works as a freelance interpreter in Geneva. Here he shares with us
a few tips for finding your feet, and work, at the international
institutions in Geneva.
I have my diploma. What
Aim to pass the freelance test organised within the UN Geneva
interpretation section. This is a less formal procedure than EU
accreditation but you will not be recruited by the UN office in Geneva
(UNOG) unless you have sat and passed the test.
Again unlike at the EU, the test is not strictly speaking
"inter-institutional", since each specialised agency/entity covered by
the UN-AIIC agreement recruits independently. It is however recognised
by most other agencies and organisations in Geneva as only WTO has
enough staff interpreters to test independently. Note that
the way it recruits, UNOG-proper often accounts for the lion's share of
beginner interpreters' workload.
You would be sensible to get in touch with the relevant head of booth
at UNOG early on to make enquiries about future test dates and also to
see about getting access to UN premises for dummy-booth work, which I
cannot recommend highly enough. Apart from the practice
opportunities, being at the Palais des Nations as often as you can will
show you are serious about sitting the test. UNOG staff
interpreters were usually happy to allow me to practice in a spare
booth during public meetings (www.unog.ch has meeting listings; private
sessions are a no-go) and I was even able to sit in with
two colleagues and listen while they worked. With such a variety of
subject matter covered, it’s an excellent way to pick up useful
vocabulary and “UN-speak” expressions that will come in handy later, so
bring a notebook to the booth.
To obtain an entrance badge, the relevant head of booth will need to
send a request to the security services, which are to be found at the
Prégny entrance gate, further up the road from Place des
Nations, near the Appia bus stop and opposite the Red Cross
will at some stage have to present yourself to have a photo badge made.
For budding members of the English booth, dummy booth on its own might
be a little frustrating given the all-pervasiveness of World English,
but make the most of the time by taking the other interpreters on
relay. You can also download webcasts of UN General Assembly sessions
in the original language at http://www.un.org/webcast/ga.html, as well
as webcasts of the Human Rights Council and major conferences.
The test is simultaneous interpretation only, with two speeches foreach
language, read out by staff intepreters from the other booths.
The speeches are all ones which have been delivered at the UN but
edited. The panel comprises at least 3 senior staff members from the
candidate's booth. Each statement is introduced with the name of
the country speaking as well as the context. If a more specialized
statement will be given, vocabulary might be offered by the jury ahead
of time. The panels listens to your version and compares it with a
transcript of the statements. The results are given straight
after the tests, with feedback.
After the test
One of the first things to do is to make contact with Mme Raymonde
Laurent, who runs OfficInter. This is a private company
offering a range of services to freelance interpreters. The most
important of these is an availability database used to prepare lists of
available freelances by language combination and date. The vast
majority of Geneva recruiters, both from the international
organisations and the private market (plus certain non-local
employers), use these lists, so make sure your name is on them by
signing up with Mme Laurent and keeping her updated about your
diary. Fees are 100CHF per month (rising to 120 CHF after your
first year), plus fees for all phone calls and emails. It's
steep, but practically unavoidable.
OfficInter Sàrl (Raymonde Laurent)
25, chemin des Fins
(0041) (0)22 710 07 70
Unlike secretariats in certain other cities, OfficInter simply
doesdiary-keeping and does not publicise interpreters to
This means that you will need to do the legwork of sending out a CV and
meeting potential employers yourself. The list of email addresses
and phone numbers she gives her clients is very helpful here.
Make sure you tell the recruiters at UNOG that you have passed the
test, just to be sure that you're on their radar.
Geneva is a local market by and large; unless your language combination
is particularly sought-after, you are unlikely to get
regular work unless you establish Geneva as your professional
domicile. This does not mean that you need to live there but bear
in mind that more often than not, work will be last-minute and for the
odd day. If you live elsewhere, think seriously about
travel/accommodation costs, which you would have to cover yourself if
you were professionally domiciled in Geneva. There is not yet any
official record of domicile, but recruiters will ask. The
organisations are also currently working on a joint professional
Don't expect to be flooded with work straight away. It will come,
particularly during the peak periods of early summer and the autumn
months as of mid-September. You might consider contacting translation
services at the organizations, some of whom would be only too happy to
hear from qualified people willing to take on outsourced work at around
200CHF per thousand words (but subject to income tax).
Short-term in-house contracts might even materialise but depending on
how things pan out, you may have to decide whether you are more focused
on translation or interpreting and turn down job offers
accordingly. Take care about trumpeting your future interpreting
career too loudly as it can get translator colleagues' backs up.
Some other tips
Do your utmost not to antagonise recruiters. Be keen but avoid
being overly pushy or insistent. If a recruiter suggests a period
dummy boothing for an organization to get your head around their
subject matter and terminology, seize the opportunity as it will
certainly pay dividends later. At the same time, it is worth
an updated CV and availability card periodically; some may be reluctant
to hire an absolute beginner but willing to have you once you have some
experience under your belt.
Similarly, good relationships with colleagues are important. This
is a small, fairly close-knit world and people do talk, for better or
worse. Be competent and pleasant and word will quickly get
around, to your advantage. Stay out of petty politics at all
Keep a record of the dates and topics of your meetings, as this will
come in handy when you have notched up enough days to consider joining
AIIC (150 days) or apply for reclassification to UN category 1 status
(200 days, full rather than two-thirds salary).
Ensure your affairs are in order in terms of residency and tax
matters. Seek advice about settling in Switzerland as it is not
entirely straightforward for freelances. For EU citizens,
residence in neighbouring France may be an easier option. Note
that contracts for the international organizations are tax-exempt but
national tax authorities may ask for proof of employment, which any of
the organizations can supply on request.
By contrast to work for the EU institutions, there is no employer
pension contribution, although take-home pay is a little higher. A
system exists whereby freelance interpreters can opt for a 13 percent
deduction at source, to be paid into one of the two specialised funds
recognised by the UN system (see www.cpit.ch or www.cpic.ch for more
details). Both funds claim to require AIIC membership for entry,
but proof of regular conference interpreting work seems to suffice.