United Nations Welcome to the United Nations

Danielle Henripin

Most of my pre-career training focused on the French language (history, grammar and literature) and on analysing world literature in the appropriate cultural context. I studied foreign languages primarily in Canada – self-teaching and a little formal training. As a translator, I am self-taught, but early on in my career, I was certified by the Ordre des traducteurs, terminologues et interprètes agréés du Québec, the professional association that certifies language professionals in my native province of Québec. It is a little like being a chartered accountant. When I started contemplating the switch to terminology, I enrolled in a short-term programme at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, which I found to be very relevant and helpful. 

Before joining the United Nations in March 2005, I had worked for 15 years as a writer, translator, editor and university instructor. I worked in broadcasting, marketing and public organizations, with some years of freelancing. 

I worked in the field of communications, in the broadest sense of the word – I had experience in the film and television industries, as well as with Websites and printed materials 

Why work for the United Nations? 

Everyone has their reasons. My main reason was that I was forty years old and wanted to contribute to an organization whose mission – ending war – I could believe in. 

Preparing for the United Nations Language Competitive Examination 

It took me about two to three months to prepare for the examination. I read a few basic books about the United Nations, brushed up on current affairs by reading Le Courrier international, and read everything I could in Spanish, including GEO magazine, which was surprisingly helpful! I was not sure I was ready, but decided to try anyway. I took the examination in September 2003. 

Challenges and rewards of the job 

The United Nations is a large organization, with many people bringing different viewpoints and agendas to any discussion. That can be both challenging and rewarding. A big bureaucracy is very different from the private sector or freelancing. 

Otherwise, language work entails similar challenges everywhere: we would always like to have more time to do more research, and sometimes we can’t get all the information we need. But clients and colleagues are usually happy to help. Besides, there are a lot of United Nations documents and a lot of information about the Organization online. When I started working in translation, we actually had to carry out research in libraries. Research has become far less time-consuming. 

I find that the best way to overcome many of these challenges is to keep an open mind, a sense of perspective and a keen sense of humour. 

In my opinion, the rewards include: constant learning, the opportunity to work with dedicated professionals around the world, and the support of an Organization that values multilingualism, quality and multilateralism. And the feeling of being part of the United Nations family – a very large family, scattered all over the world and speaking many languages. I still get chills seeing all those flags flying in front of the Secretariat. 

As United Nations staff, we are encouraged to keep honing our skills, and the Organization both demands and supports a commitment to continuous learning. For instance, it offers very high-quality language classes, but also supports many other learning and training projects. 

On a more personal note, as a francophone living in the United States, I am also aware that I must stay connected to my culture, and that requires some effort and discipline. Fortunately, the Internet, colleagues and online bookstores all make that a lot easier too! 

Recommendations to potential candidates for the United Nations Competitive Examination for Terminologist

The United Nations needs you! We need people who are passionate about language, who can integrate technology into language work and who are committed to the values the Organization stands for. There are hoops to jump through, but it is not impossible, either. So go for it! 

In practical terms, being able to work quickly is key to passing the examination, so experience is definitely an asset. Learn to manage your time well, so that you have time to read your translations over thoroughly and check for pesky spelling mistakes. 

During the interview: be yourself and do not hesitate to ask questions. 

I also recommend looking at the exam samples on the competitive examinations site. 

Competitive examinations are not easy, but they do reflect the nature of the work we have to do. The United Nations offers rewarding careers to people who are willing to work hard – and who are good at what they do. It is not unusual to have to take the exam more than once. Don’t get discouraged if that happens to you! It is a great opportunity to find out more about yourself and the United Nations. 

Just do whatever you need to do to feel that you are at your best physically and intellectually the day of the exam. Remember that your translation should not read like a translation – it needs to flow as if it had been written in the target language. Trust your instincts – the first solution is usually the best, and often, le mieux est l’ennemi du bien! 

Also, it’s important never to lose a sense of what sounds natural in your language, so make sure you don’t just read or see movies in translation, for instance. Sure, understanding United Nations content is important, but no one expects you to be an expert on United Nations issues. The main purpose of the examination is to test your language skills. The knowledge of the Organization will come later. I’m still learning a lot about it after 5 years.