United Nations documents are issued simultaneously in the six official languages of the Organization: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Some core documents are also translated into German. This multilingual documentation is made possible by the United Nations translators/précis-writers, whose job is to render clearly and accurately the content of original texts into their main or “target” language (normally the language in which they did their higher education studies).
United Nations translators/précis-writers have to be able to handle all kinds of documents, from short political speeches to reports prepared by expert bodies. The documents they translate cover every topic on the United Nations agenda, including human rights, peace and security, economic and social development, peaceful uses of outer space and humanitarian affairs. New issues arise every day.
United Nations translators/précis-writers use translation memory software, general and specialized dictionaries, glossaries, in-house databases and Internet research, supplemented by consultations with fellow translators/précis-writers and other experts, to ensure the consistency and technical accuracy of their translations. Given the potential political repercussions or delays that a mistranslation might generate, stylistic appropriateness and accuracy at the highest level of detail are essential. To ensure the quality required, nearly all translations produced in-house are reviewed by “revisers” (usually senior translators with more in-house experience who are familiar with the documents produced by the United Nations body in question and the subject covered).
Another important task that translators in the English and French services carry out at some duty stations is the drafting of summaries of the proceedings of United Nations bodies, a process known as précis-writing. This is why the recruitment test is called the “Competitive examination for translators/précis-writers”. Translators receive training in précis-writing after recruitment; no previous experience is required to sit the competitive examination.
Précis-writers work in teams. They take turns to take notes at a meeting and then write up their summaries afterwards. Sometimes speakers provide written copies of their statements. Otherwise, précis-writers work from their notes and, if necessary, the audio recording of the meeting. The summary records they produce constitute the official records of the body. (See sample record here.)
Summary records are drafted in English or French and then translated into the other five official languages. This means that précis-writers summarize all statements in their main language, regardless of the language in which the statement was delivered in the meeting room.
Précis-writers must condense statements in a clear, accurate and concise manner without omitting any of the speaker’s key points or distorting the argument. As a rule of thumb, summaries should be one third to one half of the length of the original statement. They are written in reported speech.
Challenges of being a UN translator/précis-writer: the level of accuracy required, the political nuances of texts, the need to respect precedent, the range of topics covered, the variety of documents translated, the tight turnaround times, knowing which sources to consult or resources to use, mastering in-house style.
Rewards of being a UN translator/précis-writer: the opportunity to gain insight into world affairs and international diplomacy, learn about a whole range of subjects, work on varied and high-profile texts, become an expert in specific subject areas, work as a member of a team, learn from others, learn other official languages and work in different countries. In the case of translator/précis-writers, the change of pace between précis-writing and translation work and the chance to witness the intergovernmental process in action.
United Nations translators must:
United Nations Office at Vienna