WORKING FOR THE UN Not everything you’ve always wanted to know but answers to a few FAQs (and to Jonathan’s Qs) by Laura Vlasman with a little help from some UN friends
Esther said I should include a photo of myself, so here it is
(This is not how I normally look when I’m working for the UN)
When did you work for the UN? For how long? How did you get started? I’ve never been on staff at the UN. I’ve had shortterm freelance contracts intermittently since 1987. The short-term contracts range in length from 2 weeks to 2+ months. Some freelancers have “short-term” contracts lasting as long as 11 months. Generally, they are translators who are going to be recruited as full-time staff once all the bureaucratic red tape has been cut through. I also do contract work for the UN. More on that later!
How did you get started? When I finished my degree at the Monterey Institute, I contacted all the major international organizations with offices in the US (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Organization of American States and others, including the UN). I sat for the UN exam for English translators and was invited for an interview, after which I was placed on the roster of candidates slated for eventual hiring. The UN had a hiring freeze in place at the time, so I was not offered a permanent post, but I was offered a short-term freelance contract.
Did you only do translation or also interpretation? Do translators and interpreters have much interaction with each other? I have only worked as a translator/précis-writer for the UN. (Explanation of what a précis-writer does to follow!)
In my experience, there is virtually no interaction between UN translators and UN interpreters, but my experience may not be indicative. There probably is somewhat more contact between staff translators and staff interpreters, particularly in the case of translators who have become interpreters (or, as in the case of one translator I know, are married to a UN interpreter).
What kinds of qualifications are needed to translate or interpret at the UN? To be eligible to sit for the examinations for translators and interpreters: • Candidates must hold at least a first-level university degree or its equivalent (e.g., B.A., licenciatura) from an institution at which the language of instruction was their main language. Interpreter candidates must hold a degree from a recognized school of interpretation.
• Candidates’ main language (defined as the language in which they are best able to work, normally the language in which they were educated) must be one of the six official languages of the UN (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish). • They must have an excellent passive knowledge of two other official languages. For English translators/interpreters, French is obligatory, whereas translators/interpreters into all other languages must offer English as one of their passive languages.
• Candidates must not have reached their 56th birthday by the application deadline specified in the vacancy notice. This is because the UN wants to recruit staff for language posts who can serve for a reasonable period of time before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 62 years.
The UN also hires language professionals to work in other capacities (e.g., editors, verbatim reporters, language teachers) Information on language positions at the UN, including exam notices and exam samples, available at: http://www.un.org/Depts/OHRM/examin/languageexam.htm
Language staff may be assigned to work at any of the various UN offices around the world (NY, Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi and others)
What are they looking for? According to Steve Sekel, former head of English translation and Director of the Documentation Division at UN Headquarters in New York, what the UN language services are really looking for (beyond someone who meets the formal requirements) is a profile or combination of traits that long experience has shown to be a reliable predictor of successful performance as a United Nations translator. These are:
• Excellent powers of analysis • Excellent writing skills in the target language • A thorough knowledge of the culture, the history, the political and legal system, and the economy of the countries whose languages they translate from (keep going - there’s more!)
• Political awareness and sensitivity and an interest in the great issues of the day – international peace and security, economic and social development, human rights and environmental protection, to name a few • Intellectual curiosity and a commitment to lifelong learning • A temperament that is self-effacing (since translators work in the shadows of the diplomatic process) and a natural talent for serving as a go-between, a broker or a mediator (since they must bridge the gaps between users of different languages).
UN interpreters, in addition to the foregoing qualities, “must possess the presence of mind not to be rattled by speakers reading off texts at break-neck speed or by the impenetrable accent of a non-native speaker.”
Extraordinary stamina is also required in some cases. (When Gaddafi held forth for more than an hour and a half during the UN General Assembly in 2009, his interpreter collapsed 90 minutes into his speech.)
Do most translators and interpreters work on short/temporary assignments or for longer periods? Are there career UN translators/interpreters? Yes, there are career UN translators and interpreters. In New York, there are currently about 20 staff translators in the English translation service. The same is true at the UN office in Geneva. The staff of the other services tends to be somewhat larger since there is generally more call for translation into those languages (because many documents are written in English and then have to be translated to all the other official UN languages).
The number of short-term staff depends on what’s going on. During the General Assembly (held in the fall of each year), the UN in NY used to recruit numerous freelancers (15-20 in the English translation service alone). However, budget constraints have now led the UN to adopt a “move work, not people” policy, and so most freelancers are now working remotely. (I’ll leave it to Linda to talk about remote work for the UN.)
The UN also outsources some translation to independent contractors through its Contractual Translation Unit (CTU) Here’s what Steve Sekel had to say about that: Because outsourced work is generally expected to be “camera-ready” or of a self-revised standard (i.e., not requiring checking for accuracy or style by a reviser or more experienced translator), a great many of the contractors to which such translations are assigned are retired UN translators. Established translators without UN experience are not excluded, however, and anyone interested in applying for inclusion in the roster maintained by CTU should send a letter of interest and c.v. to the Chief of CTU, Mr. Vitaly Ganin ([email protected]
Steve also says about prospects for working for the UN in general:
For many years, the United Nations enjoyed the luxury of sitting back and waiting while highly qualified language staff flocked its way. This is unfortunately no longer the case. The language services have been experiencing an unprecedented, large-scale turnover as a result of the Organization’s strict mandatory age of retirement (60 for staff recruited before 1 January 1990, and 62 for those recruited after that date), and the UN faces critical shortages for certain language combinations. We are anxious to forge relations with universities and other academic institutions that train language staff, as well as with professional associations, to cast our net as widely as possible.
What is the nature/subject matter of most of the documents you’ve translated? (If you tell me, will you have to kill me?) There are examples galore on the UN website (www.un.org) of the sorts of documents UN translators translate. So, no, we won’t have to kill you. Most UN documents are of a political, legal, or economic nature, but there are also treaties and reports that deal with a wide array of subject matter (e.g., science, technology, health). And then there are the “nut letters” - letters written by crackpots and lunatics to the Secretary-General and other UN officials. Those are always good fun (but those you won’t find any examples of on the UN website!).
Do you find the work challenging, frustrating, exciting, interesting?
Yes. (Well, maybe not too exciting, but almost always interesting and challenging and sometimes frustrating, too.)
Do you collaborate with any other UN translators? For example, does someone edit your work? Do people ever work in teams? Yes. Interaction with colleagues is one of the best things about working for the UN. One’s work is generally revised by a more senior translator/reviser until one is deemed to be trustworthy enough to self-revise. Big translation jobs are routinely divided among several translators, so in that sense we do work in teams. We also work in teams as précis-writers.
What is précis-writing and is it still used today? Précis-writing is still very much in use today. In fact, I’m not at the AATIA meeting today because I’m doing a précis-writing job! Précis-writers produce summary records of many UN meetings. Précis-writing is a form of report-writing, in which the speakers’ words are summarized in reported speech. (read on for an example)
For example: If Mr. So-and-So says: A critically important aspect of the rule of law at the international level is the obligation of States to implement at national level the commitments undertaken by them under treaties and other international obligations. My country is committed to complying conscientiously with the letter and spirit of the treaties to which it is a party.
The précis-writer might write: Mr. So-and-So said that fulfilment by States of their obligations under treaties and other international agreements was an important aspect of the rule of law. His country was committed to complying with the treaties to which it was a party.
Why do UN translators do précis-writing? Because statements are delivered in various languages, so the job can’t be done by, say, a monolingual journalist or even necessarily by a multilingual journalist. It requires a professional translator who can understand the nuances - and in many cases the diplomatic subtext - of the source text and convey the speaker’s ideas succinctly in the target language. Nowadays, the vast majority of statements are delivered in English, so the vast majority of préciswriting at the UN is done by English translators.
What’s the environment like? Is the air charged with excitement, or does it feel more like typical government work? I wouldn’t say the air is charged with excitement, but there is a certain exciting quality about knowing that one is working in a place where momentous decisions are (or could be) being made. But as in just about any job, there’s also a fair amount of tedium. And we translators are strictly behind-the-scenes people so we are seldom witnesses to anything very exciting.
In your experience, what is one of the misconceptions people have about working at the UN? That it’s all glamour and excitement. In fact, it’s often long hours of very difficult work performed in a cramped, drafty, poorly lit office equipped with the same (non-computer-friendly) furniture that’s been in the building since it was constructed in the early 1950s. And of course one’s work, like most translation work, is completely anonymous. But…
To quote my chum Steve Sekel again:
The United Nations translator is a broker, a go-between, a facilitator in the great multilateral discussions of our day. The translator is never, and should never be, the centre of attention. Even the interpreters with their greater visibility are, after all, actors playing in a supporting role. Toiling far from the limelight, the translator must content himself or herself with the thought that he or she is serving a higher purpose. In the words of the Charter, this purpose is none other than:
• To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war; • To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; • To establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained; • And to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.
If, at the end of a long, tiring day, one can think that one’s work might have made some small contribution towards those objectives, then the day won’t have been entirely wasted!