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English at the UN


The English Translation Service is the smallest of the six translation services at United Nations Headquarters that translate documents into the official languages of the Organization. It is a hybrid service that divides its time between documentation production (translation) and meetings servicing (précis-writing).

The members of the English Translation Service, who are from Canada, Cameroon, France, Ghana, Guyana, India, Ireland, Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the United States of America, and Venezuela, are required to have a perfect command of English, an excellent command of French and at least one other official language; many of the Service’s current staff translate into English from three or more passive languages. The Service as a whole has the capacity to translate from all five of the other official languages, in addition to German, Burmese, Dutch, Farsi, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Marathi, and Portuguese. The work must be completed under tight deadlines, particularly as English translations are often needed for relay translation into the other official languages.

Editorial standards are high; the ability to write in clear, idiomatic, grammatically flawless English is essential. Translators follow the spelling, capitalization and other style guidelines promulgated by the United Nations Editorial Manual Online.

The pitfalls of translating UN jargon

Jean Gazarian
About Jean Gazarian

"The delegations come to New York on the understanding that speeches would be translated – and they are. But when they’re not dealing with speeches they’re trying to put together ideas – so they have to use that common denominator. And what happens is that very often there could be a blunder – a linguistic misunderstanding. For example, there was a group of delegations that included a large number of English-speaking delegates – but also quite a number of French-speaking and Spanish-speaking delegates. And the group of French-speaking delegates wanted to introduce a paragraph that would begin with the word “demands”. And, of course, the English-speaking delegations were horrified. “You cannot say ‘demands’. You cannot order the Secretary-General in that way. You cannot order Member States in that way.” “No, said the French, demands is quite alright: 'demande’. But they didn’t understand that demands is not demande. So that was one of the blunders. And I had to intervene and explain the difference. The difference being that demand in English is exige. Whereas demande in French is a very normal term. There is no urgency in that. So every day that sort of misunderstanding may occur."


Members of the Service have to be able to switch seamlessly from one topic to another and to keep abreast of developments in relation to the issues dealt with by the United Nations. They need to be adept at carrying out research, using both United Nations and outside sources.

The Service’s other major activity, précis-writing, consists of preparing summary records of the proceedings of certain United Nations bodies. It affords translators the opportunity to attend intergovernmental meetings and witness diplomacy in action.

Précis-writers work in teams of two to four people, taking notes or following prepared texts of the statements made at meetings and then drafting summaries that fully capture the substantive points made by each speaker. Précis-writers need to have excellent aural comprehension skills and analytical ability. They must be able to stay calm under pressure and complete their work within the prescribed deadlines so that the records can be translated into the other official languages and issued in a timely manner. The Service’s staff spend approximately half their time engaged in this activity.

The Service relies on freelance staff to supplement its numbers at busy times, in particular the main part of the annual General Assembly session, which runs from mid-September to late December. At such times the Service doubles in size in order to be able to handle the workload. A recent innovation has been the use of off-site freelance translators and précis-writers working from home, who receive and send translation work electronically and cover meetings by preparing summaries from texts or from notes taken while listening to digital sound recordings of the proceedings.

New translators normally spend their first six months to two years being trained at United Nations Headquarters. Following this training period, some of them transfer to the translation services at the other main duty stations, located in Geneva (Switzerland), Vienna (Austria), Nairobi (Kenya) or at the regional commissions, located in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Bangkok (Thailand), Beirut (Lebanon), Santiago (Chile).

To celebrate multilingualism and highlight the creative aspect of the craft, in 2005 the English Translation Service launched an annual translation contest named after St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, interpreters, editors and other language professionals. Originally intended for English translators only, the St. Jerome Translation Contest now includes a test piece for translation into the other five official languages plus German. It is open to all current and retired United Nations staff worldwide.