Précis-writing, or the drafting of summary records of meetings, is a regular and integral part of the job of some United Nations translators (mainly the translators whose main language is English or French) at the United Nations Offices at New York, Geneva and Vienna. They draft official records of meetings of United Nations intergovernmental bodies entitled to receive such records, including the Main Committees of the General Assembly, Security Council committees, the Economic and Social Council, human rights treaty bodies, the Peacebuilding Commission, the Special Committee on Decolonization, the International Law Commission and the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law.
Summary records, like verbatim records, are part of the institutional memory of the United Nations. Unlike verbatim records, they are not word-for-word accounts of the proceedings of a meeting, but rather the product of a summarized analysis of a meeting. They are meant to indicate who spoke at the meeting, what was said and what was decided. Apart from constituting the official record of the meeting, they are used as a basis for intergovernmental discussion, for compiling reports and conducting research on the subjects covered, and sometimes in the decisions of experts or judges. Each original summary record (in English or French) is translated into some or all of the other official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish).
Role of précis-writers
Précis-writers summarize speeches delivered by delegates, using for reference written and oral statements, audio/video recordings and other material such as official United Nations documents and digital presentations. Combining the skills of translation, drafting, summarizing and fact-checking, précis-writers produce an account of a meeting that can be understood equally well by a reader who was present at the meeting and a reader who was not, maintaining high standards of accuracy and writing style. They use their judgment and their knowledge of the subject matter to determine what should be condensed, expanded, omitted or explained. They insert necessary references, and check facts and details against the documentation of the body concerned and all available databases.
In accordance with prescribed models for parliamentary procedures, précis-writers employ standardized formulas when dealing with procedural and decision-making matters, including the conduct of voting. They must be thoroughly up to date on all issues discussed in meetings of intergovernmental bodies, which often requires extensive research in different areas. Their work represents the permanent, historical record – in written form – of all statements, discussions and outcomes of a meeting. They must be careful to maintain continuity from one meeting to the next, and within a series of meetings on the same subject. The content and complexity of meetings, and the number of meetings occurring simultaneously, determine whether précis-writers attend in person.
In addition to excellent language skills in at least three official languages, and excellent writing style in their main language, translators/précis-writers are expected to have knowledge of a broad range of subjects dealt with by the United Nations, that is to say, in the political, social, economic, disarmament, counter-terrorism, legal, humanitarian, peacekeeping, financial and administrative, scientific and technical fields.
Like other official documents of the United Nations, summary records are identified by a document symbol. In the case of summary records, the end of the symbol will contain the letters “SR” and a number denoting the order of the meeting within a chronology (in some cases continuous, and in other cases divided by session). All summary records, except those covering closed meetings, are available on the Official Document System and hyperlinked on United Nations web pages.
- Main Committees of the General Assembly (summary records produced for all meetings except meetings of the First Committee, which are covered by verbatim records)
- Economic and Social Council
- Human rights treaty bodies
- Security Council committees
- International Law Commission
- Sample summary record
- Sample précis-writing exercise: