Behind the scenes in the FAO Interpretation Group

Jonathan Clements heads up the FAO Interpretation Group. He and his team talk about their jobs, challenges, likes and views of the future

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations brings a multitude of nationalities together to further its aims of eradicating hunger and malnutrition worldwide. And the FAO Interpretation Group is no exception. 

Jonathan Clements – New Zealand – Senior Interpreter (Head of Interpretation Group)

Since I’m fortunate enough to work with such a diverse and dedicated team and as most people don’t realise what goes into providing interpretation in six – and sometimes more – languages, I decided to sit down with my colleagues to hear their personal views on their role in our Group.

My staff interpreter colleagues

“What does your job involve?”

Blandine Jeanne – France

I work at FAO HQ and in the field, interpreting, mostly simultaneously, from English, Spanish and Italian into French. Meetings range from FAO statutory bodies (Council, Finance and Programme Committees, FAO Conference, Regional Conferences), to technical committees (Fisheries, Forestry, World Food Security), to more political gatherings, such as high-level ministerial summits. Consecutive interpreting is another area of my work, in particular for bilateral meetings between the Director General and representatives of Member Countries, as well as translation of texts from English or Spanish into French, when I am not assigned to work in the booth. My work also includes the preparation of thematic glossaries for use by all interpreters. Over the years, I have become more involved in managing the Interpretation Group when the Head of Group is absent. This includes assessing the needs of the FAO divisions requesting interpretation, identifying the most qualified freelance interpreters available and supervising the work of our colleagues in charge of recruitment logistics.

Elena Shuklina – Russian Federation

I am a newcomer to the Interpretation Group, having first reported for duty in January this year, but I have already grown to love the team. There are four distinct areas to my work: interpreting, lexicological research, revision of meeting documents and managing teams of interpreters. Each area requires a specific skill set. On a daily basis this means constantly shifting my focus from personal performance to quality control, to academic work and interpersonal communication. This is my first year at the Organisation and the learning curve has been steep. The FAO works in two-year cycles. This means that it will take 24 months for me to service every meeting of every committee and sub-committee, to gain a comprehensive overview of the FAO’s work. Even though I am not even halfway there yet, I am steadily working on building my own meeting-specific glossaries and testing them in action. They are then added to the compilation of specialized multilingual glossaries and terminology bulletins we make available for interpreters to use at FAO meetings.

“What’s your biggest challenge?”


As an interpreter in the booth, it’s the speed of delivery of some speakers who are under pressure to be as fast as possible and who read prepared statements at the speed of light! If they are not thinking through what they are reading, it means I also have less time as the interpreter to analyse the speech and achieve the accuracy and comprehensiveness I always strive for. The task can therefore become quite daunting, frustrating and exhausting. Another challenge is remote participation of delegates by videoconference or Skype. When interpreting these participants the working conditions are often far from optimal in terms of sound quality. The fact that FAO has only three staff interpreters is also challenging when it comes to coordinating teams of interpreters during meetings, carrying out quality control of freelance interpreters working for FAO in all six official languages and liaising with meeting secretariats during sessions.


We rely heavily on freelance interpreters. They may be from Rome but also Turin, Florence, Geneva, Paris, Madrid, London and many other places. We are often called on to work with colleagues we may not have met before. This can be very challenging but also offers the opportunity to work with amazing, interesting, talented people from many different countries, with unique language combinations and personal backgrounds. Our job as professionals who come together for a particular assignment is to make it seem as if we weren’t even there, as if the meeting participants were fluent in all languages. This is the challenge of our careers, aiming for that magical moment of clarity, focus, a seamless flow of ideas from one delegate to another, facilitated by simultaneous interpretation into 6 official UN languages, and sometimes others upon request. In order for everything to run smoothly and to seem effortless, it is my job to help select freelance interpreters, coordinate and supervise their work, provide new interpreters with training before and after meetings, as well as on the spot guidance. As a staff interpreter I have to lead by example, be impeccably prepared and ready to help others, to achieve our common goal of making sure interpretation at FAO is top-notch.

“What’s your biggest like?”


I love communicating and helping others to communicate in a multilingual environment, so my biggest like has always been and remains interpreting - switching on my microphone, pushing my brain to achieve the deepest concentration possible and feeling the adrenaline pumping as I start to follow the thought process of the speaker in order to interpret him/her - that's what I love! While carrying out the tasks of Officer-in-Charge of the Interpretation Group, in the absence of the Head of Group, I have also developed a penchant for dealing with human resource issues, planning the activities of the Group and supervising our admin colleagues.


I love the quiet time spent doing research in preparation for an upcoming event, full of anticipation, the time spent learning, discovering new concepts, finding precise, yet elegant ways of saying even the most ordinary things. At the same time, I know our office is hard at work putting together teams of interpreters, doing the paperwork, making sure that on a specific day a given team is in the right place at the right time, well-prepared and raring to go.

“How do you see the future?”


An important duty of mine in future will remain to preserve multilingualism at FAO by guaranteeing the highest interpretation quality standards. It may also be necessary to adapt interpretation to new technological developments. And I think that can be done while also guaranteeing optimal working conditions for interpreters, allowing them to provide that high quality service.


I’m very optimistic by nature. Currently, I’m studying Spanish and I hope to add it to my language combination in the near future. I have my work cut out for me, but I know exactly what has to be done to reach the required standard. I generally try not to look too far ahead, so as not to lose track of the task at hand.

My colleagues in finance and administration:

“Tell me about your work in the Group.”

Marina Ibragimova – Tajikistan

 My job consists of preparing the interpretation back-charges [internal billing] to FAO divisions, payments to interpreters at the end of each month, as well as statistical data and consolidation of reports on the Interpretation Group’s financial status. I issue invoices for the services provided to external organizations, monitor their payments, prepare our biannual work-plans, propose appropriate rates to be charged for interpretation and respond to queries from users related to cost breakdowns.

 Davide Baldanza – Italy

I ensure that interpretation services are provided for meetings at both headquarters and in the field. This entails meeting planning and follow-up with clients (internal FAO technical units and member countries). In addition, I am also responsible for administrative actions to ensure the recruitment of interpreters, both at local and international level.

Laura Guerra – Guatemala

I’m an office clerk in the Group and take care of interpreter availability, recruitment, travel arrangements, contracts and daily assignment programmes. I also work with secretariats in order to coordinate interpretation services for the meetings at HQ. 

Giulia Gaviano – Italy

Working as an office assistant, my jobs consist of two main tasks. The first is ensuring the interpreters receive the relevant documentation for each assignment: prior to the meeting, I liaise with the secretariats, in order to collect the relevant documents, and I prepare the sets for each booth. The second is processing the travel expense claims for those interpreters who travelled to the meeting location. In addition to this, I support my office colleagues in all the other aspects related to interpretation services.

“What’s your biggest challenge?”


Having been in this job for 7 years, I know how to deal with time constraints and the most common bottlenecks in the workflow, how to avoid errors and how to fix them in the most efficient way if they happen. I love my job, I know all the procedures and processes well, but what always amazes me is the cultural differences. I think that working with people from different cultural backgrounds is the biggest challenge. At the beginning of my career, I would go to interviews and say that I came from a multi-ethnic country, that I grew up in an environment of respect and understanding for different cultures. However, I see now that respect and understanding are one thing, but operating in an environment with different influences from all over the world is a totally different ball-game. Receiving an e-mail response which appears to be rude, while it was intended to be clear and straightforward, or not receiving a clear answer after sending a number of emails with the same question are just a couple of examples of how cultural differences impact each action in our work.
Differing concepts of time are often a challenge. For example, not being able to speed up certain processes because the other person has a totally different notion of time to mine. I realized that I either lost patience or became supersensitive and tended to stumble on the cultural issue instead of seeking a proper solution. It took me some time to understand that each person comes from a totally different background with different operating norms and it is simply not possible to ensure a smooth workflow with everyone. The only way to deal with it is to just do my best and remember that it is a learning experience for me as well as for the other person. Not only do we talk in different languages in the Interpretation Group, we talk in different cultures while carrying out our work.


My biggest challenge is to optimize and streamline the work as much as possible within the existing framework. The current internal recruitment procedures and administrative processes related to human resource management are numerous. As such, the provision of interpretation services can be a lengthy process. Within this context I cooperate with my colleagues to ensure that the interpretation services offered by the Organization are the best value for money.


It’s when I have to deal with very busy months with back to back meetings with interpretation. I have to create a weekly or monthly programme including all interpreters recruited and do a kind of “Sudoku” to manage sessions, relay, retour languages… I’ve spent a lot of time working on the programme for November and the Excel document has columns for 94 interpretation sessions in just two weeks!


My biggest challenge is to be up to the tasks I carry out every day. Even in my own little way, I want my job to positively contribute to the Organization’s goals and that is why I take every chance to learn and to improve myself.

“And your biggest like?”


My biggest like is that our team works like a clock - sometimes mechanical, sometimes highly technological - where everything is linked to everything, with many moving parts, each with its own task, but always working impeccably. You just need to charge the batteries once in a while!
Charging the batteries is one of my likes too. That is, when we go out as a team and we are no longer the parts of an impeccable device but humans, each one coming from a different culture. And it’s no longer challenging, it’s beautiful. We share food, we joke, we laugh, we open up and look into each other’s amazing worlds, admiring the beauty and the warmth coming from each universe sitting in front of us.


I like working together with my colleagues to make a difference and deliver a high quality service to the satisfaction of our clients.


I like working in the Interpretation Group as it’s a very challenging office. You switch between different areas during the working day, so you never get bored. I also like that it’s a kind of “port”, where you get to work with many interpreters from all around the world with interesting stories and good vibes.


What I like the most about my job is that is never monotonous: each day there is something new to work on and this allows me to constantly thrive on a professional level. Plus, and it is a big plus, my colleagues are great: they welcomed me and they made me feel part of the team straight away. Our morning coffee is one of the best moments of the day!

“What about the future?”


I usually say - what comes will come and we just need to do our best.


I am optimistic by nature, so I see a bright future ahead, where FAO will be in a position to play a significant and leading role in the fight against hunger and in the social and economic development of the Global South.


Keeping on doing work that I like, maybe with IT Systems that will help our work to run more smoothly.


Bright and full of opportunities!

The views expressed in this information product are those of the author and interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Photographs courtesy of the author

Recommended citation format:
Jonathan CLEMENTS. "Behind the scenes in the FAO Interpretation Group". November 17, 2019. Accessed July 12, 2020. <>.

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