PHOTO: Javier Ruiz

ll the world's a stage," Shakespeare wrote, and Jeffrey Tao knows that perhaps better than most. As a senior interpreter in Chinese for the United Nations, he acts out his own low-profile but crucial role on the world stage.

Tao, 52, specializes in simultaneous interpretation - real-time translation during meetings between the Chinese delegates and their non-Chinese-speaking peers.

He sits in a glass booth, wearing headphones, watching the non-Chinese delegates speak. His job is entirely oral - he must immediately interpret what is being said so the Chinese delegation can act upon it.

"It's very pre-scripted but the work is very creative," he says, his polite British pronunciation laced with a subtle Chinese accent. "I'm using all my intellectual and verbal resources at the same time."

ao concedes that conversation is difficult in one language, let alone two. He has to listen, conceptualize and speak all at the same time. Speed and accuracy are essential. It's very intense.

"You have to know exactly what's going on, know what you mean exactly and have the determination to convey exactly what is said," he says.

U.N. interpreters often have long careers and Tao, who has 30 years under his belt, has had one of the longest. He joined the simultaneous interpretation division in 1971, right after studying Russian at the University of Sussex in England. He had intended to work in the U.N.'s Russian interpretation section but jumped at the chance to use his Chinese when China joined the United Nations that same year.

Tao's outstanding performance has earned him tremendous respect from his colleagues and the Chinese delegation, says Ruojin Wang, chief of the Chinese interpretation section at the U.N. and Tao's boss. Wang says Tao is the interpreter of choice for when the U.N. Security Council meets.

"The Chinese delegates hope he's always there," she says. "When it's tough subject matter, we make sure Jeffrey Tao is on the council team."

"He also has some of the requisite qualities to be a very good interpreter: an open mind, presence of mind, interest in all subject matters and a conscientious working attitude."

Tao, a native of Shanghai, says he sees himself more as a performer than a language technician.

"Interpretation is not just language in the technical sense," he says. "It allows you to use the power of speech as a form of oratory."

he man who once dreamed of broadcasting for the British Broadcasting Corporation in Hong Kong now loves the job he compares to being an opera singer or a Shakespearean actor.

Tao says he sees his job as conveying the spirit of what is said as well as the facts. He's a participant, but transparent to the process - he can't inject his feelings into his delivery or translation. He works to sound neutral without sounding dispassionate.

Some interpreters speak in a very deadpan fashion, Tao says, but he prefers to put across the spirit of the original material, like an actor. He says that's truer to the speaker and more effective.

And like an actor once the curtain drops, Tao says at the end of the day he's exhausted, emotionally drained but exhilarated. The part he plays in making international diplomacy possible at the highest level, though, still challenges and thrills him enough to keep him eager for the next performance.

Profile: Jeffrey Tao
Place of Birth Shanghai, China
Age 52
Occupation Simultaneous Interpreter, Chinese Section,
United Nations
Years of Experience 30
Languages English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Russian, French
Work Schedule Two three-hour meetings per day, up to seven per week

How simultaneous translation works

The Price of Each Word

The United Nations has set the pay standards for all translation companies. At the UN, there are two main types of translators:

  • (1) Textual translators, who work with written documents. According to the American Translators Association (ATA), they are paid a salary of 15 to 25 cents per word.
    (2) Simultaneous interpreters, who listen and translate at the same time. They get a much higher salary - in some cases up to $850 per day.

Speaking of Careers

People seeking a career in translation are required to be fluent in at least two languages. Greater opportunities are available for those fluent in English and one of the other official languages of the U.N. (Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish).

Career Profile
People in profession 9,500
% male 40
% female 60
Avg. hours per week 40
Avg. starting salary $13,000
Avg. Salary after 5 yrs. $23,000
Avg. Salary after 10 yrs. $33,000
* Based on Princeton Review Publishing 1998


PHOTO: Javier Ruiz

One hundred sixty-nine nations meet and bring their languages to the United Nations building on East 45th St. in Manhattan. Six languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) are designated as "official and working languages" but hundreds of other tongues and dialects are spoken here every day.

On its 50th anniversary, the U.N. passed the multilingualism resolution that recognizes for every nation the "right and the duty to make itself understood and to understand others."