Portraits: UN interpreters adapt to new work modes during COVID-19

Monday, 13 July 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic brought New York City to a halt, United Nations interpreters ran into big trouble: their booths and equipment were no longer accessible. However, they are rising to the challenge, exploring new ways to service multilateral meetings, including from their homes.

This story, with portraits produced remotely by UN Photo, documents how these professionals have been responding to new challenges COVID-19 added to their already daunting job of providing simultaneous interpretation in six UN official languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

On Friday, 13 March, Konstantine Orlov, Chief of the Russian Interpretation Section, serviced his last in-person meeting at UN Headquarters before the pandemic sent the Big Apple into lockdown. The following Monday, 16 March, “we all went into telecommuting,” he said.

“We unexpectedly found ourselves in our apartments wondering how to continue performing our duties and contribute to multilingualism,” said Veronique Vandegans, Chief of the French Interpretation Section. “However, it quickly became apparent that we could adapt and interpret remotely, given the proper equipment, testing and training.”

To comply with local health advisories, UN Headquarters has since remained closed to the public and cancelled face-to-face meetings. As an alternative, Member States are holding meetings virtually, without interpretation. The UN Secretariat is preparing a phased return of staff to the UN premises, with Phase 1 of the UN plan set to begin on 20 July, during which delegates are still expected to meet online.

During the current Phase Zero, UN interpreters are experimenting with different modes of remote interpretation, under the guidance of a taskforce created to find new ways to provide the Organization’s interpretation service.

“Currently, meetings are being held in one working language,” said Adrian Delgado, Senior Interpreter in the Spanish Interpretation Section. “Attempts are being made, with a degree of success, to reinstate multilingual meetings.”

Man with a headset and microphone sits in front of two laptops.

Martin J. Pickles, Interpreter, English Interpretation Section, works from his apartment in The Bronx. UN Photo/Manuel Elías

Multilingualism is instrumental in intergovernmental negotiations, which “are the heart and soul of the United Nations,” Mr. Delgado emphasized.

Ms. Vandegans explained that ideas are always better expressed in the speaker’s native language. “Speakers attach great importance to conveying all the nuances inherent to international diplomacy. The eagerness of Member States to have interpreters back in the booth, though virtual, illustrates the importance of multilingualism.”

Unchartered waters for interpreters and delegates

Working from home is uncharted territory for UN interpreters.

One major challenge is to find a suitable place in their homes. Even under optimal conditions, a home location is not on par with a confined booth, where interpreters can reach the high level of concentration their job requires.

“At first, I prepared my workspace by kicking my kids and husband out of the apartment to create the quiet setting I needed,” said Ms. Vandegans.  “As this is not a sustainable option, I now try to coax my two young children into being as quiet as possible while mommy is working.”

Children, pets and singing birds are lovely additions to a home, but not to a virtual booth, she said, adding that upon hearing the delegates’ children in remote meetings, she felt relieved: “We all are in the same boat.”

For Qiyun Zhang, Chief of the Chinese Interpretation Section, the new set-up has been easier. “Fortunately, my kids are grown-ups and they don’t live with me.”  She works from her study, which offers a quiet and comfortable environment.

Man wearing a headset with a microphone sits in front of a laptop and a tablet.

Adrian Delgado, Senior Interpreter, Spanish Interpretation Section, at his apartment in East Harlem. UN Photo/Manuel Elías

Lana Ayyad, Chief of Arabic Interpretation Section, converted her home’s guest room into an office.  She bought herself a desk and a chair, and “even drilled a hole in the wall to connect my Ethernet cable from my router to my laptop in the guest room.”

Martin Pickles, an Interpreter in the English Interpretation Section, works at his dining table, he said, as “it is ideally placed for the modem and provides a lot of space to spread out paper and documents.”

Mr. Orlov feels fortunate to have a spacious house. His favourite spot is in a room with northern exposure and a nice breeze, the wall adorned with the childhood artwork of his son.

Mr. Delgado is now outfitting his small bedroom to be used as a “domestic interpretation booth.”

Distractions and sound quality

Still, they face various distractions, such as noise from neighbours, deliveries, incoming phone calls, and the wind howling over the river. Grocery shopping, cooking, dishwashing and other household chores are now part of their scheduled work activities.

Another challenge is to get the right equipment with adequate specifications, including hardware and software, and ensure seamless Internet connectivity. This is particularly important not only for interpreters but also for delegates. For messages to be conveyed accurately, speakers in any virtual meeting need to do their part.

The interpreters stress that the quality of the interpretation is intrinsically linked to the quality of the original. If a speaker doesn’t have a proper microphone or delivers a speech quickly while children are playing in the background, even the best interpreter won’t be able to perform optimally.

Man wearing headset with microphone works from a laptop and a tablet.

Konstantine Orlov, Chief of Russian Interpretation Section, at his home in New Jersey. UN Photo/Manuel Elías

“Audio quality needs to be crisp so that words are heard clearly,” said Ms. Ayyad. “For example, you do not want an interpreter to confuse ‘can’ and ‘can’t’.”

In their profession, the margin of error is narrow, the interpreters explained, hoping Member States will be understanding as they work hard to perfect the new system of work, which they believe will never be as good and seamless as servicing meetings in person.

‘Split-second’ coordination

UN interpreters usually work in pairs or a team of three in a booth. However, they work solo at home.

“In a normal situation, the coordination among the team of three went smoothly,” said Ms. Zhang. “However, in a virtual setting, we don’t see each other.”

Mr. Orlov added, “Interpreting from home is a completely new skill that needs to be acquired and developed.”

Mr. Delgado pointed out that “working from home reduces to a great extent the element of process visualization and the ability to visually communicate in a split second with booth members.”

Ms. Ayyad explained that if one interpreter is live, the other helps with the documents and the statements. When they handover the mic to each other, they make eye contact or some sort of sign.  If a colleague on the mic misses a number or a term, others scribble it on a piece of paper to show the colleague. “Working in a dispersed mode robs us of this teamwork,” she said.

Mr. Pickles agreed: “Interpreting is very much a team profession and we rely very heavily on each other as boothmates and partners.”

Despite all these challenges, the six language teams have developed ways to communicate with each other, for instance, by using group chats or apps to determine the order of turns – who goes first, second and third on the mic – and how to replace a colleague in the event of sudden disconnection, Ms. Zhang said.

Woman works from two laptops with two children on a couch next to her desk.

Veronique Vandegans, Chief of French Interpretation Section, at her home in Brooklyn. UN Photo/Manuel Elías

Mr. Delgado, however, noted that due to poor sound proofing, unreliable networks, and inconsistent audio or video feeds, “the best attempt at recreating a conducive environment to interpret from home will always be a second best.”

Interpreters are also part of a bigger team, working with conference officers, sound technicians, various personnel from the secretariats of the different committees and bodies they serve, and sometimes delegates.

“Remote interpretation makes this extremely hard,” said Ms. Zhang, noting that coordination beyond their language units is a challenge yet to overcome.

Multitasking and health hazards

In a normal booth setting, UN conference officers deliver copies of written statements to interpreters, who are now expected to monitor several screens to follow the meeting, view the agenda, check the speakers’ list and access the statements online, while keeping an eye on WhatsApp threads. “That requires a lot of multitasking,” said Ms. Vandegans.

The new mode of interpretation may also come with unintended health hazards, such as rapid loss of hearing. Remote interpreting is more stressful because interpreters must focus on several things simultaneously, including the handover procedure, the messages in group chats and making sure that the microphone is on or off during the handover.

There has been major progress, however. “While still in its infancy, remote interpretation will soon become a well-established modality to service meetings,” said Mr. Delgado.

Co-location mode

In addition to operating from home, interpreters are also rehearsing to execute the co-location set up, in which interpreters perform their jobs from their booths in UN Headquarters, while most participants join the meeting virtually.

“We had been considering remote interpretation modalities for a few months before COVID, but it was more related to the context of meetings held remotely while the interpreters worked from the booths in UN Headquarters,” says Ms. Ayyad.

Back of a woman working from a tablet with another laptop and desktop computer in front of her.

Qiyun Zhang, Chief of Chinese Interpretation Section, works from her home in New Jersey. UN Photo/Manuel Elías

So far, interpreters tested this mode during a high-level event on financing for development on 28 May, and a meeting commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter on 26 June. Because of physical distancing requirements, each interpreter was assigned an individual booth.

On 10 July, they tested a combination of ‘co-location’ and ‘work-from-home’ modes on a large scale at the High-level Political Forum, with meeting participants joining virtually.

New normal

If there’s a silver lining to the disruption the crisis brought to interpreters, it’s that they now have a business continuity plan, with new modalities to cope with different scenarios.

“We will return with a new set of skills – remote interpreting – that could be useful for business continuity purposes in the event of future unforeseen circumstances,” said Mr. Pickles.

During the lockdown period and beyond, demand for their services declined. However, interpreters have been using the extra time they have to hone their skills and take training courses on new interpretation platforms.

“We also did some background work that we didn’t have the time to do collectively under normal circumstances, namely, building glossaries on various subjects and sorting out the positions of our clients on major issues discussed at the UN,” said Ms. Zhang.

Due to the introduction of remote interpretation, interpreters may eventually see a reduction in their official travel to conferences and events outside the Headquarters.

“This saddens me because a happy part of my job was being given the chance to leave the booth and travel to different cities to attend conferences and meet new people and colleagues in different duty stations and missions,” said Ms. Ayyad.

Despite the task they perform with mechanical precision, interpreters are human beings with emotions. “Working from home makes me feel pretty lonely,” said Mr. Orlov. He is looking forward to returning to his booth.