United Nations Welcome to the United Nations

Hala Talaat

Language, in all its aspects, has always been a fascinating subject for me. My graduate studies in linguistics, which concentrated on the universal features of language and its structure have helped me a great deal in pursuing my passion for translation, as they provided me with a deep knowledge of the make-up of human language and how to transfer universal meaning from one specific language to another while respecting their respective peculiarities and unique view of the world.

I started my career by teaching linguistics and translation to graduate and undergraduate students at several universities in Egypt (Al-Azhar University, Ain Shams University and the AUC), Saudi Arabia (the English Department at the Girl’s College) and the United States (the University of Michigan). During all these years, I continued my freelance translation work which mainly covered technical, economic and political topics.

I joined the UN in 1996 as a translator in the Arabic Translation Service, after passing the Competitive Examination for Arabic Translators in 1992.

Why work for the United Nations?

I would not be exaggerating if I said that any translator would be extremely lucky to work for the United Nations. From the variety of texts that you are exposed to on a daily basis, in a way that would help hone and sharpen your skills, to the diversity of the colleagues you would be working with and the intellectual stimulation that would give you, to the sense of pride that you would get from serving an organization that serves the whole world, the UN is an unparalleled employer by any definition. I remember how proud I was at a recent ATA conference I attended, when at a presenation on quality assessment in translation, the work done at the UN was specifically mentioned as the gold standard. Need I also mention that the organization is a fair employer that highly values the efforts of its staff members?

Recommendations to Potential Candidates for Preparing for the UN Language Competitive Examination

Thanks to the internet and to new developments in the world of technology, candidates now have at their fingertips all the resources they need to study and practice for the exams. I suggest that you make extensive use of the Official Document System (ods.un.org) where you will find a wealth of documents to use for practice. Start by translating parts of these documents yourself, then compare your translation to the one done at the UN. Aim at doing as many texts as you can and at covering as many different topics as you can, taking the structure of the examination papers as your guide. Familiarize yourself with the terminology and style used by the UN translators. You may also want to take advantage of courses taught at academic institutions on translating for the UN. Above all, learn about the various issues of interest to the UN and its work, as this will be of invaluable help to you in ensuring the accuracy of your understanding and interpretation of the texts you translate. 

Rewards and challenges of the job

There are many rewards that are immediately obvious. Apart from the personal satisfaction one gets from working for an organization of unmatched prestige that helps set the values for a decent human society, there is immense room for personal and professional development, due to the multitude of education and training opportunities and the wealth of resources that the Organization provides for its staff, as well as to the exposure one gets to different cultures and modes of thinking and acting. The almost endless possibilities for improvement against such background are indeed enhanced by the chances offered, and even encouraged, for travel and work at different duty stations around the globe. At the UN, you work in a truly vibrant, energizing and empowering environment. 

Needless to say that, like all rewards, ours come at a price. A great deal of discipline and dedication is expected from the UN translator in order to live up to the high standards expected of him or her. Mastering the various topics that one has to deal with on a daily basis, in addition to the terminology used in translating these topics can be a daunting challenge. The consistency and conformity required by institutional translation sometimes also creates a certain degree of tension between individuality and creativity, on the one hand and the demands of standardized language or style, on the other. Oftentimes, personal preferences based on custom or education  have to be reconciled –not without learning or exertion- to established departmental usage developed over time. There are also difficulties involved in having to deal, under strict deadlines, with a variety of texts from any number of areas of expertise, for which one often needs to do extensive and lengthy research that adds to the already heavy workload usually assigned to translators. With language constantly evolving on account of world developments, advances in science and technology, and even the rise of new fields altogether, and the UN being at the forefront of many of these developments, the UN translator finds himself/herself facing extra challenges on both levels of terminology and idiom. Yet I have to say that I personally find that these very challenges help make the work that much more satisfying.