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Interpreting the Words of World Leaders

When leaders address the United Nations General Assembly, many of them have to use interpreters.

The world body does not necessarily pair leaders with certain interpreters, U.N. interpreter Tica Broch tells to Alex Cohen. Interpreters can put in requests to translate for certain leaders, but the U.N.'s chief interpreter decides based on various considerations, such as languages and the experience of the interpreter.

"They can't pay attention to gender, because we're assigned for three hour periods," she says. "And you'll have men and women in succession. So it's the languages that count, not the gender."


That's how Broch became the translator last year for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's now-famous speech in which he referred to President Bush as "the devil."

As she interpreted the fiery speech, Broch said she was trying not to laugh.

"He had actually started by wielding a book by Noam Chomsky and explaining how interesting the book was," she says. "And then he suddenly launched into the President Bush and the devil part."

Broch said the interpreters usually get the speeches in advance. That was not the case with Chavez's speech, so she says she had no idea what to expect — causing a certain amount of surprise that can be heard in her voice during the translation.

However, Broch said, when world leaders, like Chavez, give emotional speeches, the translations try to do justice to the emotion the speakers are trying to convey by conveying similar emotion in their own voices.


While Chavez's speech captured headlines, it was not the first time a leader gave a negative or critical speech before the U.N. General Assembly. Broch said translators must set their feelings aside and translate what is being said — ever mindful of how they translate the speaker's words.

"I'm half Cuban. And my father became a Cuban exile," Broch says. "Am I going to misinterpret the Cuban delegate? Not at all. On the contrary, the Cuban speech will always be a special challenge to overcome any perhaps partiality I might have. And all interpreters are that way, because we all come from somewhere."

Overcoming such partiality is not the most challenging part of Broch's job — accuracy is. As the U.N. membership has grown, so too has the number of speakers. Unfortunately for the interpreters, the meetings are still three hours long.

"What they do nowadays is they just read their speeches really fast," she says. "And they crowd in there all kinds of facts and figures, and acronyms. So the greatest challenge is doing something with the barrage of information that suddenly arrives."

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