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Translating peace: Interpreting Mandarin at the UN


Translating at the UN often goes beyond the conference room – major documents can be incorporated into legislation for years to come.

Mandarin is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and translating documents into all those languages is crucial to the smooth function of its machinery.

What makes translating at the UN particularly challenging, though, is that what it produces goes beyond the conference room. Translations of major documents are often cited by the media, quoted in statements and incorporated into legislation for years to come.

Ma Xuesong is one of the people who ensure accurate translations. He joined the UN in 2000 after 12 years of diplomatic service with China’s Foreign Ministry and has led the Chinese Translation Service since 2011.

The service, part of the Documentation Division, is responsible for translating official documents, meeting minutes and correspondence into Chinese at the UN’s New York headquarters.

“In the service, translators are exposed to a wide variety of texts on a daily basis. Mastering the various topics and the terminology used in translating these topics can be a daunting challenge,” Mr Ma said, adding that it means a lot of hard work, especially in the first few years.

“Because of the variety of subjects and the specificities of the organisation, you feel like you have to learn everything anew,” he said. “The consistency required by institutional translation also creates a certain degree of tension between individuality and creativity. There is no room for mistakes.”

The documents are a vivid reflection of international relations and global politics, he said, and his team’s goal is to produce translations that are accurate and easily comprehensible, so that Chinesespeaking readers can get fully involved in and contribute to the work of the UN.

“That is the significance of multilingualism, which is essential to achieving international co-operation and understanding,” Mr Ma said. “The UN is a platform for debate and discussion among representatives of the 193 member states, rather than only countries speaking one or two languages.”

As China’s global projection is having a considerable effect in all areas of trade, finance, business and tourism, the country is playing an increasingly important role in the UN. “China has been more active in intergovernmental meetings and debates and proposing resolutions on issues of global concern,” Mr Ma said.

“At the same time, issues discussed at the UN have become more China-related. China, as the second-largest economy and the most-populous nation, also plays a key role in the achievement of UN targets.”

This growing responsibility and involvement in the UN means more challenges and hard work for Mr Ma’s staff.

His team has 70 people from diverse educational backgrounds and he said they are all expected to specialise in certain subjects dealt with by the UN. “It requires a lot of experience and institutional memory,” he said. “Besides common sense, (translators) should know the UN documents well… and often they have to mull out the right meaning of texts written by people who are mostly nonnative writers.”

Changes in policy have also meant younger Chinese are now interested in joining the peacekeeping organisation, he said. Unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when Chinese people working for the UN were on a five-year rotation basis, they now are able to work from their early 30s until retirement.

“That has inspired and encouraged the younger generation to work at the UN and it also means Chinese have better chances to reach more important positions in the organisation.”

However, people still tend to pay more attention to learning English than improving their native language, he said. “Translation work requires a perfect command of the mother tongue, which is the most important competence.

Translators are able to use various electronic tools for their work but they must rely on their extensive language skills and substantive knowledge to produce documents that are clear and coherent.”

S: China Daily