HomeNews & Views Leading with Interpretation: Using Language Skills to Support Diplomacy at the UN

Leading with Interpretation: Using Language Skills to Support Diplomacy at the UN


Have you seen Sydney Pollack’s 2005 thriller The Interpreter, a film starring Nicole Kidman as an interpreter working at UN Headquarters in New York City?

In the above video, Pollack and Kidman are joined by Chief Interpreter at UN Headquarters, Diana Liao, and Chief of the French Section International Services, Brigitte Andreassier-Pearl.  These real-life experts in the field explain the role interpreters like themselves play each day in facilitating international relations.

Most UN interpreters at HQ interpret from English into their mother tongue. It’s important to note the distinction between interpretation and translation—which are not the same task, nor do they require the same set of skills: Interpretation is oral while translation is written. Many of the UN interpreters conduct “simultaneous interpretation,” or interpretation that occurs as a delegate is speaking.

Diana and Brigitte each stress the importance of maintaining a calm disposition while working, because interpretation is, in part, a performance. UN interpreters are on the air—live!—and for this reason cannot undo what they’ve just said. They are constantly learning new slang and informal expressions, as well as technical language, which may require some training. Diana describes some of the pre-session “diplomatic banter” that she has encountered—everything from  recipes to baby-feeding instructions, and other personal stories. Every day brings something new.

Thinking that a career in interpretation may be for you?

Check out our Choose Your Language pages for information on university programs, scholarships, and career testimonials about your language. You can also find out more about UN interpreter careers here.