The art of translation at the United Nations

In the framework of the 2008 International Year of Languages, the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) will feature articles on the work of the Department’s language units. The series starts with a description of the Translation Services.

If you have a smattering of French, you know that “journal bleu” means “blue newspaper”,  or maybe “blue journal”, in English.  Right?  Wrong! At least not if you’re a United Nations translator and you have before you a Security Council document on West Africa.  For in translation, context is everything, and it is almost never sufficient to work from words alone.

For every translator, finding an equivalent that is accurate almost always involves an adventure of some sort, and most translators cannot rest until they have found what they are looking for, in any one of the official languages, or other languages, such as German.  The quest takes them through standard bilingual dictionaries, comprehensive monolingual dictionaries, highly specialized dictionaries, subject glossaries prepared by the Terminology and Reference Section, previous United Nations documents, reference works, and, of course, the Internet, which, along with a broad variety of electronic tools, has become a vitally important part of their work.  All this research is supplemented by consultations with fellow translators and other experts at the United Nations and with Permanent Missions. 

But to be steeped in one's cultural universe and to possess a perfect command of one's mother tongue are the single most important attributes of a competent translator. Translators have to be painstaking readers: they have to get an overview but must then do a microscopic reading, often under very tight time constraints, to catch all the nuances and details; failure to grasp the meaning of even one preposition could lead to a terrible mistake.

At the UN, translation is the responsibility of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM). The translation services of four duty stations, namely Geneva, Nairobi, New York, and Vienna  are called on to translate  documents covering every topic on the United Nations agenda. Each translator works from two or more official languages and often from several unofficial ones into the mother tongue.  In addition, English and French translators prepare official summary records of meetings of Main Committees of the General Assembly and of a wide variety of other specialized bodies, which the other services then translate.

Translators are recruited through a rigorous selection process.  Many translators freelance for years before reaching a level at which they are able to pass the translators' examination.  In addition to having an in-depth knowledge of several official languages, some of them have expertise in related areas such as law, economics and technology.

So "journal bleu", as it turns out, is how the pro-Government newspaper is referred to in one West African country. Why? Because the front page is printed in blue ink.  And yet no dictionary would ever tell you that.  After exhaustive research, an English translator found the right equivalent for the term by taking the document one flight up to the floor above and seeking the help of an African translator in the French Translation Service.  This type of firsthand consultation is one of the key benefits of working at the United Nations and an example of collaboration at its finest.