Candidates for translator posts must take the corresponding competitive examination in their main language, which is normally the language in which the candidates did their higher education studies. Please note that the information on this page is for English translators/précis-writers only. For information about the recruitment of translators who work into another official language, please switch to the version of this website in that language.
A first-level degree from a university or institution of equivalent status is a requirement for employment for all United Nations translators. Many, but not all, United Nations translators also have a degree from an accredited school of translation. The ability to translate into English from at least two of the other official languages (i.e. two of Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian or Spanish) is essential.
The written examination for English translators/précis-writers usually consists of:
Those who pass the written examination are convoked to a competency-based interview.
Please note that the content and format of the examination, as well as eligibility requirements and instructions on how to apply, may vary from one examination session to the next. Applicants should therefore check the corresponding examination notices carefully in order to be duly prepared.
Preparing for the competitive examination for translators and translators/précis-writers
It would not be an exaggeration to say that candidates have been preparing for the United Nations competitive examination for translators and translators/précis-writers all of their lives. Broad intellectual curiosity and general knowledge are very important for United Nations translators, who translate documents covering every topic on the United Nations agenda. Translators must also draw upon their experience, intelligence and ability to think critically and independently in order to perform their functions successfully. This ability to think critically and analytically is particularly necessary for précis-writing, which is an important aspect of the work of translators in the English and French translation services at some duty stations.
Translators/précis-writers must above all be good writers. And, at the risk of stating the obvious, the way to learn to write well is to read. The more well-read you are in your target and source languages, the more knowledgeable in political and international affairs, and the more intellectually curious in such areas as human rights, international peace and security, economic and social development, humanitarian affairs and international law, the better prepared you will be for the examination. Reading widely will not only strengthen your substantive knowledge in relevant fields but will also help to broaden your vocabulary, refine your style and give you a feel for the typical structures and expressions used in the languages from and into which you work.
Stay informed about political, social, cultural and other developments worldwide, and compare coverage of the same events in newspapers, magazines and newscasts in different languages. Peruse United Nations electronic and published news sources and visit the Organization’s audio-visual materials site at http://www.unmultimedia.org/ to read, watch and listen to the latest news and archival materials. You can also familiarize yourself with the style, register and terminology used in United Nations documents by visiting the United Nations Official Document System (ODS) and comparing different language versions of the same document. You will find this to be a particularly rewarding exercise.
Practise. Like any other craft, translation and précis-writing cannot be mastered without many hours of practice. An excellent way to practise is by translating from your source languages into your main language documents posted on the United Nations Official Document System (ODS) and then comparing your versions with the "official" English versions. Please note that the main United Nations website (www.un.org), which contains a wealth of information on the structure and work of the Organization, is not translated by the translators of the United Nations Secretariat and is therefore less reliable as a model for the standard and style sought in official documents. Remember that the factors that determine the quality of a translation are its accuracy (no mistranslations, omissions, unnecessary additions or serious shifts of emphasis), style (clear, idiomatic style; proper register; correct terminology, grammar, spelling and punctuation) and consistency (identical terms should be rendered the same way throughout). Generally speaking, the format of the translation should also conform to the format of the original. Before beginning your translation, it is often a good idea to first read through the text in order to better understand the context. Just as important is the need to read through your translation one final time before submitting it to ensure that it flows smoothly and idiomatically.
If sample test papers are posted on the examinations website, use them for practice to get an idea of the types of challenges the examination texts will pose and the level of difficulty of each paper. If the examination you have applied for includes a summary-writing exercise, practise summarizing speeches you find posted on the UN website. Remember to make sure you include all the main points and capture the tone and style of the original. Also make sure that you use reported speech and that your summary is approximately one third the length of the original.
Remember too that candidates who pass the written papers are next invited to a competency-based interview, which is an integral part of the examination. The interview often begins with a sight translation into your main language from one of your passive languages.
Group work. When possible, prepare and practise with other aspiring United Nations translators. Translation and précis-writing at the United Nations are team activities in which many language professionals are involved, including editors, terminologists, language reference assistants and translators into other official languages. Language professionals work very closely with their colleagues, seeking advice, exchanging ideas and sharing cultural awareness across language services. Review your work with other potential candidates and with experienced language professionals, and review the work of others. Take note of and discuss mistakes, both your own and those of others. In-depth analysis of mistakes can help you to avoid them during the examination.
Time management. Try to set a time limit for each practice assignment and pace yourself accordingly. You should be able to work under pressure. Take careful note of the time that will be allowed for each paper in the examination. This should be indicated in the examination announcement.
One final word! Don't be discouraged if you do not succeed on your first attempt. You may have performed well, but the examination is competitive and other candidates may simply have performed better that year. Examinations are held every few years. Continue to study, to practise and to hone your craft and try again at the next examination.