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UN GeneralA Guide to Preparing for the Competitive Examination for the Recruitment of United Nations Interpreters

This document offers suggestions on how to prepare for the United Nations competitive examination for English interpreters. The study materials should be adjusted to fit one’s language combination. However, the step in parts 1 and 2 should ensure a thorough and methodical process for the preparation. While the United Nations competitive examination for interpreters is among the most rigorous, it also lends itself to strong preparation due to the wealth of well-organized, easy-to-use information available on the United Nations website.

Part 1: A complete interpretation study session

The following steps make use of the impressive volume of UN meetings (dialogues, statements, remarks) available through the UN webcast. Take the time to familiarize yourself with these resources. Start by going to:

Near the bottom right of the screen there is a link that says, “Real Player needed to view webcasts, click here for free download.” If you don’t have Real Player on your computer, download it now. It’s quick, free, and easy.

Then click on “Archives of previous webcasts”.

That brings you to “Archived webcasts", which offers a list of different United Nations bodies and their meetings together with a wealth of material for your use.

For the purposes of this study guide, click on the link to “General Assembly 64th General Debate (2009)”. Here you will get six days of world leaders addressing a global audience.

If you click on a speaker/country, you get a page that offers, in many cases, the webcast video in the original language, the webcast video in English (interpretation) when the original was not English, the text in the original language, and the text in English (translation) when the original was not English.

For each study session, choose a speaker/country and complete the following steps for that speaker/country before moving on to the next speaker/country.

1. Record yourself interpreting a speech from the webcast without using the written text and without specific topic preparation. This will simulate exam conditions. Avoid stopping/starting over, since you can’t do this during the examination

2. Listen to your recorded interpretation while following in the original language text of the speech (when available). This will allow you to check for omissions, additions, and accuracy. This will also allow you to develop reflexes for key UN concepts, organs, vocabulary, titles, etc. You will be able to see where you struggled, figure out why you struggled, and develop an appropriate strategy or remedy.

3. Listen to your recorded interpretation while reading the text translated into your target language (when available) for comparison between your interpretation and the United Nations interpreter’s version. This will allow you to establish whether your language choices match preferred United Nations language choices.

4. As you perform tasks 2 and 3, underline salient text (key UN concepts, organs, vocabulary, titles, things you got wrong, things you got right, things that you know will come frequently, etc).

5. Cross-check underlined salient text in all of your languages, either in the translated texts (when available), in UNTERM or in other sources, and then feed this vocabulary into your working glossary (preferably indexed with indexing software such as DT Search for quick queries). Study that glossary in your downtime. Highlight language that repeats in your study sessions. As the glossary gets long, create an additional glossary of just the highlighted high-frequency language.

6. Listen to the UN interpreter’s version (when available). This gives you an idea of the delivery sought from UN staff interpreters.

7. Reinterpret the speech until you get it perfect. (And then do it again a few weeks later).

8. It is important to do all of these steps for a given speech before moving on to new material. On days when you do not have a lot of time, choose a short speech. (The speech length is shown on the screen). Completing all of these tasks for a 5 minute speech can take a full half hour, and sometimes that might be all the time you have. It could be better to have regular, short, complete sessions instead of irregular, longer, haphazard ones. A methodical, step-by-step approach will keep things from falling through the cracks.

Note: If you are looking for more or different material than what is found in the archived webcasts section, look for “See the latest” at the center left of the webcast main screen. Just below that there is a horizontal scroll bar with links to sundry UN meetings, conferences, and events. Some successful candidates found the links to the UN Human Rights Council and the 2005 World Summit particularly helpful.

Part 2: Additional tasks

1. Listen to UN Radio and UN RSS feeds and podcasts in your languages.

It is worth getting familiar with the content of this site. Much of the content can be downloaded into your ipod/iphone/itouch/MP3 player of choice. The downloadable content has an old, anachronistic floppy disc icon.

The calendar at the top left of the screen allows you to see United Nations Radio content for any day/month in the recent past. You can download to your ipod a full month of UN Radio programmes in your three languages. Listen to the material wherever you may be, on public transportation, at the doctor’s office, walking to work, riding your bike, etc. Some of the radio programmes are news shorts, while others are feature pieces. Both are helpful, but the news shorts are generally found to be more efficient for assimilating UN-specific content. It is important to note key UN concepts, vocabulary and titles and to research them in order to ensure that the content of your United Nations Radio listening gets turned into booth solutions.

Along the left-hand side of the screen, near the bottom, there is a link for subscribing to Podcasts and RSS feeds.

2. UN Organizational structure in all of your languages

3. Read the UN Charter in all of your languages. You should be thoroughly familiar with the wording of the Preamble and other key articles.

4. There is sample test material from the UN at:

Since this is sample examination material, you may not be ready for this material until the end of your preparation. That said, listening to it when beginning preparation can offer an idea of the type of material used for the examination.

Part 3: How to create your own study library matching audio/video files with corresponding official meeting records

The United Nations website offers rich resources for preparing for its competitive language examinations in all official languages. It is very useful for universities participating in the United Nations MoU network and to individual students to use such resources to create their own study libraries, in which different United Nations speeches can be categorized by topic, level of linguistic complexity and in which audio/video files can be matched by their official transcriptions prepared by the United Nations Verbatim Reporters. Saving the library on your computer hard drive would also allow you to study without interruptions when you do not have an Internet connection and ensures that even if the United Nations database managers remove your study materials from the web site, for whatever reason, you will still have them.

Follow the simple steps described below:

1. Create several directories in your My Documents folder and name them using the categories featured on the UN website: peace and security; development; human rights; humanitarian affairs; international law.

2. Within each directory, create three subfolders: difficult; medium; easy.

3. You will gradually fill the subfolders with matching audio and text files as you work with them to hone your interpretation skills. Below is an example showing how to extract matching files.


• Go to

• Choose General Assembly or Security Council. For the sake of this example, the GA directory has been selected:

• Select Documents tab

• Select topic (here – international peace and security )

• Select agenda item (here - The role of diamonds in fuelling conflict). You will see the following screen:

Out of the documents available (here – 33 documents), select one containing “PV” in its symbol (in this example – No.5). Save documents in all languages you work with. Note the meeting date and number.

STEP 2. Find matching audio/video file

• Open new Internet browser

• Go to same GA page, select "Newsroom", "Webcast".

• Select year (here – 2009), find your meeting

• Point mouse at Archived Video file, right-click and select "Save Target As".

Now you have a matching audio file of the speeches which you can practice interpreting. Check your interpretation against the official transcript; note mistakes and new vocabulary, as recommended above in Part 1.

If you add files to your collection regularly, soon you will have on your hard drive an impressive library of speeches for unlimited practising.


Language professional

"In practical terms, being able to work quickly is key to passing the examination, so experience is definitely an asset. Learn to manage your time well, so that you have time to read your translations over thoroughly and check for pesky spelling mistakes."
Ms. Danielle Henripin
Ms. Danielle Henripin

Language examinations Statistics


ln the next four and a half years, an average of 382 staff will retire each year from the United Nations language services

Number of examinations held from 2005 – 2009 : 55

Number of applicants : 38, 231

Number of applicants convoked to the examinations : 22, 938 (60%)

Number of candidates convoked to the interview : 2, 293 (10%)

The average number of candidates placed on the rosters after each examination : 10.6