How to Prepare for the United Nations Interpreter Exam

As many readers will already be aware, the UN is currently recruiting English, Spanish and French interpreters for its headquarters in New York and other duty stations (you can find details of the posting here). Unfortunately for those who are just hearing the news now, the deadline for applying has already passed. However, there will undoubtedly be some interpreters out there who have submitted their applications and are now wondering how to make the most of their time until the tests are held later this spring.

Now, while I haven’t actually applied to take the test, I have to confess I was curious to see what sort of information and resources are available to help candidates prepare for the big day. So I started digging, and here’s what I found.

Oddly enough, a cursory search of the UN careers website didn’t turn up much (whilst the site is jam-packed with interesting information, I find it a bit hard to navigate effectively to find exactly what I want).  A quick Google query led me to this article: How to Pass the United Nations Interpreter Examination. I found the article informative enough, and it included a few useful links at the bottom. However, it was nothing compared to what I unearthed next…

On the Interpreter Training Resources website, my site of choice for all things interpreting-related, I found a link sporting the innocent title of “UN Tips”. Well, what did I find when I clicked on it but a direct link to the United Nations’ own official guidance document on how to prepare for their interpreter exams!


Thank you, Andy! What would we do without you…

The full title of this little gem is Examinations for Interpreters* and I’m happy to say it delivers exactly what the title promises. The guide is published on the UN’s Language Outreach portal (I didn’t go back to the UN Careers site to see if there was a link through to this portal, but I have to hope there is one and I just wasn’t clever enough to find it).

The guide gives detailed, step-by-step suggestions of how to prepare for the exams using material found on the various UN websites. There are enough ideas there to keep even the eagerest of beavers busy for the next few months until test day!

The only downside to the resource that I could find were the statistics they gave in the right-hand column (UN hopefuls, please avert your eyes now): there were 38,231 applicants to the 55 examinations held between 2005 and 2009, and only 10.6 successful candidates were placed on the roster after each exam. Gulp.

So, there you have it. Time for you aspiring UN interpreters to get practicing so you can beat the odds… and time for me to stop blogging and get back to my real job!

*Update for 2016: the UN language careers website has been revamped and all information on Examinations for Interpreters, including the Tips for Preparation I described above, can now be found at this link. This blog post has been amended in part to reflect the changes.

iPad: The Ideal Boothmate?

Interpreters are becoming an increasingly tech-savvy bunch. Most of my colleagues – especially the younger generation – now have smartphones in their pockets and tablets in their backpacks. It’s important that we look at how we can best integrate the technology we use in everyday life into our professional practice.

One question that comes up time and again is how the now-ubiquitous iPad can best serve our needs in the booth. I see more and more colleagues bringing their iPads with them to work, but opinions seem to be mixed about just how useful they are as boothmates. Some would appear to see iPads as little more than a way to stay connected, and use them only to check emails and work schedules. But I feel they must offer more than that. What I want to know is: how can iPads help us do our job?

In an attempt to obtain a satisfactory answer to that question, I contacted Alexander Drechsel, staff interpreter at the European Commission. Alexander has embraced new technologies in a way not seen in many senior interpreters. He has earned the reputation of being a bit of an iPad expert, and regularly shares tablet tips and tricks with his colleagues on internal training courses at the SCIC. Alexander also recently gave a demonstration on iPads to a crowd of tech-curious language professionals at the BDÜ conference “Interpreting the Future” in Berlin. Our chat was inspired by that presentation.

Image credit: bplanet /

MH: Alexander, would you say that the iPad is the ideal boothmate?

AD: Definitely! I have been using an iPad almost exclusively as my digital booth companion for over two years and think it is perfect for referencing documents, looking up and managing terminology, and checking e-mail, to name just a few use cases. Also, the fully-charged battery will last you the entire day and, unlike with traditional notebooks, there is no bulky power brick and no noise from a fan or a keyboard.

MH: What made you switch to an iPad (from a laptop, presumably)? 

AD: Yes, I did switch from a laptop. The main reasons for that are the ones I pointed out above: portability and a small footprint (very important in mobile booths with little space and few outlets). I also feel it keeps me more focussed on the task at hand than a larger and full-featured notebook would. This is probably because a tablet is smaller and usually only displays one app at a time.

MH: What are the main disadvantages of an iPad as compared to a laptop or netbook? 

AD: Depending on how you look at it, the limited multitasking capabilities could be considered a disadvantage. For example, it is quite difficult to display content side by side on a tablet – say, two documents or two apps. You will have to switch back and forth between them.

Apple’s iPad also comes without several key technologies: Flash (for some interactive web content and videos), Java (for traditional web applications) and full USB connectivity. While you can connect your smartphone or digital camera to transfer pictures and video, you cannot just plug in the thumb drive the speaker gave you with his presentation on it. Android devices, on the other hand, are much more open in this regard.

MH: I imagine that you can always get around the lack of a USB port by having the speaker’s notes or presentation emailed to you. But is it true that it’s hard to work with MS Office files on a tablet, or is that just a case of unfounded iPad-bashing?

AD: Handling Office documents is actually quite straightforward on tablets: You can usually display them straight away (iPad) or with pre-installed apps (Android). For editing, you will either need to install dedicated apps or rely on web apps such as Google Drive or Office 365.

MH: Does it have to be an iPad, or are the tablets running Google Android and other iPad competitors just as good?

AD: In my view, pretty much all the tablets running either Apple’s iOS or recent versions of Google’s Android (meaning 4.0 or later) are great devices. If you’re interested in Microsoft’s newest spin on tablets, the Surface, I would recommend you wait for the Surface Pro, which will also run “classic” Windows software.

MH: Tell me about the apps on your iPad that you couldn’t live without.

AD: If I could install only one app on my iPad, it would have to be GoodReader. From file management to viewing and annotating PDFs – this app is the best thing since sliced bread. Then, of course, there are the essentials like Mail and the web browser (I prefer iCab Mobile). For terminology, I use Interplex HD (also available for iPhone and PCs). To keep up with news, I rely on Flipboard and Mr. Reader. My guilty pleasures would probably be Tweetbot (Twitter is great for interpreters!) and the occasional round of Angry Birds.

MH: Now the big question for interpreters: what about terminology management?

AD: Well, I already gave this one away now, didn’t I? Interplex is my go-to app for terminology management. It is very easy to use, allows quick searches and lets you synchronize your valuable words with other devices through Dropbox. What more could one ask for? If you’re looking for a more general database app for your terminology, have a look at Bento for iPad.

MH: And note-taking? Do you know of any apps that might work for consecutive assignments? 

AD: I have been meaning to bring my iPad along on a consec job, but they are very rare in my case. And I think that smaller formats (iPad mini, Nexus 7, Galaxy Note) would be a better choice for such a situation. As for apps, you could try Penultimate (good drawing engine, wide choice of paper templates) or Paper (best drawing engine, very simple and intuitive notebook metaphor).

MH: If you had to recommend just ONE piece of booth-friendly hardware for a (possibly cash-strapped) young interpreter to invest in, which would it be? 

AD: If you already have a mobile device (say, a laptop) and chances are that, as a student, you do, stick with that when you start out. Even just a smartphone can be very, very useful. During your first jobs, you’ll have to cope with so many things, don’t let a new device confuse you.

Once you really want to spend some money, ask yourself a few questions: Do you want a dedicated “booth device” (i.e. tablet) or something more versatile (i.e. a small ultrabook or notebook, like the MacBook Air)? Do you already have a smartphone? Then maybe you’ll want to stick with it, because many apps today run on both the phone and the tablet version of the operating system. Do you want a small tablet (better for mobile interpreting jobs) or a bigger one (better for the booth)? Talk to colleagues about their experience or check online resources such as

MH: To wrap up, just one last question about technology take-up in the interpreting world. More than a decade into the 21st century, we interpreters are still faced with stacks of paper documents each time we walk into a meeting. Is this going to change any time soon? Does the advent of iPads and other mobile technology mean that the paperless booth is just around the corner? 

AD: Where I work: no! And I presume the same applies more or less to the private market, too. I am sure however, that the situation will look very differently in two or three years. I certainly hope so!


Alexander Drechsel can be found on Twitter at @adrechsel and @tabterp.

Hear more of Alexander’s tips for working with iPads in the audio recording of his presentation (in German) at the BDÜ conference. 

Read what other interpreters have to say on about iPads apps for the booth.

This post was originally published on the AIIC Blog.

What’s Next on the Diaries? You Tell Me!

Today, classes start up again on the Master’s in Conference Interpreting at the University of La Laguna. And while I won’t actually meet my new students in person for a couple of weeks (too much work-related travel getting in the way), I would like to take this opportunity to welcome them virtually to the training course.

While I’m at it, perhaps I could share with readers what my blogging plan will be for the next few months. When I launched the Interpreter Diaries, I set myself three main goals:

1) offer useful information about the conference interpreting profession to those who might be considering it as a career

2) give readers an inside look at conference interpreter training and guidance to students currently on a course

3) share useful information for new interpreters trying to break into the market.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been slowly working my way through this plan. The posts I wrote for the first series in the spring and summer of 2011 can be found under the category “for aspiring interpreters”. The second series, “for interpreting students”, was written over the course of the past academic year, between September 2011 and June 2012. Now I think it’s about time I tackled my third and final goal and started addressing topics of interpretes to new interpreters just starting out in the profession. I have published a few posts on the topic, which you’ll find under the category “for recent graduates”, but the section is still looking pretty anemic, and it’s time I changed that.

So, basically, what I’d like to know from you is: what issues would you like me to address under this category? What would recent graduates of a conference interpreting course like to know? I have some ideas of my own and have already started drafting a list of possible topics, but I’d appreciate some input. You can share your question in the comments section below, or tweet me your concerns at @InterpDiaries, or post a question on my wall in Facebook.

I’m certainly no expert in the subject of how to get a job as an interpreter, but I promise to do the best I can to answer your questions. And if I can’t come up with an answer, maybe I will know someone who can!

Image courtesy of photostock /

P.S. If you are a student of conference interpreting just starting your Master’s now and you want to find relevant articles for your stage of training, just flip back in the archives (located in the bar at the bottom of my homepage) and see what I posted starting last September