From gown to booth: working for an international institution
The Holy Grail: working for the EU or the UN
For many budding interpreters, working for an international institution is the ultimate dream, the Holy Grail of the profession. But to turn this dream into a career, it’s worth being prepared. The tips that follow are based on advice provided by EU and UN interpreters at various conferences I attended, and at career events organised at Heriot-Watt University, where we regularly welcome back our alumni who now work for the institutions.
- Learn your trade properly – get a relevant university qualification
To become an EU or a UN conference interpreter, you need to be properly trained for consecutive and simultaneous in realistic conditions. So look for a university equipped with proper booths and up-to-date equipment, where you’ll be working on realistic conference materials under the tutelage of experienced academics and professional interpreters (often one and the same).
- Know your employer and more than just the languages you offer
To work for EU or the UN, you need to know the organisations well, and you must become familiar with the terminology in use. How to do that? Well, your training should help: a good course will provide classes on international organisations, maybe even economics or law.
Also use the official web-sites of the EU and UN regularly, and follow the press in all your languages, so as to be aware of the latest issues on each country’s agenda. You’ll need more than just a good knowledge of your languages, you’ll need a working knowledge of them, fit for current affairs.
Finally, consider internships: a “stage” with any EU agency will give a good understanding of the system and will make you familiar with euro-jargon.
- Learn about the recruitment and plan ahead
Find out about the application process, the different entry levels, the format of the assessment and the time-scale you’ll be considering (up to a year). And think a constructive way to continue your training throughout the process.
Make sure that your CV is up-to-date and that it is formulated properly (avoid claiming you’re “bilingual”- speak in “language A, B or C” terms instead).
UN competitions are advertised online, and the tests entail several speeches of different levels, in simultaneous mode. The UN Language Outreach website has links to useful resources to prepare.
For the EU “concours”, you will need to create an EPSO profile; that’s also where competitions are announced. Once your application has been accepted, expect several selection stages, starting with psychometric tests (your Career Services should be able to help with that).
It is also possible to take the EU accreditation tests, to work as a freelancer. No psychometric test involved, but consecutive and simultaneous tests on your various language combinations. View the Testing Times clips for an idea of the level.
- When should you apply?
Opinions differ here – some will tell you that it worth applying straight after completing your degree, while you are still fully training mode. It can be a good strategy for the UN exams, especially for the UN languages which are highly in demand (Russian and Arabic), providing your technique and language skills are impeccable.
But more often than not, successful applicants are interpreters who have acquired experience on the professional market (keep precise records of your work, it can be taken into consideration) and who have spent time living and working abroad, consolidating their languages or adding C languages to their combinations (very useful for the EU).
One thing is certain: to succeed, you will need to develop excellent interpreting skills, almost to the point at which it becomes a second nature, and you will need to take an interest in everything and anything. And even still, many interpreters didn’t succeed the first time around – it takes time, but perseverance and hard work pay!
Author: Fanny Chouc
Freelance interpreter and French Teaching Fellow at Heriot-Watt University