WORKING FOR THE UN - Austin Area Translators and Interpreters

Not everything you’ve
always wanted to know but
answers to a few FAQs
(and to Jonathan’s Qs) by
Laura Vlasman with a little
help from some UN friends
Esther said I should include a
photo of myself, so here it is
(This is not how I
normally look when
I’m working for the
When did you work for the UN? For
how long? How did you get started?
I’ve never been on staff at the UN. I’ve had shortterm freelance contracts intermittently since 1987. The
short-term contracts range in length from 2 weeks to 2+
months. Some freelancers have “short-term” contracts
lasting as long as 11 months. Generally, they are
translators who are going to be recruited as full-time
staff once all the bureaucratic red tape has been cut
I also do contract work for the UN. More on that later!
How did you get started?
When I finished my degree at the Monterey Institute, I
contacted all the major international organizations with
offices in the US (World Bank, International Monetary
Fund, Organization of American States and others,
including the UN).
I sat for the UN exam for English translators and was
invited for an interview, after which I was placed on the
roster of candidates slated for eventual hiring. The UN
had a hiring freeze in place at the time, so I was not
offered a permanent post, but I was offered a short-term
freelance contract.
Did you only do translation or also
interpretation? Do translators and interpreters
have much interaction with each other?
I have only worked as a translator/précis-writer for
the UN. (Explanation of what a précis-writer does to
In my experience, there is virtually no interaction
between UN translators and UN interpreters, but my
experience may not be indicative. There probably is
somewhat more contact between staff translators and
staff interpreters, particularly in the case of translators
who have become interpreters (or, as in the case of one
translator I know, are married to a UN interpreter).
What kinds of qualifications are needed
to translate or interpret at the UN?
To be eligible to sit for the examinations for
translators and interpreters:
• Candidates must hold at least a first-level
university degree or its equivalent (e.g., B.A.,
licenciatura) from an institution at which the
language of instruction was their main
language. Interpreter candidates must hold a
degree from a recognized school of
• Candidates’ main language (defined as the
language in which they are best able to work,
normally the language in which they were
educated) must be one of the six official
languages of the UN (Arabic, Chinese,
English, French, Russian, Spanish).
• They must have an excellent passive
knowledge of two other official languages.
For English translators/interpreters, French is
obligatory, whereas translators/interpreters
into all other languages must offer English as
one of their passive languages.
• Candidates must not have reached their
56th birthday by the application deadline
specified in the vacancy notice. This is
because the UN wants to recruit staff for
language posts who can serve for a
reasonable period of time before reaching
the mandatory retirement age of 62 years.
The UN also hires language professionals
to work in other capacities (e.g., editors,
verbatim reporters, language teachers)
Information on language positions at the UN, including
exam notices and exam samples, available at:
Language staff may be assigned to work at any of
the various UN offices around the world (NY,
Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi and others)
What are they looking for?
According to Steve Sekel, former head of
English translation and Director of the
Documentation Division at UN Headquarters in
New York, what the UN language services are
really looking for (beyond someone who meets the
formal requirements) is a profile or combination of
traits that long experience has shown to be a
reliable predictor of successful performance as a
United Nations translator.
These are:
• Excellent powers of analysis
• Excellent writing skills in the target language
• A thorough knowledge of the culture, the
history, the political and legal system, and the
economy of the countries whose languages
they translate from
(keep going - there’s more!)
• Political awareness and sensitivity and an
interest in the great issues of the day –
international peace and security, economic
and social development, human rights and
environmental protection, to name a few
• Intellectual curiosity and a commitment to
lifelong learning
• A temperament that is self-effacing (since
translators work in the shadows of the
diplomatic process) and a natural talent for
serving as a go-between, a broker or a
mediator (since they must bridge the gaps
between users of different languages).
UN interpreters, in
addition to the
foregoing qualities,
“must possess the
presence of mind not
to be rattled by
speakers reading off
texts at break-neck
speed or by the
impenetrable accent of
a non-native speaker.”
Extraordinary stamina
is also required in
some cases.
(When Gaddafi held forth for
more than an hour and a
half during the UN General
Assembly in 2009, his
interpreter collapsed 90
minutes into his speech.)
Do most translators and interpreters work on
short/temporary assignments or for longer
periods? Are there career UN
Yes, there are career UN translators and
interpreters. In New York, there are currently about
20 staff translators in the English translation
service. The same is true at the UN office in
The staff of the other services tends to be
somewhat larger since there is generally more call
for translation into those languages (because many
documents are written in English and then have to
be translated to all the other official UN languages).
The number of short-term staff depends on
what’s going on. During the General Assembly
(held in the fall of each year), the UN in NY
used to recruit numerous freelancers (15-20 in
the English translation service alone).
However, budget constraints have now led
the UN to adopt a “move work, not people”
policy, and so most freelancers are now working
(I’ll leave it to Linda to talk about remote work for the UN.)
The UN also outsources some translation to
independent contractors through its Contractual
Translation Unit (CTU)
Here’s what Steve Sekel had to say about that:
Because outsourced work is generally expected to be
“camera-ready” or of a self-revised standard (i.e., not
requiring checking for accuracy or style by a reviser or
more experienced translator), a great many of the
contractors to which such translations are assigned are
retired UN translators. Established translators without
UN experience are not excluded, however, and anyone
interested in applying for inclusion in the roster
maintained by CTU should send a letter of interest and
c.v. to the Chief of CTU, Mr. Vitaly Ganin
([email protected]).
Steve also says about prospects for working for the UN in
For many years, the United Nations enjoyed the luxury of
sitting back and waiting while highly qualified language staff
flocked its way. This is unfortunately no longer the case.
The language services have been experiencing an
unprecedented, large-scale turnover as a result of the
Organization’s strict mandatory age of retirement (60 for staff
recruited before 1 January 1990, and 62 for those recruited
after that date), and the UN faces critical shortages for
certain language combinations. We are anxious to forge
relations with universities and other academic institutions that
train language staff, as well as with professional
associations, to cast our net as widely as possible.
What is the nature/subject matter of most
of the documents you’ve translated? (If
you tell me, will you have to kill me?)
There are examples galore on the UN website
( of the sorts of documents UN translators
translate. So, no, we won’t have to kill you.
Most UN documents are of a political, legal, or
economic nature, but there are also treaties and reports
that deal with a wide array of subject matter (e.g.,
science, technology, health). And then there are the “nut
letters” - letters written by crackpots and lunatics to the
Secretary-General and other UN officials. Those are
always good fun (but those you won’t find any examples
of on the UN website!).
Do you find the work challenging,
frustrating, exciting, interesting?
(Well, maybe not too exciting, but almost always interesting and
challenging and sometimes frustrating, too.)
Do you collaborate with any other UN
translators? For example, does someone edit
your work? Do people ever work in teams?
Yes. Interaction with colleagues is one of the
best things about working for the UN.
One’s work is generally revised by a more
senior translator/reviser until one is deemed to
be trustworthy enough to self-revise.
Big translation jobs are routinely divided
among several translators, so in that sense we
do work in teams.
We also work in teams as précis-writers.
What is précis-writing and is it
still used today?
Précis-writing is still very much in use
today. In fact, I’m not at the AATIA
meeting today because I’m doing a
précis-writing job! Précis-writers produce
summary records of many UN meetings.
Précis-writing is a form of report-writing, in
which the speakers’ words are
summarized in reported speech.
(read on for an example)
For example:
If Mr. So-and-So says:
A critically important aspect of
the rule of law at the
international level is the
obligation of States to
implement at national level the
commitments undertaken by
them under treaties and other
international obligations. My
country is committed to
complying conscientiously with
the letter and spirit of the
treaties to which it is a party.
The précis-writer might write:
Mr. So-and-So said that
fulfilment by States of their
obligations under treaties and
other international agreements
was an important aspect of the
rule of law. His country was
committed to complying with the
treaties to which it was a party.
Why do UN translators do
Because statements are delivered in various
languages, so the job can’t be done by, say, a
monolingual journalist or even necessarily by a
multilingual journalist. It requires a professional
translator who can understand the nuances - and in
many cases the diplomatic subtext - of the source text
and convey the speaker’s ideas succinctly in the target
Nowadays, the vast majority of statements are
delivered in English, so the vast majority of préciswriting at the UN is done by English translators.
What’s the environment like? Is the air
charged with excitement, or does it feel
more like typical government work?
I wouldn’t say the air is charged with
excitement, but there is a certain exciting quality
about knowing that one is working in a place
where momentous decisions are (or could be)
being made.
But as in just about any job, there’s also a fair
amount of tedium. And we translators are
strictly behind-the-scenes people so we are
seldom witnesses to anything very exciting.
In your experience, what is one of the
misconceptions people have about
working at the UN?
That it’s all glamour and excitement. In fact,
it’s often long hours of very difficult work
performed in a cramped, drafty, poorly lit office
equipped with the same (non-computer-friendly)
furniture that’s been in the building since it was
constructed in the early 1950s. And of course
one’s work, like most translation work, is
completely anonymous. But…
To quote my chum Steve Sekel again:
The United Nations translator is a broker, a
go-between, a facilitator in the great multilateral
discussions of our day. The translator is never,
and should never be, the centre of attention.
Even the interpreters with their greater
visibility are, after all, actors playing in a
supporting role. Toiling far from the limelight,
the translator must content himself or herself
with the thought that he or she is serving a
higher purpose. In the words of the Charter, this
purpose is none other than:
• To save succeeding generations from the scourge of
• To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the
dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal
rights of men and women and of nations large and
• To establish conditions under which justice and
respect for the obligations arising from treaties and
other sources of international law can be maintained;
• And to promote social progress and better
standards of life in larger freedom.
If, at the end of a long,
tiring day, one can think
that one’s work might have
made some small
contribution towards those
objectives, then the day
won’t have been entirely
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