A Glimpse to the Daily Work of UN Language Departments


Due to the “rendering” of various film and television works, the jobs of the United Nations translators and interpreters have been covered with a “mysterious” veil, and they appear to be a quite “lofty” high-end work in the eyes of many outsiders.


The Chinese Translation Department under the UN General Assembly and the Conference Documentation Office is responsible for taking care of all the Chinese translation works for all important documents, which would involve the Security Council resolution, secretary-general reports, statements, agreement and other kinds of contents and themes, etc..


The translators need to exert great efforts to prepare them into a formal United Nations documents, distribute them as historical documents to the member nations — the importance and challenge of this work is self-evident. Robert Liu, the head of the UN’s Chinese Translation Service, gave an exclusive interview to UN News earlier to try to “decipher” what it is like to work as a translator at the UN…


Earlier the UN General Assembly passed a resolution titled “professional translation in achieving the connectivity and promote peace, understanding and development of all countries the role of”, officially declared on September 30, “international translation day”, emphasis on translation in the maintenance of the purposes and principles of the UN charter, the United Nations, to promote dialogue, understanding and cooperation, and promote sustainable development, promote human rights, safeguard world peace and security, etc, play an important role. The resolution states that language is a means of integrating commonalities and identities, reflecting the idea that a united world is strengthened by its diversity; Professional translation — including translation, interpretation and compilation of words — the translation of literary works or scientific writings, including technical materials, from one language to another is essential to ensure clarity, positive atmosphere and fruitful results in international public discourse and interpersonal communication.


Since 1991, the International Federation of Translators and Interpreters (ITU) has proposed to celebrate St. Jerome’s day on September 30 every year to commemorate St. Jerome, the forerunner of the global translation community and the translator of the Latin text of the bible, to express professional pride in translation and to reflect on the role of translation. Through the efforts of the United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organization (UNESCO) and several translation associations, the General Assembly has adopted a resolution officially recognizing this day as “international translation day”, which fully affirms the outstanding contribution of professional translators to the cause of the United Nations and to global exchanges.


The resolution was proposed by Belarus, said Robert Liu, head of the UN’s Chinese translation service, in an interview. It was said that the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations had also served as a translator, so he understood the toil and importance of translation. From a translation point of view, they are usually “behind-the-scenes heroes”, says Mr Chen. Now, the translation work has been confirmed by the General Assembly, which is very important for boosting the morale, improving the working enthusiasm and further demanding themselves in the business. At the same time, the celebration of international translation day and the adoption of the General Assembly resolution will make more people understand the value of professional translation works.


The Chinese Translation Service of the UN General Assembly department is responsible for the translation of United Nations documents between Chinese and English. Chen said that UN translators need to deal with a wide range of documents every day, from resolutions and decisions to statements and agreements, from secretary-general’s speeches to expert reports, covering all topics on the UN agenda, including peace and security, development, human rights and international law. You are going to face new topics and issues every day, and the translators will have to keep their eyes and minds open and never stop learning.


When it comes to the daily work of an interpreter, Chen says it’s not as glamorous as in the TV series. They all work quietly behind the scenes. The UN interpreters are “shackled dancers” because of the sensitivity of the issues they deal with. They carefully considered every word and sentence, and consulted and discussed the context of each document in an effort to provide the highest quality of service within a strictly defined time-frame.


Chen said the United Nations is the world’s largest intergovernmental body. As far as the headquarters is concerned, there are the Security Council, the General Assembly and the ECOSOC, which deal with various important issues, including political, economic, social and legal issues. So UN interpreters have to be very careful. If a concept is wrong, it will affect the normal discussion among the representatives and ultimately affect the smooth resolution of various problems. In addition, the United Nations is a history of more than seventy years of international institutions, the interpreter can’t begin immediately after get a document translation, need to look at the past have similar important documents for reference, because the accurate meaning is just one aspect of the work, but also to ensure that the same issues from the perspective of readers have continuity and consistency of related documents. If you translate like that yesterday, translate like that today, and translate in a different way tomorrow, it will cause great trouble to the readers. As a result, United Nations translators have to be cautious in their work. They have to review a large number of documents and cross-check them. They have to research and discuss complex vocabulary or things they don’t understand.


The United Nations Chinese Translation Service has 71 staff members, more than 60 of whom work as translators. Mr. Chen said that the Chinese translation and interpretation service has very high requirements for the professional quality of translators. First of all, translators should focus on the big picture and ensure the quality of translation. As a translator at the United Nations, you should not only focus on one document after another, nor should you just be satisfied with fulfilling the prescribed workload quota. Instead, you should constantly remind yourself that the bridge of your work is closely linked to the great goals the United Nations is striving to achieve. The documents produced by the Chinese translation and interpretation service are directly available to the permanent mission of China to the United Nations, Chinese representatives attending United Nations conferences, government departments, legislative bodies, academia, news organizations, archives and documentary institutions and other readers. Therefore, the quality of translation has a direct impact on the breadth, depth, efficiency and effectiveness of China’s participation in UN affairs, on the efficiency of intergovernmental processes and the quality of negotiation outcomes, on the role of the United Nations, on people’s understanding and support of the United Nations, and on peace, development and people’s well-being. Therefore, the translation of the United Nations must have a lofty sense of mission and responsibility.


Second, political sensitivity must be maintained and timeliness ensured. The United Nations translation team is a professional team of international political organizations. The United Nations is the largest world political institution and a place where the interests of all countries compete. It deals with many sensitive issues. Some of the words may seem mundane, but they are the result of long and difficult negotiations between the parties. If the interpreters do nothing at all, they are likely to step on political landmines and cause trouble. Therefore, the translation of the United Nations must be concerned with sensitive hot issues, positions of all parties and the nuances of various words and expressions, and constantly improve their political sensitivity. In addition, documents for the meetings of the council must be translated within the allotted time and then uploaded to the official documentation system.


Chen pointed out in the interview that China’s participation in various UN discussions is increasing. China has put forward some important initiatives, such as the “One Belt And One Road” initiative, which has been included in the official documents of the United Nations because its goals are highly aligned with the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. This is an important opportunity for China to contribute to the work of the United Nations. One Belt And One Road is sensitive. For example, how to express the relevant concept of “One Belt And One Road”? Is it ok if the meaning is good? Or should it be reflected more accurately and authentically from the perspective of language? For example, a community with a Shared future for mankind is an important concept put forward by China. As long as the concept appears in UN documents, the Chinese representatives hope it can be accurately expressed.


With the rapid development of science and technology, the field of translation also faces various new challenges, but Chen believes that good translation will not be replaced by machines. Chen said modern technologies, including artificial intelligence, are having an impact on translation. He came to the United Nations in the age of pen and paper, where every word was written by hand, and then computers became more and more widely used, and there was machine assisted translation, and now people have started to talk about artificial intelligence translation. In fact, some of the more superficial and repetitive tasks can be done by machines. All kinds of translation tools are good for improving the efficiency, but at the same time, many problems in the files are caused by the bad tools. Artificial intelligence is not as good as one might hope, and machines cannot replace good translation, especially at the UN, because so many documents are too politically sensitive to go wrong.


The United Nations is one of the world’s largest employers of language professionals. The United Nations headquarters in New York, the Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi offices and the regionacommissions have hundreds of language professionals. To become a United Nations interpreter, Chen said, one must pass a competitive language test and be screened strictly. The basic requirements of the United Nations for a qualified translator have not changed, that is, the foreign language must be good; Must have a good command of Chinese; Translation skills must be solid; Be knowledgeable.


What advice does Chen have for young people who want to come to the United Nations to work as translators and test takers for competitive exams?


First of all, you must demonstrate solid proficiency and skills in both Chinese and foreign language. It is not easy to get a thorough understanding of the original text. As a UN translator, every word in the document must be understood, and no difficulty can be avoided. For sensitive political reasons, the style of the original text, the diversity of styles, or the uneven quality of the drafting of the UN documents, some of the meaning is hidden between the lines, or the words do not express the meaning, or deliberately vague. The interpreter must understand the subtle meaning and grasp the author’s intention accurately. Otherwise, the translation may feel like a mere scratch, a cloud, or even a thousand miles away. Therefore, the United Nations translation, foreign language basic skills must be solid. It is easy to forget that an interpreter’s Chinese literacy is a prerequisite. Some people may ask, we learn Chinese since childhood, how can Chinese have a problem. Not really. Translators often encounter difficulties in understanding the original text, but it is extremely difficult to translate it into authentic Chinese. Therefore, the translator must have a solid foundation in Chinese to complete the bilingual conversion. According to the translation requirements of the United Nations, the mother tongue quality is “proficient” and the foreign language quality is “proficient”, which shows that the mother tongue quality is more important than the foreign language quality. Chinese literacy is not enough, there will be a variety of consequences, including translation is not wrong, but sloppy, words do not mean, hard translation, dead translation everywhere; Deep in the original sentence structure cannot extricate themselves, the translation is not in line with the Chinese expression habits, so that readers read to pain; The style of the translation is out of place with that of the original; No matter what kind of document the original is, the translation is the same.


Secondly, you must be really knowledgeable. The United Nations is at the forefront of world affairs. United Nations documents cover political, economic, financial, social, cultural and technical fields. United Nations translators must therefore be versatile and capable of handling documents on a wide range of subjects. But because there are so many issues and so many more, no one can go into all of them. Therefore, the United Nations translation must also do in-depth research in certain fields and subjects and become an expert in one or several fields. Only in this way can the United Nations translation team as a whole have a relatively complete knowledge structure.


Thirdly, you must have the spirit of cooperation. Because of tight deadlines, many UN documents are produced in collaboration with other people. The UN translation team is a big team. Every interpreter is a team player, must have a sense of collaboration, cannot do their own way. Otherwise, each translation can be the world’s top translation, but put their own translation together will not be unified, causing great trouble to the reader. Problems in the team are often brought up for discussion and consensus is reached. Translators must respect each other, otherwise the overall quality and reputation of the UN translation will be affected.


Finally, stress tolerance and time management ability. The workload of United Nations translators is demanding. Some documents are urgently needed at the meeting and must be translated within a very strict time limit under the premise of quality and quantity guarantee. Otherwise, the meeting will be delayed and the timely discussion and settlement of various problems will be affected. Therefore, the ability to effectively manage time and efficiently provide quality translation services under high pressure is a must for UN translation.


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