Language services at the United Nations

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Orphée Mouthuy; translated into English by Claudia Bragman

On Tuesday 23 October 2012, Ms Marie-Josée de Saint-Robert, chief of the Language Services Department, Ms Irène Abrahamian, UN interpreter, and Mr Jesús  Guerrero, chief of the Languages section, gave a presentation on the different sections of the Languages Services Department at the United Nations. This took place as part of the seminar on Switzerland’s 10-year membership to the UN. Indeed in the United Nations, linguistic diversity is divided into three main areas: translation, interpreting and language training.

Ms de Saint Robert’s speech: the translation service

“The translator must prioritise transmitting the message clearly over literary prowess.”

The UN began by having two working languages: English and French. However, in 1946, UN plurilingualism was redefined, thus allowing Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Russian to be part of the list of official languages.

UN translators, both permanent and temporary, can be recruited to work in one of the four UN offices:  Geneva, New York, Vienna or Nairobi.  They mainly work in the field of Human Rights and UNCTAD (the Conference on Trade and Development).

They are expected to meet four main requirements.

Firstly, they must have a perfect command of their main language; that is to say, the language in which they completed their studies.  Secondly, they must be able to work in at least two other official UN languages.  They must also be able to work in any field, whether it iss economic, legal or social.  Finally, they will be required to know how to take meeting minutes in English and/or in French during sessions.

Not all UN documents are dealt with in the same way.  Indeed, in the main bodies, large documents have to be translated into the six official languages. On the other hand, Secretariat documents are only translated into English and French.  The majority of documents are automatically written in English. Consequently, there is a high demand for translations from English into French.

In terms of numbers, approximately 30 texts are translated per day and the UN stipulates that a translator must be able to produce 1,650 words per day.

Various obstacles can arise whilst translating documents. At times, the available resources are not high enough to cover the demand for translations. Also, some of the documents are poor quality. In fact, the reports are not always written in the native language of the writer.  In order to compensate for these difficulties, we occasionally suggest that text lengths should be limited. This allows translators to work on a greater number of texts.  However, States do not always accept this solution as they do not want incomplete documents.  Translators have access to databases, which they can use as a translation tool. There are databases that recognise passages that have already been translated in other texts, as well as a terminology database (see Translators can also consult with colleagues and the report writers.

Ms Abrahamian’s speech: presentation on a study on plurilingualism at the UN

In 2011, the UN carried out a study on multilingualism and its problems and solutions. This is fundamental in terms of maintaining an intercultural, harmonious and tolerant environment.

The study underlined the fact that representatives still use English too frequently in order to be better understood, despite the UN having six official languages. This is to the detriment of parity among languages.

Another major problem is the shortage of language personnel. This tends to be an ongoing issue, given the number of translators and interpreters who plan on retiring soon.

Consequently, the UN must organise new competitions and manage new incoming personnel.  Unfortunately, there is still only a small number of successful candidates. This led the UN to sign partnership agreements with various universities worldwide and, also, to offer specific courses to prepare for the competitions.

In conclusion, it is up to the member States to decide whether the United Nations should defend and protect plurilingualism or whether, on the contrary, it should not be such a high priority, given the economic and financial situation.

Mr Guerrero’s speech: language training

The UN only really began to talk about multilingualism and promoting the learning of its six official languages in 1995. Chinese, Spanish and Russian were selected based on post-war criteria and Arabic was chosen for economic reasons.  Since then, training programmes have been established and made available to UN employees and their spouses, and people whose work is linked to the UN.

Over 2,600 students attend these programmes each year. There are also classes for interpreters.  Thirty six teachers cover the classes with the help of three administrators.

There are several levels of training and students are monitored by using language aptitude tests once they complete the ninth level.

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