What It's Like Being a United Nations Translator

What It's Like Being a United Nations Translator

David Kamen is, and has long been, a translator at the United Nations. It sounds simple enough, but it still requires explanation. "I have to make clear that I’m not an interpreter, and I often draw the distinction," Kamen, who sports varying levels of fluency in 14 languages, told ValuePenguin. "An interpreter is somebody, certainly here at the UN, who is interpreting the spoken word, speech. I translate, which means I work with the written word; I work with text." We asked the language expert about his path to a relatively rare position -- the Bureau of Labor Statistics says there were 49,650 translators and interpreters in 2015 -- and to clear up some misconceptions of his profession along the way.

This interview was condensed for clarity.

So could you swap roles with an interpreter?

It’s harder for me to swap roles with an interpreter than it would be for an interpreter to swap roles with me. It’s an entirely different skillset, but it’s also a matter of capacity for stress, dealing with issues of timing. I get the most out of my work when I’m able to really cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, get the details right. When you’re interpreting, especially if it’s simultaneous, you’ve got to get it done, right now, and move on. I have tremendous admiration for people who can do that; I can’t.

How did you get started on this path to being a translator in the first place?

Something in me, I guess, responds to different ways of communicating verbally. The sounds of language are fascinating to me. I’ve always been interested in different writing systems, alphabets and so forth. So in that sense. it’s always been a sort of an unconscious part of my personality, really. I’m just drawn to it.

Phrase it another way: When did you realize that you were being drawn to it early in your life?

It took me a long time to really even isolate the concept of translator... because my interest in languages drew me -- or exposed me -- to opportunities and experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise; for example, travel, and study abroad, and so on. As I had those experiences, and lived in foreign societies and so on, I began to get a more and more concrete idea of what exactly I can contribute to this situation; how I can parlay it into something that can support me and fulfill me. It’s basically the nature of the interaction itself. When you’re living in a foreign language area, you’re translating all the time, consciously or not. Because I have an academic background, I had some training, some discipline, how to apply that sort of skill, and I just kept developing it. Everybody who goes abroad has this experience to a certain extent, but not everybody makes it their own, or incorporates it into their life to the extent that I and my fellow translators have.

What about your training and education early on?

Formal education, in terms of language specialty, didn’t really happen until I was in high school and college. In high school, I spent a couple years abroad in a school in a French-speaking area, so I had to take all my classes in French.

But then when I got to university, I decided to pursue Chinese; that’s my main language for translation. I got into it because I was fascinated by the writing system. When I grasped the idea that these squiggles, these complicated and apparently-random collections of dots and dashes, actually convey something... and they were beautiful to look at. Only later on did I expand my appreciation of the linguistic culture to the fact that so many people speak it, and so on. I was never particularly drawn to the business aspect of it. It’s more aesthetic.

In my academic program, especially for Chinese the way it was taught where I was at that time, it was very much text-oriented, and we spent a lot of time just translating and analyzing text. So that was a pretty solid series of years of experience of how to deal with a text, how to take it apart, how to unpack it, what you do with it, and what does it mean? And also, if you’re lucky, how you can gracefully render it in your native language, so that the person reading it who doesn’t speak the foreign language nevertheless gets some sense of, not just the meaning, but the style, the feeling, the emphasis, almost the accent of the person that was writing.

I went to college, majored in language, and then my academic advisor told me, "Look, you can’t expect to make more progress in this area unless you go to a place where it’s spoken. That goes for any foreign language, but certainly Chinese. At that time, mainland China was not open to American citizens, so I went to Taiwan. I didn’t particularly want to go there; I was perfectly happy doing academic translation. But there’s another footnote here lurking, and that is in some languages, like Chinese, there’s a gulf between the literary language, the classical language, the language of the classical texts, and the modern spoken language. As a matter of fact, they’re very different. As a temperamental issue, I had no particular interest in learning spoken Mandarin, but my advisor basically said, “You can read OK, but you can’t speak.” I said, “Why is that important?” He said, “Trust me, you will read better once you know how to speak the spoken language.” And it turned out he was right. Because while the languages are different -- the classical and modern -- the modern language is informed by, it is full of expressions and turns of phrase and so on that come from the classical language. It’s very much like in English when we use a Latin phrase or quotation from Shakespeare or something. It fills out, it informs, it enriches the language. That was a learning experience for me. So I went to Taiwan. I ended up staying for nine years in Taiwan, because I realized, that’s right, this is where I really want to be. One thing led to another; I got a job there, I got married. It became a living language, whereas before it was just a matter of intellectual curiosity.

Were there any professional certifications you had to gain to be hired as a translator?

I usually say the closest I really came to an outright professional certification as a translator is when I took the language exam here at the United Nations to become a translator here. That was a three-day exercise, in which they throw a bunch of stuff at you. I did not get a certificate from that, as such, but I got a job here -- that was certification enough for me.

Practically speaking, yes, there are translation programs. There are some very good ones. In Europe, there are many of them, and you can get an advanced degree in translation as a science, as a discipline. That is not so common here. I think the whole concept of translation -- as a science, as a career, as an activity even, or a discipline -- is not very well known here in the States. Americans, we have the luxury of not having to deal with foreign languages, or not have had to deal with them very much until relatively recently in our history. It’s just not part of the culture, as much as it is in a place like say Europe, where if you go 20 kilometers down the road and they’re speaking a different language.

Is working at the U.N. a sort of mecca for a translator?

In some sense you could say it’s the top of the field. It’s one of the very few organizations, really in this country, where you can make a living as a translator, with that title. There used to be, I think, publishing companies would have in-house translators, and there were a few translators or linguistic consultants in companies and so forth. That continues, but it’s not a very widespread or common occupation in the corporate world. I think that may be changing.

Certainly, before I joined the UN, I worked in a number of translation and advertising agencies here in New York, where the concern was very much, "How do we get this message across for the clients so that there’s some potential profit?" All the horror stories about corporate translations that have gone wrong. For example, the Chevy Nova. That model of car did not do well in Latin America, and they could not figure out why, because in terms of the specifications of the car itself, it was fine. But it turns out “Nova” means, “It doesn’t go,” in Spanish: “No va.”

United Nations

What is a day in your work life like at the U.N.?

I’m retired, but I do come in from time to time on a contract basis, to continue translating, and helping out with training of younger colleagues, and so on.

During my active career, I was doing two things. I was translating… for the first few years, very much under the watchful eye of senior colleagues. This being the UN, there’s a certain concern that unfortunate mistakes don’t creep into the text. We can’t guarantee perfection, but we are very careful because there are diplomatic issues at stake, there are matters of national prestige and government positions and so on; you have to be fairly aware of that. So for the first few years, my training very much revolved around that. I would translate texts, starting from simple ones, in French, Spanish and Chinese. There was very little Chinese at the outset, by the way. It was very strange. My performance on the exam was mainly for Chinese, and I got a very high mark, but my future boss told me, “Look, we don’t have much Chinese at this point.” At that time -- this was 1994 -- the Chinese had just come on the world stage and were still watching and taking notes, as it were. They didn’t have much to say. You should understand about the UN that we have a principle that there are six official languages. The United Nations documentation, the principle is that all documents have to be issued in all languages simultaneously. That’s more honored in the breach, as it were, but that’s the principle. You always translate into your native language. So, as an English speaker, I and my colleagues here in the English translation service, which is part of a division that is concerned with meeting, servicing the general assembly, and facilitating the dialogue among the nations, written or spoken. So we translated from these language into English. I have many colleagues who do Arabic, who do Russian, Spanish, and so on, but I was the only one doing Chinese for many years. But later on, around after 2001 or so, the Chinese began to become much more assertive, and much more voluble, and much more willing to take positions on things. As a result, my work expanded. I got more and more Chinese texts to do. It go to the point that I was translating Chinese every day.

The other thing I was doing besides translation was -- and this is kind of unique at the UN, or to international organizations -- we would go to meetings of the various bodies of the UN: main committees of the General Assembly, Security Council sessions, and so on, and sit in the meeting and take notes. You may have noticed when you see a TV broadcast of the Security Council, it’s got this big horseshoe table. In the center of that table — there’s a long table embraced by it, with people sitting there writing on paper, or doing things in the middle. Those are people who are doing what I was doing: they’re taking notes on the meeting, they’re organizing documentation, and so on. They’re support personnel, in other words, and that’s what we were doing. At first I didn’t like that very much, because it felt like a distraction from what I thought was my main mission, which was translation. But it was interesting, because I got to go to these meetings and see a lot of negotiations taking place. I got a sense that the day-to-day work in the organization is a lot more than sitting in my office translating.

I will also say that at the UN, one of the great things here is that because we’re all working on a lot of the same things, it’s very collegial. We consult with each other all the time, we’re in and out of each other’s offices. There’s a very close-knit and ongoing sense of professional solidarity and communication that I find extraordinarily valuable. I miss it when I’m working at home, because I’m in the habit of, OK, if I come across something in the text -- maybe it’ll be something about Chinese I can’t ask my colleagues about, but I can certainly ask them better ways to phrase things in English: "How would you say…? How would you get across…? What’s the word for…?" That sort of thing. And that’s extraordinarily rewarding for me.

What else makes working at the U.N. unique?

It’s unique because it’s the UN; there’s only one UN. Now, there’s many international organizations, especially over in Europe. I spent some time in Geneva, and that town is full of them: You’ve got the the United Nations Office of Geneva, they call it. You’ve got the World Intellectual Properties Organization, the International Red Cross… all these multinational organizations; they’re called inter-governmental. There’s just hordes of translators working these, in places like Brussels, and many other capitals as well. Which gets back to my point of, you don’t get that same sense in this country of translation being part of this vibrant culture. Maybe in DC.But in Europe, you get more a sense of a viable career.

As far as how unique the UN is, it’s an opportunity to do something you love to do, which is translation, in a context where it really does feel like an integral part of the actual mission of the organization. In other words, language is mission-critical at the UN; it’s not just an afterthought. I used to work at an agency where we had an account translating publicity material for UPS, and that was going into 20 or 30 languages around the world. It was great, it was fun. But I was thinking, "UPS in Thailand? UPS in India? UPS in China?" I didn’t get the same sense of fulfilment and validation doing that as I do with what I’m working on right now, which is a report on the country of Mali in Africa having a devastating civil war, and now trying to negotiate a plan for the aftermath. I’m translating the report in French, a progress report of what’s been done in the last six months since the cease-fire. I can’t think of another job where you get to do stuff like this. With the possible exception of the State Department. I did apply for a State Department job; I didn’t get one. I have no idea why.

What's your proudest moment as a UN translator thus far?

The accomplishment that I point to with great pride is, about midway through my time here, I was translating a lot of documents from China. The Chinese are inordinately careful; for archeological and cultural reasons, they are careful about wording. The Chinese Mission to the United Nations, they would send us texts. They’re the conduit for, first of all, government reports to the UN on various topics. Also, for example, they will sometimes provide translations of their own into English for their representatives to read in meetings. I would sometimes either translate them, or I would correct the ones that we got back from the mission, and they would come back either rejected or with lots of questions. "Why did you change that? Why did you change this?" It became clear to me that they didn’t realize, nobody had explained to them, that just like in Chinese there are certain ways you can say things, and certain ways that if you say them that way it doesn’t work; it’s simply not effective. To make a long story short, I was able to establish a communication with my opposite members in the mission; middle-level bureaucrats who were concerned with putting this language together. I managed to convince them, "Look, I’m on your side, I’m trying to help you get your message across. If you want to do it effectively in English, don’t do this, don’t do this… do this." What I’m proud of is that after a while, they started listening to me. After a while, things stopped coming back with all these marks and questions all over it, and they accepted it. In other words, I really did establish a bridge of communication that I can point to and say, “I did this.”

What are some other challenges of being a translator?

There are two kinds. One is technical in nature: in other words, "How exactly the hell do I deal with this phrase, or this habit of thought, in a foreign culture, that doesn’t have an equivalent?" Or, "How do I find an equivalent?"

I’ll give you one example. French is a language that we all take in school, but it can be enormously difficult to translate because of the kinds of words they use that you can’t translate. Or that if you translate them, it has to be totally different than it works in French, simply because the way our minds works, the way we think in our culture is different than theirs.There are many words they use that are what we would call rhetorical. They’re more for rhythm in the speech than for actual meaning. They’ll say something like "notamment," which means literally “especially” or “notably.” They’ll put it in a place where we would either say “among which” or “including,” or we wouldn’t say anything at all, we’d just go on to the topic. Chinese is full of that kind of stuff, by the way. So that’s one challenge.

The other challenge is, again, keeping an awareness of the overall picture. What is it that you’re trying to get across? What’s the main message in the text? How do I get it across effectively? Over and above all the myriad of little technical problems in turns of phrase and such that you have to deal with, you have to be able to look at the text at the end, after you’ve gone through your process, and say, “I think I’ve pretty much rendered, as best I can, the experience of reading that text in that language, and made the experience of reading it in English similar.” It won’t be identical, because it’s different cultures and different languages, but it’ll be close enough.

In short, the challenge is in small things and in large things; in details and in the overall.

How has technology affected your trade in recent years?

Oh, man. Where do I being? I could not do the work I do without technology.

Actually, this is interesting, because when I was in Taiwan, I got a job at the National Palace Museum, which is a part of the imperial collection from Beijing that was brought over by Chiang Kai-shek during the civil war. I got a job there as a translator. That was my first actual real translation job. AndI had an IBM electric typewriter. I was translating mainly display materials: display labels, exhibition catalogues, stuff like that. Pretty straightforward stuff. But my boss in the museum at the time -- I was working in the antiquities department -- she was very forward-looking. This was around the time when the Apple II, Apple IIe came out. Of course, in Taiwan they cloned that thing pretty quick. You could buy them for less than $200, these sort of knock-off computers. I had never paid much attention to computers, of course. The computer was pretty new to begin with. But she got fascinated with this idea of, you could do word processing on this thing. And she said, “All right, David, why don’t you take a look at this? We’ll get one for you, and see if we can apply this to our work.” I was very skeptical for about the first four minutes… until I found the backspace key.

I don’t know if you remember the IBM Selectric, but the Correcting Selectric had a separate ribbon of basically white-out. If you made a mistake, you had to go back and type over it with the white-out. Which was fine, except if you happened to be typing a carbon copy -- which most people probably don’t know what that is anymore either -- you were out of luck. So here was this magical machine, where if you made a mistake, you’d just hit the backspace key and go over it and type it again. It sounds silly now, but that opened up new worlds to me. And then the ability to insert Chinese characters in English text, wow, that was another one.

So from those primitive days -- my first screen was green characters on a black background -- we've come a long way. Of course now, I’m on the internet all the time. It’s like trying to drink from a firehouse; there’s just so much out there. In translation, you’re working with text, so your very basic tool is word-processing software. All the subsidiary things, like working with PDFs, various kinds of text,layout considerations and so on. More and more, they are merging the print operation with the word-processing operations, so that you are producing camera-ready copy that can be immediately photographed and transferred to a photographic plate for printing. That means the person generating the text also has to be aware of layout considerations. What size type font are we using? Should we use Times New Roman? Should we use Comic Sans? What do we do?

Any negatives as a result of the technological advancements?

There is a lot more machine translation out there. It’s getting better; that can’t be denied. I think the value of translators in the future is going to be adding more and more... It’s going to be less overt translation word by word. It’s going to be looking over what the machine has spit out, because machines will never truly duplicate human rhetoric unless they’re cutting and pasting wholesale.There’s plenty of jokes about Google translate, and the awkward and clumsy stuff it comes up with. Why is it awkward and clumsy? Because that’s a machine. It doesn’t understand the text that it’s translating; it’s just translating word for word.So what we as translators will do is -- with the knowledge of the background, the culture, the foreign language -- we’ll be going over the English product of these machine translations with that in mind and making the necessary corrections and adjustments. That I do see.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve been kind of in a golden age here, because I’ve seen it go from very primitive to quite advanced. The future, I think, there’s going to be a turn in direction, it’s going to be away from a translator slaving away and turning out page after page of text on his own, to going through even more pages of computer-generated text.

Are there any other misconceptions of your career that you run into often?

It’s just along the same lines, of, “Oh, you sit there with your dictionary and go word for word.” No, we don’t. Language, basically, is communication. It’s from one human to another, and maybe they speak the same language, maybe they don’t. If they don’t, that’s where I step in and say, “Here, let me help you with that,” kind of thing. One of the challenges in translation is to make that process as -- I have to use the word graceful -- as graceful and unobtrusive and effective as you can. If you’re interested in communication, if you are the kind of person that likes to deal with people, but is also thoughtful, is curious, and at the same time is willing to stop and consider and think about things, I think translation is an ideal career for you.

What kinds of translation are in demand?

I think that the distinction has to be made between working, or commercial translation, where you’re dealing very much with settled, non-aesthetic considerations and then literary translation, which is a whole different area, where yes, there is an aesthetic consideration that you have to take into account. For example, when you read a good translation of say Proust or Tolstoy, any major foreign author, the success of that translation is very much, to someone who doesn’t know Russian or French, it’s how much the experience of reading that text carries the reader away. In other words, the translation should be something absolutely invisible. It should be very clear, like glass, a medium for transporting or for conveying the thoughts and the heart of the author to the reader.

What else is required of translators, present and future?

For purposes of just a practical career, the couple of fundamental qualities you need… one is curiosity. You have to be motivated to find out, '"What actually is it these people are saying?" Or, "This is an interesting message, how do I get it across in my language?" You have to have that interest. And then you have to have a certain amount of analytical skill. So you can see structures, you can see patterns as they occur, and you’re not distracted by surface, superficial elements like, "It’s in a weird language," or, "It looks different.”

What advice do you offer to the next generation of translators?

Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss”. What that means is try to — and this is hard for a lot of people — have a fairly clear idea of what it is that turns you on, what it is that gets you excited, what it is that gives life meaning for you. That sounds like a cliché, but it’s really true. Too many people get stuck in unrewarding careers and job situations because they sort of just passively fall into something. “There’s a job at this place, and I can type.” That’s not a way to build a life.

What I would say to this person is, if you’re interested enough in translation to even know that it exists as a field to begin with, that’s already a start. So, pursue it. You’d obviously need some exposure to foreign languages to begin with, and the ability to follow on from there. Translation is not for everyone. For example, I don’t need to know all the details about how my car engine works in order to drive. I do need to know what the traffic laws are; I do need to know how the car handles; but I don’t need to know all about the engine. For languages, I think some people would say, “That’s the equivalent of getting lost in the details, the minutia of cylinders and compression ratios and fan belts.” I happen to be fascinated by that sort of thing in language. Not many people are. So if somebody has that propensity; if they have that sense of how language works, then by all means translation should be something they should consider.

Andrew is a former Associate Editor at ValuePenguin. He focused on an array of personal finance topics, from money management to career development.