How did you come to learn the languages you use at work?
I grew up in Morocco and spoke English at home, so that’s my mother tongue, but I attended French school through lycée, and learned Spanish as a foreign language at school and during visits to Spain. I also speak a smattering of Moroccan Arabic, but not enough to use Arabic as one of my official working languages.
What attracted you to become a language professional at the United Nations?
I’d always been interested in the work of the United Nations around the world and wanted to use my language skills for a good cause. I hadn’t actually had any formal training in translation or editing before I took the competitive examinations, but I was able to pass the exams and learn a lot of the more formal skills during my first few years on the job. Seventeen years later, I’ve now worked in three different language capacities at the United Nations: verbatim reporting, editing and translation.
What do you consider to be the key traits of a good editor?
Integrity, professionalism, and a good measure of self-motivation. Attention to detail is also very important. Of course, a genuine personal interest in global affairs will go a long way towards helping you to understand the subject matter of our documents.
What part of your job do you consider as the most interesting? Why?
I like being exposed to the wide range of documents that the Secretariat has to deal with. It gives me a great overview of the issues that people all over the world are facing, from the very specific – the yearly reports on small, Non-Self-Governing Territories like Pitcairn, for example – to the more universal issues such as climate change.
What challenges do you face in your daily work and how do you handle them?
It’s always a challenge to navigate the issue of new terminology and determine whether it’s something that can be used in United Nations documentation. For example, when I came across the term “Brexit” for the first time in a document that I was editing, I had to consult a senior editor to determine whether we would try to spell out the concept. In the end I believe we decided to retain “Brexit”, but in quotes. New terminology requires us to set new policies on its use, on the basis of whether the term is clear, understandable and in line with United Nations editorial practice in general.
The newest challenge that I’m facing, as one of the focal points for the United Nations guidelines on the use of gender-inclusive language, is updating our editorial practices to apply the principle of gender inclusivity to the wide range of documents that we handle. It’s an exciting project to be a part of!
What are some of the most difficult tasks you have worked on?
I’m currently managing a project to develop and refine the eLUNa Editorial interface, an editing application that has been custom-built for editors at the United Nations and tailored to our multilingual documentation workflow and that is part of the eLUNa suite. It’s very challenging on several different levels, but I have a great team of people working with me, on both the development side and the user side, and we’re making progress every day.
What do you think about the evolution of technology in your field of work? How has it affected you?
I have been fortunate enough to attend several conferences on machine translation, as part of my role as project manager for the eLUNa Editorial interface, and have been encouraged to see how many other language professionals from around the world are also grappling with the challenges and opportunities that such new technologies present for our work. It’s a rapidly evolving field, and I’m excited to see where it leads us.
Personally, I like to think of new technologies as tools that we can use to do the more repetitive, mundane tasks that language professionals face. Computers are really useful for doing the robot work, freeing us up to focus on the more fulfilling and creative parts of our work!
How does your work fit into the larger framework of the United Nations?
The United Nations is such a huge organization, dealing with so many disparate and specialized areas of work. Editors at the United Nations work to bring all of that documentation — authored by various Member States, Secretariat officials and members of other United Nations bodies — into line with United Nations editorial policy, while retaining the detail and accuracy necessary for each area of specialization (legal, technical, humanitarian, administrative, etc.). We also have to be aware of areas and issues that are politically sensitive, and adjust our editing work accordingly.
What is the most memorable story about your work?
There are so many, but one of my earliest memorable moments was when I was working as a brand-new verbatim reporter in the Security Council. The Council members were all seated at the iconic horseshoe-shaped table, and I was sitting at the table in the centre of that, along with the press officers, listening to the interpretation of the speeches on the earpieces provided. I was nervous, of course, and when I stood up to walk out of the room, I forgot to first take my earpiece off. It was connected to the table with a wire, and I nearly yanked my ear off in the process! I felt like all eyes were on me, and had to fumble to get the earpiece off without dropping all my papers. My colleagues assured me that they had all done that at least once, which made me feel better!
How does being multilingual affect your daily life in New York City?
It’s funny because, working with documents, I rarely use my languages out loud at work, unless it’s informally with colleagues. I do, however, now have an extensive (and very formal) vocabulary on United Nations-related topics in French and Spanish. So I’ve had some surprisingly good conversations with cab drivers about, say, the humanitarian situation in specific parts of Africa, or with people from various South American countries about indigenous rights there.
Do you have any advice for budding language professionals? Any tips on how to prepare for the competitive examinations for language positions?
Anything that helps you to brush up on your languages, such as reviewing grammar and usage, is of course helpful. To get an idea of the kind of vocabulary used at the United Nations, you can read through United Nations documents, which are available online. A good place to start would be the reports of the Secretary-General, which cover a wide variety of subjects and are available in all six official languages. Or you could watch archived (or live) webstreams of the meetings of the Security Council, General Assembly or other bodies (at webtv.un.org) and listen to the interpretation of the speeches into all six official languages. Also, before I took the exams, I remember reading a couple of books on the history and work of the United Nations, and finding that helpful as a general frame of reference.