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Hey everyone,

I've frequented this site for years, and consider it to be the best source of information for potential interpreters. I just really appreciate all the good you guys do. As many members here have already gone through the hurtles I'm looking at now, I'd very much appreciate any insight you can provide regarding my freshly designed academic/career plan. Thank you in advance!

My situation:

I'm 25 years old. I recently decided to switch careers & head back to school to pursue my longtime dream of becoming a CI for the UN or EU. I have to make some big decision in the coming months. As it's pretty late in the game for me & I'll be taking out loans for most of my training, I'm trying to be pragmatic in my decisions. I'd like to limit debt, and choose study programs that will get me working as soon as possible to build experience.

Here's my soft plan that I'd appreciate your feedback on:

I learned to speak Castellano when I lived in Spain, but not at a professional level. To fix this, I would do my BA in Spain and minor OR double major in Spanish. English/Spanish is an over saturated market, but I already speak Spanish so I see it as the quickest route to paid work. That said, Spanish/English Medical Interpreters seem to be in high demand. In order to work right out of my BA, getting certified as a Medical Interpreter seems to be the best plan. I could get certified during my BA, probably with just one (expensive) class.

Regarding my actual major, I have no idea what to pick. If I'll be able to do medical interpreting with just a supplementary course, it seems like I should pick a BA that will help with my long term goal of working for the EU or UN.

For my Master's in Conference Interpreting, I'm thinking I could study in France or Germany to get my 3rd language. Hopefully that'd make me an EN-A, ES-B, FR/DE-C by the end of school. After my Master's, I imagine I'll need some more experience before sitting for the UN or EU exams. Not really sure which route I'd take after the Master's. It would probably depend on my BA Major (area of expertise), and where the money is at.

Things I'm not sure on:

-What BA majors would you consider to be the most advantageous for UN/EU in conjunction with a Masters in CI? Political Science? International Relations? I'm open to pretty much any option.

-Will medical/court interpreting actually be necessary? Are there other fields that I could go into without paying for those expensive certifications, possibly in conjunction with a BA major?

-Is there anything that this plan overlooks? Does it seem solid?

Any advice helps, even if it's only indirectly related to my questions. Also, please feel free to ask me any questions that come to your mind while reading.

Again, I know this is a really long post, so I greatly appreciate your time reading it. I am looking forward to your responses!



asked 22 Aug, 16:45

Doda's gravatar image


hi Do you have a BA already? It wasn't clear to me and it would change my answer.

(24 Aug, 03:09) Andy

Hi Andy,

Thank you for the question. No, I don't have my BA yet. I have 6 classes left for my Associates. So I'll have to start applying to BA programs in Spain soon.

(24 Aug, 15:22) Doda

OK, so see below.

(25 Aug, 09:41) Andy

Assuming you start a BA now and go into medical interpreting in three years, that puts you at age 28-29. Plus four to five years before you have a sufficient command of either French or German (while juggling with your career start in medical interpreting?) to be able to then apply to a reputable conference interpreter training course. Plus two to three years to get out of there. Assuming you nail either the EU or the UN test the following year, you'd be starting your career at... age 37.

The detour via medical interpreting would be a poor investment IMHO. The experience won't be of much use for CI, while the return on investment is just poor. Three years of university to eventually make an average of $19 to $23 per hour (taking into account that we hardly ever work full time) might just not be worth it.

If you already have a C-language level in Spanish, go straight for something that'll allow you to learn French or German ASAP. French might be the safer choice, as you could apply both for the EU and the UN. Maybe consider studying outside the US, where university if (almost) for free. If you manage to have a student job in parallel, that might further improve the speed of language acquisition.

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answered 23 Aug, 07:42

Gaspar's gravatar image

Gaspar ♦♦

edited 23 Aug, 08:02

Thanks for the feedback, Gaspar.

I'm in no rush to make it to the EU/UN. If I make it there by the time I'm 40, I'll be happy. But your answer did highlight some major holes in my plan, so that's helpful.

The main issue I see is that my Spanish is not a C yet. It will be by the time I finish my BA in Spain.

The only fix I can think of for this is:

Possibly minor/double major in French while finishing my BA in Spain. But I still don't know what other major would help distinguish me from the plethora of other EN/ES/FR combo interpreters....

What are your thoughts?

Thanks again for the advice.

(23 Aug, 11:50) Doda

Hi Doda,

Thank you for your question. To be honest, when I read that you want to be “working as soon as possible” while limiting your financial investment, I’m very tempted to tell you not to go for interpreting at all, as I really don’t see it as a quick way of finding a stable financial situation. Especially is you’re starting practically from scratch, as you will have to first focus on reinforcing your language skills before even considering the long path that leads to acquiring the interpreting skills.

But if your dream is really to work for the EU or the UN, you need to aim at a language combination that will allow you to work for one of them, meaning you need to focus on C languages (instead of B). However keep in mind that their requirement might change, nobody knows what they will be looking for in terms of language combination once you get there. The last time I checked (March 2018), the UN needs you to have either Russian or French and Spanish (I don’t think they will be interested if you only have Spanish, but I might be wrong). The thing is your C language skills need to be EXCELLENT. It usually takes at least a year for graduates of good interpreting schools to get ready for their accreditation tests. The EU needs you to have 2 C languages, one of which HAS to be French or German. But priority will be given to 3 C languages. Having a B in Spanish can be considered an asset (on top of the required C languages). Once again, your C languages need to be very very good. So it seems like that a good plan would be to add French as a C language.

By the way, if I understood correctly, you’re considering adding French or German WHILE doing you master in Conference interpreting? If that’s the case, I don’t think that it is a realistic option. You don’t learn languages when you do a Master in CI, you learn the interpreting techniques (using the languages skills that you already have). And believe, you will need to work on the techniques full time and won’t have time to do much more.

And to answer your questions: -The BA you choose does not really matter, you mostly need to obtain an excellent level in two foreign languages (that will allow you to work for the EU or the UN). -I really don’t know much about the career of a medical or court interpreter I the US, but I don’t think medical or court interpreting is necessary. Are you going to go through a training before starting to work as a medical interpreter? If not, I’m afraid it might not be very useful to your interpreting training, as I feel that just doing it without any training might be counterproductive.

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answered 23 Aug, 10:33

Camille%20Collard's gravatar image

Camille Collard

Hi Camille,

Thank you so much for your answer, very helpful. I didn't mean to imply that I don't want to make the investment, or that I'm looking for quick results. I just want to do it in the most efficient way that's realistic.

From your and Gaspar's answers, it seems like my BA Major won't matter much when aiming for the UN or EU. That's fantastic to learn. I thought that I would need to major in a specific field to help distinguish me from other interpreters, and improve my languages on my own time. As that's not the case for UN/EU work, I can just study languages, which is all I really want to do.

My Spanish is not at C level. I'd planned to have it to that level by the end of my BA. After finishing my BA in Spain, me and my Spanish fiance wanted to move to France where she would do her MA while I work & get my French to a level necessary for the MA.

Since I don't need to worry about specialization for UN/EU work, what do you think of me just majoring in French and minoring/double majoring in Spanish? This would be done in Spain. Then I could come out of my BA with an excellent level in Spanish, and a university level understanding of French. Then it may only be a year of living in France to have both languages ready for the CI MA.

Basically it would be 2 years of studying Spanish & French in Spain, always speaking Spanish. Then a year living in France while working in French. Then 3 more years in France for the MA.

What are your thoughts? If you think of anything about this that is unrealistic, please let me know.

Thank you again. I can't express how helpful this is.

(23 Aug, 13:45) Doda

"what do you think of me just majoring in French and minoring/double majoring in Spanish?" This was one idea I was going to suggest. The hitch might be that you would have to have a good level of FR to get onto a university course that included FR... and from what you say you haven't got that yet.

(25 Aug, 10:28) Andy

Got it, thanks Andy. If that's the case, I'll just have to figure something out. I'll find out once I start speaking with Spanish universities.

(25 Aug, 13:49) Doda

Hi Doda,

It's terrifically hard to answer your question as there are seemingly as many different pathways into the profession as there are interpreters. Just a few thoughts, though, in no particular order:

-Further to Camille's answer, you need to be aware that French C is absolutely essential in order to work as an English booth interpreter for the UN-proper and (by and large) for the other organizations within the UN system. There is an institutional bi-active market within the international organizations in Geneva but I don't think you would want to bank on it for your entire livelihood and your Spanish B would have to be borderline A in order to be competitive. So you'd be wanting French plus Spanish and/or Russian. FR/ES C on its own will still get you work but there are plenty of other freelances also after that work. Forget about distinguishing yourself from the plethora for now; focus when the time comes on being competent and available to work, since there's invariably a need for people at busy times and that's how newcomers usually get a foothold. FR/RU is rarer but there are also comparatively fewer meetings requiring that language combination. FR/ES/RU is the English booth holy grail as far as the UN is concerned.

-My perception has been that one's academic background prior to interpreting school matters comparatively little to potential recruiters provided you end up with the requisite linguistic baggage (and this includes in your A language) to be able to do the job. You need to be able to speak in the appropriate register, know how the world works and be able quickly to take new ideas on board (you can always jettison them once the meeting is over...). However great your CV/resumé looks, it counts for nought if you flounder in the booth. Interpretation schools will require certain previous academic background and evidence of language proficiency, however.

-It's not clear from your question whether you already have a university degree. If you do (thereby already meeting an interpretation school entry requirement), have you considered skipping the undergraduate part of your amazing plan and taking a less academic approach to language-learning/perfecting? This is maybe a rather heretical thing to say but I don't consider interpretation an especially academic discipline and I can honestly say that absorbing myself in French online discussion forums on topics I was interested in did more for my FR interpretation proficiency and grasp of cultural idiosyncrasies than my Modern Languages degree from a prestigious British university.

-In a related vein, be wary of setting definite timelines for acquiring language skills because this varies so much and for so many reasons. Your plan is going to require unwavering, cast-iron discipline, for which I admire you :) I'm not so disciplined and it took me 11 years from start to successful UN accreditation test for Russian.

-It's worth thinking about where you might eventually want to work. As I understand, you can pretty much forget freelancing for the UN in New York these days so would need other income streams if you wanted to base yourself there. Not being domiciled in Brussels, I work very little for the EU institutions but bear in mind that being a freelance with just one or two monolithic employers (Commission and Parliament) carries certain risks if ever there's a policy change affecting demand for your services. Geneva has the advantage of hosting a number of different UN system organizations that recruit separately. UN Vienna is a fairly small duty station and I'm not sure if it would be able to sustain a freelance livelihood, at least not at first. You get the occasional person passing the UN Language Competitive Exam (for candidates for staff positions) soon after graduation but a few years of freelancing is generally the best preparation, since the exam is assessed at a much higher level than the freelance accreditation tests.

-Doing your interpreter training in a city with a healthy interpretation market is well worth considering.

Good luck with your decision-making.

Alex (Geneva-domiciled freelancer, previously UN staff interpreter)

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answered 24 Aug, 03:48

alex's gravatar image



Thank you so much for the feedback. With these expansive answers, I've arrived at a plan that seems much more sound.

I'm going to completely remove the medical interpreting certification, and only focus on improving my languages. I'll major in French, since I'm adding it from scratch. I'll minor in Spanish, since the course work will be much more difficult in Spain - considering those classes will cater towards native Spanish speakers.

I don't have a university degree yet. I have 18 credit hours to complete for my Associates, then I'll transfer to a university in Spain - possibly Salamanca.

My Spanish is not at a C level, though I speak it and can have full conversations. It's going to take a ton of work just to add French & complete my Spanish, so it's not realistic for me to add Russian on top of that.

I'll just have to work with those two.

Also, you mentioned that it took you 11 years to achieve UN accredidation. I don't think that's long at all, considering that the UN and EU are the highest echelons of the field!

Thank you again for your assistance. It's amazing that I can get direct advice from working UN/EU interpreters.

(24 Aug, 13:48) Doda

It looks like you've sort of answered your own question in your comments to the replies above... if the Spanish university system allows you to do FR from scratch then BA in FR in Spain would be a fairly efficient option. (And that would normally also include a year in France as part of the course). You might well need another year in France after the BA and before an MA in CI.

Camille is right to say that your languages have to up to scratch BEFORE you start an MA in CI.

Also, be prepared to be told by the EU (and probably by the first person you speak to in any formal capacity) that you need to add a 3rd passive language.

Another thing to bear in mind is that ES for the UN is a global language. You will be competing with people who have specialised in non-European Spanish. You might want to think about spending a few months each in a few Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas.

(25 Aug, 10:37) Andy

Andy is right, regarding the 3rd language. As Alex has said, many people graduate with FR-ES.

In Brussels, you'll be told to add another language PDQ if you want to make a living. Colleagues with EN A - FR B - ES C were told they wouldn't stand a chance in the long run. So far, it turns out to be wrong, but the 3Cs seem to be the way to secure a steady income, rather than just be the gap filler.

(25 Aug, 12:10) Gaspar ♦♦

Thank you both; I couldn't have come to these conclusions without your invaluable advice.

That said, I'm going to focus on accomplishing what I can in the present. There is still a lot of work to be done just to get myself into a Spanish program - visa apps, meeting program prerequisites, securing transfer credits, student loans & financial aid, my current studies, rent, food; it all adds up to one very tall order. I'll have to get used to the work load though, as I don't imagine it'll ever let up in this field.

I'll have to think about adding a third language when the time comes. But, with your help, I have as good a plan as is possible. I haven't been this excited in a very long time!

Thanks again!

(25 Aug, 13:43) Doda

Just a quick reaction to Andy's point about global ES in the UN system. Yes and no; while it's true that you hear European Spanish much less frequently at meetings, a really solid grounding in any variety of ES will be appropriate. It's all Spanish, after all, and the similarities between varieties far outweigh the differences. Plus, we're working with people who are aware they are speaking for a global audience so will most likely be toning down the regional peculiarities. I'd wager you could spend years traveling Latin America and still get caught out by a regional quirk of usage whilst working in the booth. That's where the ability to interpret concepts and context in addition to translating word by word is absolutely crucial and the best way to make a word stick in your head forever is to get caught out on mic one time not knowing it! By all means travel to LAm if you're interested and wish to delve further into a particular country's culture but I think the importance of this in ES>EN interpreting can sometimes be overstated. I can think of plenty of colleagues with a Euro-centric ES background with very successful careers. Also, Spain has a huge LAm diaspora and you might be able to tap into that for interesting language exposure. On regional variation, don't forget also that sub-Saharan and Canadian French crop up on occasion and can present plenty of challenges of their own.

(26 Aug, 04:57) alex

Hi Doda,

This is a great question, and I am in awe of your foresight and discipline.

I completely agree with everything that has been said so far, but feel it is important to make one more point.

As interpreters, we are not only called upon to have an irreproachable native language, as well as excellent comprehension of our foreign languages. Our main job is to be able to think. We have to be able to explain complex ideas precisely, as Christopher Thierry, a giant in our profession, once said.

This means that, while majoring in languages is fun and useful, and something most of us did, it is not the only thing you could do to further your chances. If I had known then what I know now, besides my Russian and French double majors, my world literature/history/philosophy classes, my beginning economics, linguistics, international relations and pre-law classes (I was lucky that my university had very wide-ranging core curriculum requirements), I would have added beginning science and engineering classes, and dabbled in as many more areas as I possibly could. Everything is grist to our mill, from great literature to Star Trek, how that power drill that is giving you a headache works, the HBO series The Wire (which taught a lot about how cities are put together and why they are broken), social media abbreviations, and Shakespeare.

Concentrating on languages is all well and good, but when you are then called in your career to interpret lawyers drafting legal texts or presenting arguments, politicians showing off or negotiating trade deals, nuclear physicists discussing radiation threshold values for storing nuclear weapons components, or city planners discussing how the smart city of the future will work, you will need a basic understanding of law, physics, engineering, IT, psychology, sociology, history, philosophy, literature, pop culture, etc etc etc.

So while our excellent knowledge of languages gets us the job, to be able to keep that job - and at the high level that an international organization requires - you have to know how the world works, and how to think critically and make connections between what you already know, what you prepared, and what you are hearing to be able to communicate that message precisely.

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answered 02 Nov, 05:34

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question asked: 22 Aug, 16:45

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