The temptation to lampoon them is delicious. If only the immediate future of the world did not rest on every word that passes the lips of U.N. interpreters. If you can stay awake long enough, simultaneous interpretation can sound comical, like a badly dubbed movie played out in that iconic 38-story building that looks like it's about to fall into the East River.
Every day their droning voices overlap a low whir of debate in the Security Council chamber. But they remain faceless. Alone, in stuffy glass booths above the council chambers, they are the conduits of diplomacy -- the means of understanding among nations that need to communicate for the sake of the Planet but, alas, don't speak the same language.
While addressing the Security Council recently, the wavy-haired French foreign minister was fairly shouting into a small microphone. But what the English-speaking world heard on television was the high, steady voice of a woman -- like a disembodied Catherine Deneuve describing flatly why the council should stand firm against war.
The U.N. Interpretation Service has rarely been so important as it has been lately, with the world focused on the wisdom of a war in Iraq and a troubled U.N. resolution. The service has beefed up its ranks of 119 full-time interpreters, with about 80 freelancers. They work in six official languages -- English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic -- out of a gray sub-basement office that is unfortunately situated next to a U.N. kitchen that is busy trying to please the multinational tastes of a warring world. (The cacophony of voices is nothing compared to the cacophony of smells.)
Last week, Brigitte Andreassier, an elegant French woman, was preparing an intricate daily schedule for the interpreters when her phone rang. An SOS was coming from the Spanish booth. The interpreter's voice was getting croaky and the Security Council was in mid-agony, midafternoon.
"I'll try to replace you," Andreassier pledged in that calm near-whisper that interpreters seem to prefer. But it was 5 p.m. and the relief shift was an hour away. Usually, a team of two interpreters alternates shifts: half an hour in the booth, half an hour out.
"Life is rather frantic these days," Andreassier said, sounding anything but.
The miracle of simultaneous interpretation is best compared to those acts on the old "Ed Sullivan Show," when one guy spins five plates on five sticks at the same time. The interpreter must 1) hear the speaker's words 2) understand them 3) think about them in another language 4) speak in a flow of precise, intelligible words and still be 5) listening to the next sentence.
Some interpreters add a sixth plate: They capture the emotions of the speaker. But many skip that to concentrate on the ideas, explains Hossam Fahr, chief of the Arabic interpreters.
"The pressure is very high, which is why the work is so addictive," says Fahr, an erudite, impeccably dressed 44-year-old Egyptian whose mastery of English has been further facilitated by a 10-year-old son who teaches him the importance of words like "awesome."
There is no shortage of metaphors for the complexities of the work: "Every day is like opening night with no dress rehearsals," says Fahr. Others have likened it to driving a car with a steering wheel but no brakes and no reverse or to rush hour in an air-traffic control tower.
The interpreters are a highly intelligent group of people
from all over the world. They are required to have at least a college degree and the ability to interpret from two foreign languages into their mother tongue, and they must pass an oral examination to work at the U.N. But many are worldly sophisticates with advanced degrees in a wide range of subjects and unusually sharp short-term memories.
When the chamber is dark and the diplomats are mum, these men and women spend their off hours reading the foreign media, U.N. tomes on weapons inspection and peacekeeping, previous statements by foreign ministers and an occasional glossary of acronyms.
Most interpreters are also smokers and almost all are high-strung, says Fahr, who is equally fluent in Arabic, Spanish and English but can't kick the tobacco habit.
Puns, local sayings and culturally specific references are their linguistic booby traps. A slip of the tongue can have serious repercussions.
So when an Arab diplomat, making an important point, said: "You cannot make good syrup out of rotten fish," Fahr had to think fast to find an equivalent English expression. In seconds, he came up with something about a pig's ear and a silk purse.
Fahr is too tactful to reveal any missed cues or wrong phrases used by his colleagues during these fraught times. But it happens, he says.
Early in his 20-year career at the U.N., he was in the Arab booth interpreting a speech for a Sudanese diplomat who said: "The independence of small nations is one of the loftiest goals of the U.N. Charter." Tripped up by the dialect, Fahr translated "exploitation" instead of "independence."
"I wasn't thinking about the meaning of the words, which was why I made a mistake," Fahr says. Yet, unless the error is a showstopper, the interpreters do not correct themselves because that would slow the work and lead to more mistakes.
It isn't just the language and cultural nuances that can be difficult. It can be the speaker.
Fahr is a fan of former President Clinton, but his Arkansas accent and occasional laryngitis could be problematic, even when he was reading from a prepared text.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright's propensity to use such words as "propinquity" caused all six translation booths to fall dead silent for a few seconds once -- until she politely explained what she meant.
But the bloopers are hardly noticeable, and no one can recall an interpreter's mistake that tipped the world a degree nearer to war. In fact, the interpreters probably make a lot of world leaders sound more polished than they are.
"Sometimes what comes out of the booth is better than what is said," Andreassier says. "We finish their sentences when they don't."
But for all the exemplary work, the perks are mixed. Last year in a cost-cutting measure, the U.N. stopped stocking the booths with bottled water, and the interpreters earn less than most midlevel government bureaucrats -- as little as $40,000 a year. But they do enjoy a front-row seat in the headquarters of the international political community.
They chat over coffee on a first-name basis with ambassadors in the delegates' lounge. And they regularly travel the world. Last year, the U.N. sent Fahr to three continents.
These days, however, the job is anything but cushy, and some U.N. interpreters are working around the clock.
"Every team has its stars," says Fahr. "These are the people you put in the suicide missions like interpreting Security Council meetings on Iraq."