In less than two years from graduating from the Middlebury Institute with a master’s degree in conference interpretation, Gustavo Mercado managed to do the near-impossible: passing a notoriously difficult United Nations exam for potential freelance hires on his second attempt. He recently spoke to career advisor Winnie Heh about the experience and what this means for his career.
Please tell us about what you have been doing since graduation …
To be perfectly honest, I left MIIS with a bit of anxiety; I had turned down a full-time position in New York City, which left me feeling rather uncertain about the future. Following graduation, however, Christiane Abel (the program head for French translation and interpretation) sent me a message about an internship opportunity with an international organization. I applied and by the end of the week, I was offered a spot in New York City with the United Nations English Verbatim Reporting Section. I lived with two other MIIS graduates from the German and Russian programs, and I spent my time there creating transcript translations of speeches that were delivered on the floor of the General Assembly, as well as various committees. The job felt a bit weird to me at first: imagine sight-translation, but backwards. I got to listen to the original speeches as well as the interpretations of those speeches from all the booths to help me create my transcripts and listening to those interpreters every single day truly helped to prepare me for the freelance exam down the line. That internship lasted from September to December of the same year.
Then, at the beginning of 2020, I moved to Washington, D.C., to do yet another internship with the Organization of American States (OAS). This one was much more focused on my goal of becoming an interpreter for major institutions. My intention was to get established in the D.C. area as a freelance conference interpreter. Having passed the UN exam, though, conferences come my way quite frequently, and my eyes are now set on passing the Federal Court Interpreting exam while gaining enough conference days to apply to AIIC and TAALS to work with organizations like the OAS, the IMF, and the World Bank.
How did you prepare for the UN Freelancer Exam?
The tricky thing with the exam is how comprehensive it is. Yes, the speeches are fast, and the topics can seem obscure—everyone knows to expect that—but I feel that there are underlying factors to watch out for. Agility is key. You must be able to switch from the abstract to the formulaic in a matter of seconds and you can’t let flipping to your second language combination trip you up either, which is tough because it feels like you’re attacking the content from a different part of your brain. Your endurance needs to be robust as well so that you can handle something at the speed of light and avoid traps when you’re already fatigued from interpreting multiple speeches in a row.
I had heard about people dedicating months or even years of constant study to passing the exam (which always seemed a bit excessive to me), but when every foreseeable plan fell through at the beginning of the pandemic, I figured “what better time than now to eat, sleep and breathe this test?” I tried to take advantage of the fact that I could focus on just practicing for the exam while “sheltering in place,” so I sat down for some two months or so and worked on speeches every single day for hours on end. I compiled a list of about 80 United Nations speeches and repeated every single one of them until I could interpret them as accurately and as quickly as possible. I made sure that my practice speeches covered every country that spoke my languages, as well as each of the major UN topics at the four duty stations. It goes without saying that you need to feel very comfortable with regional accents before you try to tackle this test, and it helps to know the UN system backward and forwards. Ironically enough, I don’t know if this would have been possible had it not been for my schedule being forced open by the health crisis. Don’t mistake that as me taking the pandemic lightly, because I certainly did not, but thinking this way allowed me to find a silver lining amid the chaos.
What does passing the UN exam mean to your work life? Do you expect to start being called for assignments by the UN?
This is a massive achievement for me, both personally and professionally, as I used to think that it would take me ten years or more to begin freelancing for the UN. But I managed to pass the test just a year-and-a-half out of MIIS and I hope that it opens the door to other international organizations. As I understand it, opportunities will arise at the UN once the organization starts using its freelancers again. In the meantime, the private market has welcomed me with interesting new projects.
Looking back, what parts of the MIIS preparation do you think have helped you the most in navigating your career path after graduation?
Everything I learned at MIIS prepared me to succeed after graduation. One of the last conversations that I had at the Institute was with Barry Olsen in his office. He asked me what my goals were, and I mentioned that I would like to work for the UN one day, but that I didn’t expect that to happen for at least a decade. He said that there was no reason why that couldn’t be a medium-term goal. I ran with it and made it a short-term one instead!
If it hadn’t been for Professor Abel pointing me toward the Verbatim Reporting Internship, I wouldn’t have known the UN system inside and out like I did when the time came to take the exam. Leire Carbonell’s advice from when she herself prepared for the Language Competitive Examination was the model for my own practice regimen. As I sat down to prep, I could hear her telling me to divide everything up by duty station, committee, issue, region, country, and even to specific speakers if necessary. Jacolyn Harmer’s stories helped me understand that challenges were to be seen as fun chances to see how things went and that they didn’t have to intimidate me. Julie Johnson’s mindfulness strategies taught me to keep my cool and deliver a great interpretation despite wanting to strangle a particular speaker. And I wouldn’t have gotten certified to work in court without Cas and Holly’s specific training and insight, a field of interpreting that I work in quite regularly now.
Adding to that, there was, of course, all the advice that I got in the Translation and Interpretation as a Profession course, which I still use to guide my professional development. In Stephanie’s class, I learned about the advantages of creating an LLC, how to handle scammers, and that checking in with agencies that you haven’t worked with in a while really does make a difference. As a full-time freelancer (hehe), running my own small business is something I have to work on and get better at each day, and her guidance has been supremely helpful in that respect.
For MIIS students who want to pursue an interpretation career path, what words of wisdom would you share with them?
I feel that I don’t have much more experience than anyone else currently at MIIS because I just left two years ago, but I can offer this: do the scary stuff every chance you get. MIIS interpreters really are a cut above the rest, and I’ve had the luck of working in the booth with alumni almost exclusively thus far. If you feel like you’re jumping straight into a void, you will be fine. You will stick the landing. We graduates are out here waiting to connect with you and we’re excited to get you working alongside us.
I recently came across a video on YouTube of somebody (not from MIIS) trash-talking the profession and saying that it was a bad career choice because it’s impossible to make a good living and that we’re all going to be replaced by machines in the next 30 seconds, anyway. Let me just say that I completely disagree with that statement. There is a ton of work out there to do and very few people capable of doing it well. And, for what it’s worth, the interpretation field of the future belongs to those of us coming in now who already know the tech side of the profession. Trust me.