United Nations interpreters at work.
United Nations interpreters at work during a Security Council debate. Interpreters are one type of language professionals employed at the UN.
Photo:UN Photo/Manuel Elias

The role of language professionals

International Translation Day is meant as an opportunity to pay tribute to the work of language professionals, which plays an important role in bringing nations together, facilitating dialogue, understanding and cooperation, contributing to development and strengthening world peace and security.

Transposition of a literary or scientific work, including technical work, from one language into another language, professional translation, including translation proper, interpretation and terminology, is indispensable to preserving clarity, a positive climate and productiveness in international public discourse and interpersonal communication.

Thus, on 24 May 2017, the General Assembly adopted resolution 71/288 on the role of language professionals in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development, and declared 30 September as International Translation Day.

Why 30 September?

30 September celebrates the feast of St. Jerome, the Bible translator, who is considered the patron saint of translators.

St. Jerome was a priest from North-eastern Italy, who is known mostly for his endeavor of translating most of the Bible into Latin from the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. He also translated parts of the Hebrew Gospel into Greek. He was of Illyrian ancestry and his native tongue was the Illyrian dialect. He learned Latin in school and was fluent in Greek and Hebrew, which he picked up from his studies and travels. Jerome died near Bethlehem on 30 September 420.

Every year since 2005, the United Nations invites all its staff, accredited permanent missions staff and students from select partner universities to compete in the UN St. Jerome Translation Contest, a contest which rewards the best translations in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish, as well as German, and aims to celebrate multilingualism and highlight the important role of translators and other language professionals in multilateral diplomacy.

Multilingualism, a core value of the United Nations

Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and the planet.

There is growing awareness that languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in attaining quality education for all and strengthening cooperation, in building inclusive knowledge societies and preserving cultural heritage, and in mobilizing political will for applying the benefits of science and technology to sustainable development.

An essential factor in harmonious communication among peoples, multilingualism is also regarded by the United Nations General Assembly as a core value of the Organization. By promoting tolerance, multilingualism ensures effective and increased participation of all in the Organization’s work, as well as greater effectiveness, better performance and improved transparency.

Translation at the UN

The United Nations is one of the world's largest employers of language professionals. Several hundred language staff work in UN offices in New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi, or at the United Nations regional commissions in Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Beirut, Geneva and Santiago. Translators are one type of language professionals employed at the UN.

UN language specialists include:

United Nations translators handle all kinds of documents, from statements by Member States to reports prepared by expert bodies. The documents they translate cover every topic on the United Nations agenda, including human rights, peace and security, and development. New issues arise every day. UN documents are issued simultaneously in the six official languages of the Organization (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish). Some core documents are also translated into German. This multilingual documentation is made possible by United Nations translators, whose job is to render clearly and accurately the content of original texts into their main language.

Interested in working as a language specialist at the United Nations? Please check UN Careers on Competitive examinations for language professionals.

Logo 2020

Did you know?

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds the Guinness World Record as the most translated document. It exists in more than 500 languages.
  • The United Nations is one of the world's largest employers of language professionals.
  • There are six official languages of the UN - Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
  • A delegate may speak in any official UN language. The speech is interpreted simultaneously into the other official languages of the UN.
  • Every United Nations document is reviewed by an editor before it is translated and issued.

Resources

Tools

Careers

Multilingualism at the UN

Video

 

An essential factor in harmonious communication among peoples, multilingualism is of particular importance to the United Nations. 

 

Watch more video on DGACM YouTube Channel!

Martin J. Pickles, Interpreter, English Interpretation Section, works from his apartment in The Bronx.

When the Coronavirus pandemic brought New York City to a halt, United Nations interpreters ran into big trouble: their booths and equipment were no longer accessible. This story documents how these professionals have been responding to new challenges COVID-19 added to their already daunting job of providing simultaneous interpretation in six UN official languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

 

International days are occasions to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity. The existence of international days predates the establishment of the United Nations, but the UN has embraced them as a powerful advocacy tool. We also mark other UN observances.