I started my professional career as a teacher in Buea, Cameroon. From 1996 to 1997 I worked as a freelance translator for the African Union (then called the Organization of African Unity), the regional office of the World Health Organization in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the African Export-Import Bank and other agencies. The broad range of posts and assignments allowed me to fulfill multiple missions in numerous African and European countries.
In 1997 I began working as a contractual translator for ECA in Addis Ababa. Between 1997 and 1999 I was a translator at United Nations Headquarters in New York, and in August 1999 I was assigned to the ECA West Africa subregional office in Niamey, Niger, where I was employed as a permanent staff translator. In 2003 I moved to the United Nations Office at Vienna, where I am a self-revising translator/reviser.
Why work for the United Nations?
I have always considered the United Nations to be the world’s pre-eminent intellectual centre, a temple of excellence, and a hub for world citizens and intellectuals, who are given a unique chance to work closely together in a place where almost daily the most important debates on world affairs take place.
Preparing for the United Nations Language Competitive Examination
I was recruited to work for the United Nations in 1997, after I had successfully passed the United Nations competitive examination for translators in 1996. I had prepared for the examination by attending a special programme that I was selected for together with 11 other finalists after I had passed a recruitment examination organized by ECA in Addis Ababa.
Challenges and rewards of the job
Among linguists, translators are known as "anonymous authors" who are passionately dedicated to their profession. A translator must not only understand the text, written in language A, but take the very essence of it and render it in language B, respecting the author’s intentions and logic.
What makes working at the United Nations a unique experience is the diversity of the topics translators are expected to deal with, the multicultural and multinational working environment, the opportunities for personal and professional growth and development, the chance to reveal one’s talents and capacities and the possibility of expanding the learning experience, utilizing the latest technological innovations.
Though rewarding experiences can be elusive, one such event was my encounter with an author who, understanding that translators are not mere machines, processing texts from one language into another, praised the translators’ intelligence and acknowledged their capacity to provide a thorough analysis of the texts with which they work.
First and foremost, translation is always accompanied by the meticulous examination of multiple documents. This is necessary to achieve a better correspondence between the content and style of the original and translated texts. Such an alignment will consequently facilitate a better understanding of the translation. This task involves ongoing consultation with colleagues in the United Nations Terminology and Reference Section and with various specialists in the departments that requested the translation services. Thus, on a daily basis, translators are involved in comprehensive bodies of research, consultations, conversations, negotiations and intellectual debate.
It is very important to work with diligence and to avoid peremptory and categorical judgements. Remember that there is no such thing as a perfect translation! Remain flexible and open to the advice of others to improve your own output. It is also advisable to read as much as possible in the languages you are working with, to enlarge and enrich your cultural background, and to familiarize yourself with a variety of styles in literature, law, journalism, administration, management, technology and science.
Recommendations to potential candidates for the United Nations Competitive Examination for Translators
Remember that the United Nations language competitive examinations are not for dilettantes. Prepare thoroughly and appropriately! Do not allow yourself to cheat, to guess, or to be overtaken by illusions. Demonstrate determination and courage. Begin preparation as soon as possible. Enrich your cultural background and enhance your knowledge of the official United Nations languages in which you will be working, especially by reading literary works, articles, reviews and reputable newspapers. Do not give up when you encounter the inevitable pitfalls. Be persistent and simply tell yourself “yes, I can”. One day your efforts will pay off!