Multilingualism being one of the foundations of the United Nations, translation of documents into official languages plays an important political and practical role in the functioning of the Organization. At UNOG, official translation is the responsibility of the Division of Conference Manangement's Languages Service. The Languages Service comprises one translation section for each of the six official United Nations languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish). Together with their freelance colleagues, the 160 translators on the permanent staff of the Languages Service translate some 70 million words a year.
The Languages Service at UNOG provides translations for some 50 bodies in UNOG and other parts of the United Nations system on topics including disarmament, environmental protection, human rights, codification of international law, macro-and micro-economics, trade promotion and transport. The Service's principal clients are: the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) , which deals with economic development, principally in Eastern Europe, and the harmonization of regulations on motor vehicle safety, transport infrastructure and the carriage of dangerous goods and so forth; the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), whose activities cover all aspects of the economies of developing countries (globalization, trade law, enterprise development, training for international trade, etc); the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the International Law Commission (ILC), which studies international legal practice and elaborates draft rules for the conduct of international relations; and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which services the Human Rights Council and a range of committees for ensuring compliance with international standards on children's rights, economic, social and cultural rights, the protection of migrant workers, the prevention of torture and so on. Translators in all the language sections process reports from governments, individuals and United Nations bodies; translators into English or French may also be called on to draft summary records of United Nations meetings.
Required Skills for Translators
All United Nations translators, wherever they are based and whether they are permanent or freelance, must have either a university degree or a translation diploma from a recognized translation school. Applicants for permanent posts must be capable of working into one of the official languages (their mother tongue or their principal language of education) from two or more of the others. The only exceptions to this rule are Chinese translators, who sometimes work both ways between Chinese and English, and people with specialized knowledge of use to the Organization, such as holders of degrees in international law, who are sometimes recruited to work from one language only. Except for those capable of working from Arabic or Chinese, applicants for freelance positions should preferably also have two passive languages. Since most United Nations documents nowadays are written in English, knowledge of that language is a prime requirement for translators into any of the other languages.
Recruitment of Translators
Recruitment of permanent translators is exclusively by means of competitive examinations. These are held at irregular intervals and can be sat in United Nations duty stations or, subject to demand, in other major cities. For information on the dates of examinations, see the web site of the United Nations Office of Human Resources Management in English or in French. Successful candidates are usually offered a two-year probationary contract during which they are given appropriate training. Subject to satisfactory performance during the probationary period, they then receive indefinite contracts. Permanent translators belong to the Professional ("P") category of United Nations staff and, as such, have opportunities to serve for several years at a time or for shorter periods in a number of duty stations (there are currently translation units in New York, Geneva, Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Beirut, Nairobi, Santiago de Chile and Vienna) and to participate in peacekeeping missions, etc. Professionals can serve at a variety of grades; the base salary for each grade is the same worldwide, with local supplements being paid to ensure purchasing-power parity between duty stations. At UNOG, translators' grades range from P-2 to P-5: P-2s and P-3s work under revisers, P-4s work mostly unrevised or revise others and P-5s are senior revisers or section chiefs.
Freelance translators are recruited through informal tests that generally last half a day and can be arranged at short notice. Usually, candidates sit their test at the duty station for which they hope to work most. Freelance salary scales and conditions of service are set by agreement with the International Association of Conference Translators (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). Like permanent translators, freelancers can work at a variety of levels from junior translator to senior reviser. Freelancers who are capable of working unrevised may be offered piecework to be done at home, but most freelance contracts are for in-house work over periods ranging from a few weeks to several months. Depending on the distance from their professional domicile to their principal duty station, freelancers who work in-house are classified as "locals" or "non-locals", the chief difference being that non-locals receive travel and subsistence allowances in addition to their base salary. For budgetary reasons, the United Nations prefers to hire locals whenever possible.
Working for the UNOG Languages Service thus offers plenty of scope for generalist and specialized translators and for learning a great deal about why the world is the way it is and what is being done to improve it. The Service is always happy to hear from people who have the requisite qualifications and are interested in translating for the United Nations. Openings for temporary employment arise all the time. If you would like to know more about the opportunities, please e-mail us at email@example.com. For further information, visit: UN Language or UN Careers.