21 January 2020

#Work4UN: Language Professionals

The United Nations, with offices in 193 countries and 37,000 employees, is the world’s largest universal multilateral international organization. It inspires people from around the world to join its mission of maintaining peace, advancing human rights and promoting justice, equality and development. 

Securing employment with the Organization can seem like a daunting task, but as the scope of its work is global and multidimensional, there are many different entry points for candidates of varied educational backgrounds and diverse professional experience. UNAI designed the #Work4UN series to help you understand the UN, its structure, and some of the most common avenues available to join the organization. Today’s article is the fourth in the series and focuses on working for the UN as a language professional.

Language Careers at the UN

The United Nations is one of the world’s largest employers of language professionals. At the UN, the term “language professional” covers a wide range of specialists, such as interpreters, translators, editors, verbatim reporters, terminologists, reference assistants and copy preparers/proofreaders/production editors. Several hundred such staff work for the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) in New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi, or at the United Nations regional commissions in Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Beirut, Geneva and Santiago.

The UN language staff come from all over the world and make up a uniquely diverse multilingual community. They work at the forefront of international affairs and contribute to the realization of the purposes of the United Nations by facilitating communication and decision-making among Member States.

Interpreters

At official United Nations meetings and conferences, participants may speak in any of the six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish). Their words are simultaneously rendered into the other five languages by conference interpreters.

A wide-ranging knowledge of world affairs, subjects and United Nations processes is essential for UN interpreters. In addition, they must master the special vocabulary of the Organization, navigate accents, speaking speeds and styles and take cultural context into consideration.

Translators, Précis-writers and Editors

The job of translators is to render official UN documents into the six official languages. They handle all kinds of documents from statements by Member States to reports prepared by expert bodies, which cover every topic on the United Nations agenda.

Another important task that translators in the English and French services carry out at some duty stations is the drafting of summaries of the proceedings of United Nations bodies, a process known as précis-writing. Summary records, originally drafted in English or French, are then translated into the other five official languages.

Every United Nations document is reviewed by an editor before it is translated and issued. In close consultation with authors, the editors correct errors, format the structure and style of documents and verify references, to ensure that the documents are accurate, coherent and suitable for translation. Most United Nations editors have English as their mother tongue because more than 90 per cent of documents received are drafted in English.

Production Editors and Verbatim Reporters

United Nations copy preparers/proofreaders/production editors provide publishing services in the six official languages of the United Nations to different departments and offices. They produce both online and web publications, ranging from reports and flagship publications to brochures and public information materials for conferences and events hosted by the Organization.

Verbatim reporters, who often work under tight deadlines, translate and edit the speeches delivered by delegates of Member States and produce verbatim transcripts, which are official records of the proceedings of certain United Nations bodies, such as the Security Council and the General Assembly.

How to Become a UN Language Professional

UN language staff are recruited mainly through Language Competitive Examinations (LCEs), which are held on average once every two or three years in each language and occupational group (specialist field). The examination announcements are posted on the United Nations Careers portal a few months beforehand, together with information on eligibility requirements and how to apply.

The examinations are open to qualified applicants who:

  • Have the language in which the examination is held as their main language;
  • Meet all the requirements set out in the announcement of the LCE for which they are applying (requirements may vary from one examination to the next);
  • Are 56 years old or younger at the end of the examination year.

LCEs generally have two parts: career-specific skills tests and an interview and additional skills tests. Candidates who pass both parts are placed on the corresponding recruitment roster and are then recruited as and when vacant posts need to be filled.

UN Language Careers Outreach

The United Nations has partnered with universities in the “MoU network” to provide training and help language professionals prepare for the LCEs through presentations, master classes, seminars and workshops. Another outreach initiative is the language internship programme that is offered to university students and recent graduates.

UNAI conducted a series of interviews with United Nations staff members to provide additional information on working for the UN, and to allow staff members the opportunity to share their professional and personal insights into working for the Organization.  In this video, Ghyslaine De Souza, Senior Reviser at the French Translation Service of the UN Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) explains the work of UN translators. Sergey Gogin and Anna Uspenskaya share their experience working as Interpreters with the Russian Interpretation Section of DGACM.

If you have questions about the UN language careers, please use the contact form. Questions about the Language Competitive Examinations (LCEs) should be submitted by choosing “LCE” as the enquiry category, selecting the subcategory and completing the form on this web page.

Additional Resources

#Work4UN: Language Professionals