How the UN’s interpreter team has dealt with the pandemic

The pandemic has forced the UN to switch its interpreter team to remote work via RSI software. Pedro-José Espinosa, Chief interpreter at the United Nations Nairobi office opens up to Natalia Fedorenkova and Naomi Bowman about the ups and downs of the new remote working arrangements.

How did you adjust to the lockdown situation? Did you go online and to what extent?

When lockdowns were introduced in spring, all the meetings were cancelled overnight. UNON was closed, so we had to do everything remotely. UN concluded a 1-year contract with 3 RSI providers – Interprefy, Interactio and Kudo. Zoom was not used due to confidentiality issues. Up to now we have done 200 meetings remotely in Nairobi.

Pictured left: Pedro-José Espinosa


What challenges did you face related to the online work?

Here in Africa, we have multiple issues with working remotely. Connectivity is not so good in many locations. Power cuts are also a frequent thing. I am trying now to contract only those interpreters who have backup systems in place, power generators, fiber optics for internet, etc. Also one of the biggest problems is toxic sound. It takes time and advocacy efforts to persuade delegates to use headsets and professional microphones. No one was prepared to go remote so fast.

What measures did you take to tackle the emerging issues and provide acceptable working conditions for interpreters?

Taking into account changed working conditions, we added 1 extra interpreter to the booth team, so it is now 3 interpreters per three-hour shift. We also provisionally reduced the length of meetings from 3 to 2 hours and the number of sessions per week from 7 to 5 for our interpreters to reduce the stress and workload.

What is your vision for the future? Is RSI here with us to stay?

What does the future holds? I do not have an official answer. RSI is a business continuity solution, deployed during the pandemic. Remote work adds to the cognitive load and stress for the interpreters.

What are we witnessing now? Meetings have been democratized. Previously some smaller multilingual meetings were held “on if available basis” only. I think that big meetings will return to offline (coffee break diplomacy is crucial) and small meeting will stay online.

Will you have more meetings next year? Is the workload growing?

There are 2 types of meetings: regular budgetary meetings and the extra budgetary meetings that pay for the service. I think we will have at least as many extrabudgetary meetings this year compared to the last year. And we will see more hybrid meetings. On the 7th of April we are having the first hybrid meeting.

EUATC News special correspondents: Natalia Fedorenkova and Naomi Bowman


Photographs: Stephanie Foote, UNEP