The Performer: Leslie Gillen- Malanga, Interpreter

On preparation, multi-tasking and the thrill of making history.

Date of birth: 09/09/60
Languages spoken: 6
Years of service as a UN interpreter: 22
Number of interpreters currently serving at UN headquarters in New York: 108
Number of positions vacant because of a scarcity of high-calibre interpreters: 24
Number of candidates who took the most recent UN interpreters exam: 80
Number who passed: 16

With six official working languages, it’s remarkable that United Nations delegates are able to find common ground on anything. From their glass booths overlooking the meeting rooms in its Manhattan headquarters, it’s the UN’s interpreters who keep the business of diplomacy humming quietly along. Chief of the interpretation service’s English section, Oshawa, Ont., native Leslie Gillen-Malanga has been an interpreter since 1989. In more than two decades at Turtle Bay, she’s served at meetings of the Security Council and the General Assembly, as well as countless more prosaic sessions. She spoke with Canadian Business staff writer Jordan Timm.

What skills does a good interpreter have?
At the United Nations, the work is done from your passive languages into your mother tongue. So you have to have a very strong knowledge of passive languages, familiarity with other cultures, and a very, very strong command of your mother tongue, so that you can express ideas not just at the formal level—in the Security Council, for example—but at meetings where there’s more of an exchange among delegates.

One of the hardest things is the ability to divide attention between what you’re hearing and what you’re saying. You have to be able to hear what’s coming in through the earphones, process that information, and then interpret it and make sure that your target language is clear, grammatically correct and syntactically correct. And while you’re doing that, the speaker’s continuing, so new ideas are coming in. It’s that constant circle of input, process, output.

So how do you learn to multi-task like that?
One of the easiest ways is to do what we call shadowing. You listen to the radio or the TV and you repeat exactly what that person is saying, with a bit of a time lag—not just the words, but the feeling. Once you’re able to master that—because you have to make sure that you don’t speak over the speaker, you have to be able to hear them, and hear yourself and make sure that you’re not slurring your words—then you start to work on very slow statements and go over those statements again and again.

What are the consequences of making a mistake while interpreting?
It depends on the setting and the circumstances. One of the most stressful environments is the Security Council, because it’s more often than not a crisis. There’s a lot at stake. You have people who are representing their national positions, and you have to get it right. And if you make a mistake, they could well complain, and then you have to provide them with a formal apology. In other settings, when it’s a little less stressful—budget meetings or delegates discussing housekeeping issues—if you make a mistake they may laugh, actually, if it’s not a serious issue, and you have to apologize on mike and go on. Or they may draw attention to an error, and they do that not necessarily to embarrass you but to get the record straight if you’ve misquoted them. A lot of that depends on the personality of the speaker, and the setting. Some of them get quite upset.

This stuff must be awfully taxing on a person. How long can you do it for?
At the United Nations, it was determined that, really, to be effective in the booth you should only work at most for 30 minutes. Then you need a break of half an hour, and then you can work for another 30 minutes, and that you shouldn’t work more than seven meetings a week. Sometimes people leave the booth just to clear their head, but most often colleagues stay in the booth because you could miss important information that’s relevant to your next half-hour. But your attention, your focus and the quality of your target language diminishes if you are on-mike for too long.

Is there any particular way you prepare mentally for an interpretation session?
We learn of our assignments the evening before, so I don’t know until 8 p.m. tonight what I’ll be doing tomorrow. The minute I find out, I get onto my computer. I look at UN documents, I make sure I know the vocabulary, I go through my glossaries, and I make sure that I have my bag of tools, my vocabulary with me. And you get into the booth at least 10 or 15 minutes before the meeting. Hopefully a colleague from the previous day’s meeting will have left you a note to tell you who the speakers are, or what the subject is, and you just get yourself prepared for that discussion.

So do you still get nervous, or feel pressure when you’re working an important meeting?
I do, personally. When I know that it’s a very sensitive political issue, I’m nervous. I want to get it right, and make sure that I don’t say something foolish. When you think about Libya, when you think about Côte d’Ivoire, the situation is so fluid on the ground that you can go into a meeting and suddenly there’s a place name that you haven’t heard before, or the name of a person, or their title. And numbers get bandied about—and you can’t get them wrong—and all of those things are arbitrary. You can’t necessarily figure them out from the context. So I do worry about misspeaking in such important meetings.

Do you get a thrill from your job?
It is exciting to say that you’re there at a history-making moment, and there’s a rush in performing and in doing the job well. And perhaps I shouldn’t liken it to a performance but it is, because you have very little control over the input—you can’t control the speaker’s thoughts or his speed or his choice of words, and so it’s like sight-reading every time. Some people want to distance themselves from the emotion of the speaker, but I tend to be much more easily led by the speaker’s intonation, by their feeling. And that for me is a rush, when I see that my listeners in the room are not flinching. They’re looking at the speaker who’s speaking another language, perhaps a male, and then they’re hearing this female voice but with the same gravitas and the same feeling.

So how do you define success?
I’ve been very focused and found the right words at the right time. There are plenty of times you don’t get the exact word that you’re looking for, and you have to go for second-best. But for me, a successful day is when they don’t even notice that I’m there, if that makes sense. If I haven’t brought attention to myself in the wrong way, that’s a good thing.