Tag Archives: communication

Crossing the Language Barrier: Interpretation at the UN

By: Julie van der Hoop

INC5 is over, and I’ve returned home to campus. Though friends have been asking me questions about my experience, and how I got the opportunity to attend the negotiations, there has been one question that comes up almost every time: How many languages are spoken in a UN negotiation and how do you understand them?

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Pedro-Jose Espinosa, the chief interpreter at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi. After post-graduate education in law and economics, Pedro moved to Geneva and switched careers. First, he worked for UN translation services, and then became involved in interpretation. “Experience in law and economics is helpful,” he said, though interpretation is often a “third level career” – one that people come to after a first or second job. Some enter immediately after attending education programs specifically for interpretation and translation but, he said, “anyone can do it.” Assuming, of course, they speak several languages.


Interpreters working in the booth at INC5.

Some Basics

The UN has six official languages: English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese. Two of these languages, English and French, are the working languages of the UN, meaning they are used in day-to-day communication. This is because the language of diplomacy has historically been French but, within the last 50 years, English has become dominant.

Any official texts, such as Conference Room Papers (CRPs), are translated into all official languages. The treaty text is likewise available in these six languages, but all references are made to the English version of the treaty. As the Legal Group works only in English, this version is the official ‘legally-binding’ text to be used in negotiations and tribunals.

This leads us to a point of clarification: translation deals with text, and interpretation refers specifically to the spoken word.

Interpretation in the Conference Center

In booths at the back of the conference room, interpreters listen to delegates as they speak into their microphones; they then interpret what is being said and communicate this back to attendees, who listen through headphones and select the language they want to hear. Interpreters derive meaning from their “passive” languages — i.e., the languages spoken by the delegates—and convey the meaning of what is being said in their “active” language.

But interpreters don’t have to know all of the official languages – at a minimum, they only need to know two. In planning an interpretation team, the chief must match up different abilities to create a working relay system. One interpreter may go from Arabic to English, and another from English to Chinese, as there may be no one on staff who can interpret straight from Arabic to Chinese. “The amount of relaying must be minimized,” said Pedro. “You don’t want it to become a game of ‘telephone’.”

Interpretation is simultaneous, meaning that the language is interpreted as the delegate is still speaking; there is no intermediate pause to allow an interpreter to convey a message. Because of how exhausting the job is, interpreters switch off in half-hour shifts, and work seven ‘half-days’ out of the ten in a five-day work week.

And on the other three ‘half-days’? “We recuperate and prepare,” Pedro said.

Preparation is key to success in interpretation: knowledge of the meeting topic is extremely important in putting things in context and being familiar with jargon. “Technical meetings are the most difficult,” both in understanding and in interpreting what negotiators are saying. For example, knowing the difference between HFCs, CFCs, or HCFCs is critical to ensure proper communication in climate change negotiations.


The job doesn’t come without challenges. Keeping pace with a speaker can be extremely difficult when many delegates read from written statements on the floor. When people read, they speak much faster than when they are just talking, which makes it difficult for an interpreter to hear, process, and repeat the speech fast enough. Accents can also be plaguing – just consider the number of accents in English. Australian, Jamaican, and Japanese delegates all communicate on the floor in English, so an interpreter must be able to understand all of the various accents in a single passive language.

And if an interpreter is at a loss for words? “There are strategies for coping,” according to Pedro. An interpreter can continue with the speech, and fill in whatever meaning might have been lost. “Interpreting is not translating,” Pedro said. Paraphrasing is often needed as there are words and sentiments that do not have full equivalents in all languages. In the end, “it’s the message that counts.”

Bioamplification, Bioaccumulation and Bioconcentration

By: Julie van der Hoop

The confusion between bioamplification, bioaccumulation and bioconcentration is understandable. Yesterday, delegates asked for a clarification and explanation as to how this happens. These terms are not interchangeable, though they are often used as if they were. This post should clarify the situation.


Bioamplification (or biomagnification, as the picture shows) refers to an increase in the concentration of a substance as you move up the food chain. This often occurs because the pollutant is persistent, meaning that it cannot be, or is very slowly, broken down by natural processes. These persistent pollutants are transferred up the food chain faster than they are broken down or excreted.

In contrast, bioaccumulation occurs within an organism, where a concentration of a substance builds up in the tissues and is absorbed faster than it is removed. Bioaccumulation often occurs in two ways, simultaneously: by eating contaminated food, and by absorption directly from water. This second case is specifically referred to as bioconcentration.

So, what have we learned? Bioconcentration and bioaccumulation happen within an organism, but biomagnification occurs across levels of the food chain. An example: phytoplankton and other microscopic organisms take up methylmercury and then retain it in their tissues. Here, mercury bioaccumulation is occurring: mercury concentrations are higher in the organisms than it is in the surrounding environment. As animals eat these smaller organisms, they receive their prey’s mercury burden. Because of this, animals that are higher in the food chain have higher levels of mercury than they would have due to regular exposure. With increasing trophic level, mercury levels are amplified.

Mercury Poisoning in Popular Culture

By: Philip Wolfe

In writing for this blog, I’ve been considering the role of communication and message-building in science and science policy. I’m often surprised about the extent of people’s scientific knowledge. Last year I was in a bar in Cambridge that was having a trivia contest, and 90% of the trivia teams there were able to correctly identify the isotope of cesium used to define the second as a unit of time measurement. Now, this was not a random sampling of the US population at large (it was a heavy MIT crowd), but I still think that’s pretty amazing.

Yet, while I’ve been prepping for these negotiations, I have been speaking with friends and colleagues and many of them have no idea about the problems mercury poses to the world. How can the same group of people, a group that clearly has a good science foundation, be so unaware of something that is such a significant policy issue?

I don’t have a great answer (and I would love to hear thoughts from other people), but I thought it might be fun to look at how mercury and mercury-related health impacts are portrayed in popular culture to perhaps gain some insight.

Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Mercury

Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Mercury

It turns out there may not be a whole lot of insight to gain. Over 177 episodes of House, not once was mercury the final diagnosis, and its not like the show shied away from outré solutions. Gold, cadmium, cobalt, lead and even selenium poisoning all make it on the final diagnosis tally sheet.

In fact, mercury poisoning is rarely mentioned as even a possibility for whatever pain or illness the primary patient may have. I’ll give the writers credit, when it comes up the details are pretty accurate. In “Son of a Coma Guy,” the team guesses that seizures and visual problems could be caused by mercury exposure at a luxury yacht factory. It’s a neat throwaway fact, as mercury was formerly used in mildew-resistant paints, but that practice has been discontinued in the US since the early 90’s.

One episode of the CBS Drama The 11th Hour, in which a brilliant biophysicist solves science crimes for the FBI and stops deadly experiments (yes, that really was the premise), did look at the long lasting and potentially devastating consequences of mercury releases to lakes and watersheds. I haven’t seen the episode, but judging by the fact that the series was cancelled after just 18 episodes, I think its fair to say it wasn’t part of the cultural zeitgeist.

In movies, mercury is not represented much more. While toxic chemicals have been covered in “based on true events” movies like A Civil Action (trichloroethylene) and Erin Brockovich (hexavalent chromium), Hollywood seems to be pretty silent on mercury. The glaring exception is a wonderfully bizarre environmental agitprop horror film from the 1970s called Prophecy. In it, mercury waste from a logging company creates violent raccoons, salmon large enough to eat a duck and, worst of all, a giant bear-monster that may also be a reincarnated, evil forest spirit. What it lacks in accuracy (and it lacks a lot in accuracy) it more than makes up for in terrible special effects.

Mercury’s absence in music is a bit more understandable. “Big Issue” songs, like Joni Mitchell calling for farmers to put away their DDT, have not been in vogue over the past few decades. The Dead Kennedy’s song “Kepone Factory,” about a chemical quite similar to DDT, references the Minamata disaster. In Minamata, Japan, over 2000 people have been diagnosed with a severe neurological impairments from mercury exposure. Japanese-American composer Toshiko Akiyoshi has written a jazz suite about the Minamata disaster, but unfortunately the LP with the most acclaimed recording of this piece has not been released in the US.

I’m not sure why mercury has not been more prevalent in popular culture. The potential dangers are chilling enough and the real-life tragedies (here for example) are certainly deserving of greater acknowledgement and provide compelling narratives for art. It certainly makes it harder for scientists and policymakers to enact real change, or for victims to be compensated for that matter, because there’s such a dearth of awareness of the underlying problem.

I wonder if some celebrity took up mercury as a personal cause if it could raise the public consciousness about the issue. There is evidence that it could. In late 2008, Jeremy Piven dropped out of the Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow, citing hydrargaria from sushi consumption. When the news broke, Google searches for “mercury poisoning” nearly doubled.

Getting a high-profile public figure to support a global treaty on mercury could be one way to improve public awareness. As a scientist though, I fear the flip side of that coin. If mercury becomes a cause célèbre overnight, there may not be enough scientifically-sound publically-available literature to properly support any nascent movement. Ask a scientist studying vaccine safety how they feel about Jenny McCarthy for an idea of how scientists can quickly find themselves unable to control a scientific conversation.