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Department for General Assembly and Conference Management

Chinese Translation Service

Chinese is one of only two non-Indo-European languages and the only non-alphabet language among the six official languages of the United Nations.  From linguistic and technical points of view, Chinese as an official language of the Organization has undergone a major transformation over the years.

From having calligraphers whose duty was to transcribe translated text for reproduction, the Service has gradually adopted electronic technology in its work.  The style of translation has also evolved from literary to vernacular, making documents more user-friendly and accessible to the public.

In the past decade, the Service has taken the lead and made great advances in the use of information technology for translation.  Calligraphers and mammoth typewriters with complex 4,000-character keyboards have become a thing of the past.  Translators now use various electronic tools for their trade, including voice recognition software and computer-assisted translation applications.

The Service translates reports, records and other documents as required.  Most outputs are for the immediate use of delegates, but their importance goes far beyond the conference room.  Chinese translations of major documents prepared by the Service are often cited by the media, quoted in statements and incorporated into legislation.

One recent example is the ratification by China’s legislature in 2005 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption on the basis of the official translation done by the Service.  As a result, offences such as trading in influence, abuse of office and illicit enrichment have become topical subjects of discussion.  Similarly, when the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the General Assembly in March 2007, the Chinese text produced by the Service was soon posted prominently on many Chinese websites.  The Translation Service also helps to introduce to the general public terms such as accountability, gender perspective and crimes against humanity.

The daily routine of the Service’s translators consists of a constant intellectual effort to transform complex combinations of words, expressions and ideas from one richly endowed language based on alphabets into one that is equally well endowed but based on an ancient logographic system of writing.

The intellectual activity involved in translation is not without frustration, but neither is it devoid of sparks of excitement, especially when an ingenious rendition of an extremely difficult expression is superbly engineered.

Anyone who takes a tour of the Service will be amazed at the diverse ways in which the translators perform their work.  Old fashioned writing implements, while much reduced in number, are still around, in particular for revising texts.  But computers and a whole array of Windows-based and Internet-based applications have found their way into the professional life of the Service.

The sight of colleagues with headphones and microphones might well be mistaken for scenes from a call centre.  They are in fact dictating their translations using voice recognition software.  Electronic tools are also being used.  These tools are helpful, but experience shows that there are major limitations with current technology.  There is no magic wand and translation remains an intellectual process.  While embracing all the possibilities offered by advances in technology, the staff of the Service still rely on their own intellect, both individual and collective.  Working as a team, each staff member contributes to the timely provision of quality services to clients.

 

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Last Update: 23 May 2011 / Ann GETZINGER