delicate situations. 

“I want people to understand that they can say the word ‘black’, that ‘Marie is a black woman’, but no one will say that; everybody is scared, especially when you need to say the word ‘black’ in French,” she says.

As we wrap up our one-hour chat, I ask Marie about her post-retirement plans. She replies: “I’ll get back to interpreting and will be based in Vienna, but my main focus will be the training of African interpreters.”

We pause the recording, we hug, we take a selfie. In my head, I’m already picturing Marie packing, hauling away her framed aphorisms like trophies, descending the hill from Building A, and past the Broken Chair, before disappearing into the orderly distance of urban Geneva like this entire thing was all but a dream.

But, hey, she will also leave behind the watermark of an African woman that “walked the talk” and, coincidentally, helped deliver something called the Geneva Alliance Against Racism, a baby born in 2023 that, like her when she was a one-year-old bundle swinging in the winds of destiny, will have a long way to go.

*A shorter version of this feature appeared in UN Today’s hardcopy issue.

* Achraf El Bahi is an Arabic Interpreter at UNOG.
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