After graduating I taught English to adults for a year, during which I took the UN competitive examination for French-speaking translators and precis-writers. I was recruited to the French Translation Service in New York the following year, 1994. In 1998 I was seconded to the Executive Office of the Secretary-General, where I worked as a speech-writer, note-taker and translator, occasionally traveling with Kofi Annan in those capacities. In 2000 I became a mother, took 10 months off to take care of my son, and decided to go back to the French Translation Service, where I was soon promoted to Self-reviser. In 2005 I was promoted to Senior Reviser and also became a Programming Officer. At the end of 2007, I became the terminology focal point and Training Officer for the French Service. I feel lucky to have been entrusted with so many different tasks. Training is people-oriented and programming is a fast-paced, high-pressure function, so they provide a nice change from the more quiet and sometimes solitary work of translation and revision.
Why work for the United Nations?
I joined the United Nations because I considered it one of the most prestigious employers a translator or interpreter could find. The languages I chose to study were also a factor: I knew that English and Russian were official languages of the UN and I took it into consideration at the time. Of course the idea that I would be part of the group of people carrying out the mission of the Organization was a big incentive.
With hindsight I can say that another advantage of joining a translation service at the UN is that you will receive training and coaching for the first two years of your appointment, and you will work directly with very experienced translators who can teach you a lot about the trade.
Preparing for the United Nations Language Competitive Examination
I took the competitive exam very shortly after graduating and found that my studies had been an excellent preparation. Before graduating I had spent a year in Scotland, at Herriot-Watt University, studying with English-speaking students who were preparing to become translators and interpreters. I had also spent a summer at Moscow State University on a grant from the Belgian Government. More specifically, to prepare for the exam, I did a lot of sight-translation. The exam requires you to translate a lot of material in a short period of time, so developing fast reflexes proved useful.
Challenges and rewards of the job
Working as a translator at the UN is a lot of hard work, especially in the first few years, when, because of the variety of subjects and the specificities of the Organization, you may feel like you have to learn everything anew. The reward is that you will have a chance to keep learning for as long as you want (and even to study abroad as part of the External Studies Program). You will also be able to specialize in certain subjects and become a source of knowledge for your colleagues. While not all documents will be exciting, you will certainly be called upon to translate texts that relate directly to current events and other burning issues. An additional bonus is that you will have a chance to see the world by moving to different duty stations.
Recommendations to potential candidates for the United Nations Competitive Examination for Translators
Work on your mother tongue! Many failures at the exam are due to an insufficient knowledge of the target language. Reading works of classical literature is a good way to do this. Keep abreast of current events, but don't think you have to write like a journalist; beware of anglicisms and faddish turns of phrase.
Read in your source languages, with a dictionary at hand so you can look up new words and expressions (of course this should be done months, if not years, before the exam). Also practice sight translation, which will help you learn to think fast.
Practise writing with pen and paper as this is what you will have to do at the exam. If you use a computer for all your work, you may be surprised to find out how different it is to hand-write your translations.
Finally, get a good night’s rest before the exam. There is not much else you can do at the last minute to prepare yourself.