Working as a UN translator could be a very exciting proposition. Potential candidates for a translator’s job would work in an international setting, with job opportunities across the world. It could be New York, Geneva or a mission in Africa or elsewhere in the World. Also, according to the UN’s pay scales, the job of the professional translator in the Organisation is well-paid.
But translators that work or have worked for the organization can tell you that it is a demanding job. It often goes beyond the regular working hours or weekends. Also, it often demands expertise in more than one language as well as some other fields. It could be politics, economy, law, or expertise in a field of natural science.
For example, according to the UN’s Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM), “United Nations translators are required to have a perfect command of their first language and an excellent knowledge of at least two other official languages.”
The description of the application and testing on UN’s recruitment site lists quite a number of steps and detailed screening process. At the same time, the UN Secretariat recruits a variety of language staff. This includes translators, interpreters, editors, verbatim reporters, copy preparers/proofreaders/production editors, terminologists and reference assistants.
Along with six official UN languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish), the Organization employs translators for practically all live languages of the World. This could be on a permanent or temporary contract, depending on the need.
Working as a translator can be an enticing proposition for any language specialist. On the other hand, the job of a UN translator is at the same time complex, time-consuming. It requires knowledge of more the just one of the six official UN languages.
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Recruitment of a UN translator is complex and detailed
DGACM recruitment site (above) explains in detail all the requirements and tests potential UN translators have to pass through.
As of 2017, to pass recruitment qualifications, translators and other language specialists that deal with written documents have to do a single language competitive examination (LCE). As explained, candidates must take the competitive examination in their main language.
The organization requires translators to have at least a first-level degree from a university or institution of equivalent status. At the same time potential translator has to be able to translate into his main language from at least two of the other official languages. For example, if a potential translator’s main language is English, he would have to be able to translate both into French and Spanish.
The potential candidates take the first two parts of LCE remotely. For candidates whose main language is English, the first part of the examination will usually consist of:
- A translation into English of a general text in one of the other official languages of the United Nations. This test lasts approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes. Depending on the number of applications, this paper may be eliminatory.
- A translation into English of a specialized (economic or legal) text in another official language. This takes approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes.
- A summary in English of the text of a statement also in English (approximately 45 minutes).
- Editing of a text in English, making all necessary logical and stylistic corrections (approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes).
During the first part of the examination, candidates may use online and other available resources. But, they may not consult or obtain help from other persons.
If they pass, in the second phase the potential candidates will have to translate without using dictionaries, glossaries or any other resources. The final step is a competency-based interview.
Compared to daily workload, the competency test might seem easy
UN translators handle probably the widest variety of texts. It could be a statement from one of the Member States or say an expert report for one of the Organization’s specialized bodies like the Food and Agriculture Organization, located in Rome, Italy.
The documents UN translators work on can practically cover any topic. That topic can be human rights and peace and security to development and environmental protection.
As DGACM (above) explains, “to ensure the consistency and accuracy of their products, translators work in a 100% electronic environment.” They use a specialized “eLUNa computer-assisted translation tool to instantly compare new texts with all United Nations documents.” This tool has an integrated machine translation component, TAPTA4UN. Tools also include online dictionaries, glossaries, and other in-house databases.
When it is necessary, and that is an almost daily occurrence, UN translators have to perform additional research. They also need to consult with “fellow translators/précis-writers and relevant experts.”
UN translators also have another key responsibility. They have to standardize language terms in the six official languages. “New or outdated terms are systematically gathered, researched and verified against authoritative sources. This is done in consultation with in-house specialists from substantive departments, language professionals and outside sources, including technical experts and specialized websites. Verified terms are then stored in the multilingual database UNTERM, which is also directly accessible via the eLUNa translation tool.”
UN translators at a more senior level have yet another task. They have a ‘revisers’ title and job and have to review all translations. Along with linguistic experience, these revisers have to be also familiar with “the body in question and the subject covered.”
Who are précis-writers?
The proceedings of United Nations bodies can produce quite a voluminous series of documents. This is particularly the case in main UN centers like New York or Geneva, Switzerland. There, translation services in English and French language draft summaries of these proceedings. This process is known as précis-writing.
“Summary records, originally drafted in English or French, are then translated into the other five official languages.” DGACM explains that “précis-writers do not take a separate Language Competitive Examination but, once recruited, they receive specific training in précis-writing.”
The task description for précis-writers says that they summarize all statements in their main language. This is “regardless of the language in which the statement was delivered in the meeting room.”
The main task of the précis-writers is to “ condense all statements in a clear, accurate and concise manner without omitting any of the speakers’ key points or distorting the argument. Summaries are generally one third to one half of the length of the original statement and are written in reported speech.”
Précis-writers work in teams. They take turns taking notes at a meeting and then write up their summaries. They work from their notes, written copies of the statements when available, and, when necessary, the audio recording of the meeting. The summary records they produce constitute the official records of the body.
UN translators and their workload
Along with translators for the six official UN languages, this organization employs quite a number of translators for other languages. German and Japanese are among the more prominent ones.
Also, UN institutions or missions located around the world often require translators in one or more local languages. This is also the case with some specialized UN institutions as was the UN’s International Criminal Court for Former Yugoslavia (The Hague, Netherlands), where the bulk of translators worked in all languages spoken in the former Balkan country.
Whether it is an official or another language, all UN translators have to have “a perfect command of their first language and an excellent knowledge of at least two other official languages. They must also be able to write in a clean, clear and perfectly grammatical style in their first language.” (DGACM)
Many readers of United Nations documents, in particular, the representatives of the 193 Member States, work in a language other than their own. That is why the goal of DGACM is “ the goal of the Services is to produce documents that are readily comprehensible to all” who will read them.
Still, the UN and its bodies can permanently employ so many translators. UN translators often have to work long hours and weekends. For example, UN General Assembly committee sessions can last into the wee hours of the night. That would mean that translators would have to complete their job in the early morning hours. The documents have to be fully ready by the opening hours on the next working day.
That is why 25% of the translation work ends up with “over 220 outside individual translators, 6 translation companies and more than 60 text-processors on a contractual basis “ And that number only concerns the UN’s Secretariat in NYC. Still, that means that overall, most of the heavy translation load in any of the UN’s organizations is handled by the professional UN translators.