What has the United Nations done for the translation industry?

September 19, 2018
What has the United Nations done for the translation industry?

On 24 October, member states around the world will celebrate United Nations Day. The date marks the anniversary of the UN Charter coming into force in 1945. The document was ratified by the member states, including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, to officially found the United Nations. Its purpose was (and still is) to promote unity in order to prevent another conflict on the scale of World War II. 

How many countries are members of the UN?

When it was founded in 1945, the UN had 51 member states. Since then, the organisation has grown massively. Today, it has 193 member states and is the largest and most powerful intergovernmental organisation in the world. 

What are the official languages of the UN?

The UN’s headquarters are in New York and it has additional main offices in Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna. In terms of its official languages, there are six: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. 

Whether it’s a written document or a meeting, the UN attempts to deliver almost all of its business simultaneously in these six languages. This is a huge undertaking, with a team of interpreters and translators dedicated to its achievement. 

Several other languages have been considered for official UN language status over the years. These include Bengali, Hindi, Malay, Portuguese, Swahili and Turkish. Parts of the UN already use these languages routinely. UN News (the organisation’s media branch), for example, translates its updates into Portuguese. However, at the time of writing, there remain just six official languages. 

The UN and translation

With such a firm commitment to multilingualism at its heart, the UN undertakes a vast amount of translation every year. More than 450,000 pages per year are translated by the UN’s Text Processing Units. Many of these are translated into the six official languages, though the originals are not necessarily written in one of those six languages. As such, the UN is required to maintain a large and diverse translation department in order to promote the multilingualism that is part of its core ethos. 

Translation difficulties at the UN

Of course, document translation on this scale is not without its difficulties. The Journal of Specialised Translation, which was created as a forum for translators and researchers in specialised translation, observes that one thorny issue is,

“…how the translator distinguishes the deliberate obscurity that is the expression of a political and often hardwon compromise from inadvertent obscurity produced when those drafting the original text use a language that is not their mother tongue.”

In addition, the intense need for accuracy and the tight turnaround times for translations make this demanding work indeed. 

The importance of language 

Linguistic diversity is such a cornerstone of the UN’s ethos that the organisation announced in 2010 that it would promote six ‘language days’ each year – one for each of its official languages, spaced throughout the year. 

In addition, the UN has designated an individual as the formal coordinator for multilingualism since 1999. This is “a senior Secretariat official as coordinator of questions relating to multilingualism throughout the Secretariat.”

Most other international and intergovernmental bodies have adopted one or two languages, simply to make their operations easier. The Commonwealth of Nations, for example, which is the next largest international grouping to the UN, uses only English as its official language. However, the UN’s commitment to international peace and security firmly underpins its drive to remain multilingual. To move towards speaking a single language would send the wrong political message and imply favouritism of member states that spoke the chosen language. As such, the astonishing multilingual achievements of the UN look set to continue – which is something that all those who work in translation can celebrate on United Nations Day this year! 

Final thoughts

Do you think that the UN is right to stick with its six official languages? Should it have fewer? Or more? Leave a comment to let us know your views. 


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