Upgrade to ChromeUpgrade to FirefoxUpgrade to Internet ExplorerUpgrade to Safari

The Eiffel Tower

Translation and editing for the UN in New York

Posted 08 September 2016

Request a free quote Request a call back

An opportunity for a translation and editing internship not to be missed…

This summer, I have been working (on loan from ALM) for the English Translation Service (ETS) and the Editing Section (ES) at the United Nations Secretariat in New York, USA. It’s not everyday that an opportunity such as this arises.

With the great old spirit of adventure, I headed across the pond in early July to live out the New York dream (albeit temporarily). But the one thing that stood out above anything us was the difference between translation in the private sector and translation in the public sector. So what are the differences between translation and editing in the private sector and translation and editing in the public sector?

When most of us think about translation these days, we tend to think of it from a limited business perspective and generally as a means to an end, in particular for B2B or B2C communications, operating manuals, legal contracts or medical notes etc. But for an organisation such as the United Nations, translation and multilingualism are paramount in ensuring greater effectiveness, better outcomes and more involvement by the Member States that it comprises. However, with the UN comprising 193 Member States, the capacity for complete logistical and linguistic chaos would be infinite, and as such, it was decided that there would be six UN official working languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish and Russian. Ironically through, despite English being one of the most widely spoken languages in the world today, ETS is the smallest of the language units of the UN, owing to the fact that about 90% of UN documents are originally drafted in English. Unsurprising, the need for translation therefore arises for the remaining 10%, and this is where my story begins.

My first few days of working at the UN comprised of a series of introductory events, which included seminars on workflow procedures, CAT (Computer Aided Translation) tools, terminology and translation memory resources, stylistic and editorial guidelines, UN documentation, UN organograms, and of course, a welcome party featuring an endless supply of food. But while my brain may have been a bit overwhelmed at the beginning, the best way to really learn and absorb all of my new found information was to start at the deep end, so when my first live official document landed in my inbox, the real work began.

From documents from the various UN bodies and committees to submissions from Member States, and from specialist human rights reports to researching legal cases, the diversity of documents and topics that came across my desk was varied to say the least, and the linguistic level complex. But with plenty resources a click away, a library packed full of resources and a number of colleagues on hand for advice, I put my head down and went full steam ahead. Of course, as is routine in the private sector (not least at ALM), all my translations for the UN went for review by senior UN translators (the people who have quite literally written the addendums and training notes to the UN’s Translator’s Handbook). A few days later, I would receive an email inviting me for a training review meeting with the applicable reviser and where I would be given feedback. As would be expected, the feedback that I received was meticulous, not just in terms of the use of English but also in terms of UN-specific style and terminology, and as each meeting went by, I came to understand more about the deliberate intricacies, subtitles and ambiguities that are commonplace in UN documents.

But my working day did not always consist of sitting behind a desk, and it was an absolute delight to be given the opportunity on several occasion to attend live UN meetings, and to see how key UN documents come to play their part really did round off the workflow of a document’s life and my experience with the translation services.

So, as I come to the end of my time with ETS, I can look back and reflect on the things that I have learnt about translation, in particular in the public sector:

  • The Internet may provide us with infinite sources of information, but not everything on the Internet is accurate or reliable, so the use of singular official reference sources will always guarantee consistency, whether it be among colleagues or in your own work.
  • Previous translations are great when you need a hand in breaking down a complex, multi-part and inexplicably long sentence. But sometimes, previous translations are time-limited and can never be taken as gospel.
  • The use of every word, comma and nomenclature should always be measured and defendable, and there can never be any second-guessing. It is always worth clarifying a point or double-checking reference materials, style guides or handover instructions, as sometimes the consequences of a hurried action could quite literally be catastrophic for the parties involved.
  • Everyone is a (semi-) expert in something; you never know when that little titbit of obscure information will come in handy one day.
  • Adaptation and consideration of the target audience are paramount skills; what exists or works in one language/culture does not always mean it will exist in another language or culture.

So all in all, a highly positive and interesting experience. I can now share what I’ve learned along the way with ALM’s review team, bringing even more to our already brilliant quality assurance service to our customers!


Request a Call Back