English at the UN
Editorial Control Section
The Editorial Control Section ensures that United Nations documents are correct, clear, consistent and readable. The editors work with authors to organize and refine their reports, sometimes at the early drafting stage. They work on documents for many bodies of the Organization, including the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and their subsidiary bodies, as well as on submissions from other intergovernmental bodies and from Member States.
The range of subjects is vast, as befits the scope of the Organization’s concerns, ranging from climate change to statistics, from peace and security to the empowerment of women, from economic development to human rights. The principal concern of a United Nations editor is to make sure that the text says exactly what it means to say, that it is comprehensible to the reader, and that it can be easily translated into other languages. The intention of the author must be respected, and her or his style preserved, although the individual words and their order may have to be modified in the least obtrusive and most elegant manner possible for clarity of expression.
Editors must be alert to subtle nuances of meaning and attuned to political sensitivities. Any editorial change, though seemingly innocuous, can have far-reaching consequences, and the editors must always be aware of that. Frequent consultation takes place with author departments to ascertain exact meaning in order to avoid ambiguities and misstatements. Editing in the United Nations does not take place in a vacuum; it is very much a back and forth process. Liaison is always maintained, as well, with all other units involved in the documentation chain, in particular the translation services. Not only must the document be clear and correct in its original language, it must be clear and correct in all translated versions.
All prospective editors are required to have a perfect command of English, an excellent knowledge of French and one of the other official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, Russian or Spanish).
The Section has an active outreach site on the Internet – the United Nations Editorial Manual Online, for the use of its clients within the Secretariat and at Permanent Missions of Member States, which is also available to interested users outside the Organization. The Manual, which includes an online report-writing course, is interactive; the editors answer queries submitted through the portal on a daily basis.
A young editor gets a call from the Secretary-General
About Jean Gazarian
"It was my first job – editing resolutions at the UN. So one day I came to my office, ready to work, very cheerful, happy to be working at the United Nations, when the phone rang and a French-speaking voice at the other end of the line said: “Monsieur Gazarian, c’est Dag Hammarskjöld.” “Oh, oui Monsieur Secrétaire general” and then, of course, I’ll continue in English now, he said: “Are you the one who edited the French text of the resolution that came out this morning?” “Yes, Mr. Secretary-General.” “But you changed paragraph 2?” “It was in the original English and the sense was not clear – there were two possibilities and since it had to be rendered in perfect French, which as you know is a very precise language, I chose the only possibility that looked obvious.” And then there was a pause and he said: “That was exactly what you shouldn’t have done – that was the result of negotiations.” Negotiations started late in the existence of the UN. There was no negotiation in the early days – every draft resolution was put to a vote. But there was a first case of negotiation among delegates – they had to agree on a text, and the only possible agreement was to produce a vague text with two possibilities. That was the result of negotiations."Listen
Official Records Editing Section
The Official Records Editing Section is responsible for issuing the official records of the major United Nations organs (adopted texts such as resolutions and decisions) in the six official languages and for the issuance of final authentic texts. The core function of the Section is to eliminate inadvertent ambiguities and to ensure consistency across language versions.
Editors also ensure that United Nations terminology is respected and that editorial standards, policy and practice are followed. Political sensitivities are, however, uppermost in editors’ minds when they suggest solutions to editorial problems. The process requires extensive consultation with committee secretaries, author departments and sponsoring delegations, and translation services.
Unlike editors in the Editorial Control Section, who work in the single language of a submitted document, usually English, editors in the Official Records Editing Section work in multilingual teams on all six language versions of a text. Immediately prior to the release of a given document, editors meet in concordance sessions to review the final product in order to ensure that all substantive and structural elements are the same in all languages, all amendments have been inserted, all nuances have been conveyed correctly, all references have been verified, all terminology issues have been resolved, and all questions have been raised and answered satisfactorily. In a certain sense, as the single version of a document that leaves the Editorial Control Section becomes six documents, the six versions of a document in the hands of the Official Records Editing Section become a single document, that is, six language versions of a document that say the same thing.
Documents produced by the Section serve as a reliable source for United Nations multilingual terminology databases and for computer-assisted translation memories.
Terminology and Reference Section
The Terminology and Reference Section facilitates the editing and translation processes by doing thorough research into each document submitted in order to verify if any part of it may have existed, in any form, in a previously translated United Nations document or publication. That work not only helps to ensure high-quality editing and translation and consistency of language among United Nations documents, it also saves valuable time for all staff who are the beneficiaries of the Section’s efforts.
For that purpose, the Terminology Team of the Section, which is composed of one terminologist per official language and two assistants, maintains a six-language terminology database called UNTERM. The Team is also available to answer questions by phone and by e-mail regarding United Nations terminology and usage.
The Reference Team, which is about 25 persons strong, is in charge of identifying relevant documents and information by searching past United Nations documents in the Official Document System (ODS), specialized departmental databases, the websites of United Nations specialized agencies, non-governmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations as well as various terminology databases. The result of that research is a six-language reference package called an “e-folder” that is then delivered electronically to the translation services.
With its thorough knowledge of United Nations documentation past and present, the Section plays a crucial role in the Division’s document production chain.