I’ve never known anyone that has actually worked at the United Nations. However, what’s funny is that every since I’ve been involved in the language industry, I’ve heard many many people refer to language jobs at the UN being the most coveted and sought after jobs (at least for language professionals in the US).
I’m not completely convinced that the language jobs at the UN are so much better than other language jobs in New York or elsewhere. Especially freelance jobs where you can work for yourself and don’t have to dress up to go to work 😉
However, what I do know is that there are a lot of translators and interpreters, for example, that see working at the UN as the ultimate validation of their language skills.
Meaning that if they are good enough to get a language-related job at the UN, then they must have good skills.
[By the way, don’t think this. Don’t ever let something external (especially another person or job be your only criteria for validating your worth at something.]
Now, that’s not to say that UN language jobs aren’t great. There are plenty of perks that come from working at a job at the UN. One of the problems with getting a job at the UN, though, is the actual getting of the job.
Language jobs are super competitive at the United Nations.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a position at the UN in New York, Geneva, or Nairobi. The fact of the matter is that there are lots of applicants for every single job that is posted at the UN language career site.
OK, so there are currently seven different types of language jobs available at the UN:
- Production Editors
- Verbatim Reporters
- Editorial and Desktop Publishing Assistants
- Editorial and Language Reference Assistants
It is mostly obvious, but the thing that makes these jobs different than other jobs that fit into the category I’ll talk about next is that the function of these jobs absolutely requires output in a foreign language.
A UN translator has to be able to produce translations in a second or third language. That is the main function of the job. For interpreters, it’s the same thing. An interpreter has to be able to produce spoken output in a second or third language. If she can’t do it, she simply won’t be able to do the job.
To illustrate this a little more clearly, let’s look at each of these types of jobs.
Translators (like every other language employee at the UN) usually work in two ore more of the UN’s official languages: English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French, or Russian. Translators are responsible for making sure that UN official documents are available in at the official languages of the UN.
These types of documents can include everything from Member States’ statements on security to reports on human rights. The UN deals with new issues on a daily basis and a UN translator has to have the intelligence and flexibility to deal with those changes.
Participants that speak at official UN meetings or conferences are required to use one of the six official UN languages I mentioned above.
The job of a UN interpreter, then, is to ensure that those speeches are subsequently available in the other five languages. Interpreters are required to translate into their main (usually target) language. In addition, interpreters usually work in teams of two and will interpret around 7-8 three-hour meetings per week.
What’s interesting about being a UN interpreter is that many of the people that speak at UN meetings are speaking in a second (or third language). They are not using their native language. This can make interpreting even more challenging.
UN Production Editors
Production editors at the UN are responsible for creating multilingual publications that follow the UN editing standard. These publications can be located both in print and online and are necessary for UN members and the public to better understand the role of the UN.
Production editors need to at least be familiar with multiple languages, if not completely fluent, as they often have to work with various languages in creating multilingual content. In addition, they have to work with authors and other editors to make sure that the new version correctly reflects the original work.
While production editors tend to focus on ensuring that documents are ready for publication, editors tend to focus on the actual content of the documents before publication.
Translation editors review the translated documentation before publication to ensure that the copy is accurate, correct, consistent, and suitable for publication in the other five UN languages.
According to the UN language career page, most editors (around 90 percent) tend to have English as their native language since “more than 90 per cent of documents received are drafted in English.”
UN Verbatim Reporters
Verbatim reporters are in charge of transcribing/translating/editing the speeches given by UN delegates. They use written documentation as well as audio recordings to make sure that the speeches are verbatim copies of the original.
Verbatim reporters have to be able to work under tight deadlines because there are often quick turnaround requirements for the records of the meetings. Sometimes these deadlines can require verbatim reporters to have the finished product ready in just a few hours.
Editorial and Desktop Publishing Assistants
Those that work as editorial and desktop publishing assistants are the final layer before a translated product gets uploaded to UN databases. They make sure that all formatting, design elements, footnotes, graphics, etc. all conform to UN standards before being disseminated.
Editorial and Language Reference Assistants
Finally, we have editorial and language reference assistants.
These people are responsible to help editors and translators with any reference-related issues that they might face in the course of their work. In addition, they help contribute to and maintain UN terminology databases, such as UNTERM.
There are basically three main steps to getting a job at the UN:
- visit the UN language career page at languagecareers.un.org
- take a Language Competitive Examination (LCE) for the job you want
- wait for someone to call
The first step, visiting the UN language career page, is pretty self-explanatory. While it does not list any specific job openings, it does lay out everything there is to know about getting a language job at the UN.
Be sure to make that your first stop in understanding the process on getting a UN language position.
All right, so on to the second step.
Every language professional that wants a job at the UN in a language field has to take a Language Competitive Examination, or LCE. Not all LCEs are the same, however. Each language job has its own LCE to test the applicant.
So, if you want to be a translator, you’ll need to take the LCE for translators in your specific language combination. The same if you want to apply for a verbatim reporter, interpreter, production editor, or any of the other language-related jobs.
One thing to remember is that LCEs are only held once every couple of years in each of the official languages. So it’s not something you can decide to do on a whim. You will need to be constantly monitoring the UN Careers portal page to make sure you have everything you need to take the test and apply.
Then comes the third step. If you pass, you’ll be included in a database of potential candidates and called when there is an opening.
Let’s back up a little.
Back to Step 2. Let’s break down the process a little more.
There are actually ten mini-steps that each applicant needs to go through in the process of getting a language job at the UN.
Before you actually take an LCE, you need to make sure that you have the skills to even take the test. It’s not just for anyone that thinks they are bilingual.
These are tough tests.
Here are the requirements:
- Have the right language advertised in the LCE. Remember that each LCE is language specific.
- Meet any educational requirements set forth in the language job announcement. Some jobs require university degrees, for example.
- Meet the age requirement. Basically, you need to be 56 or younger at the end of they year that you take the exam.
Before you take an LCE, you need to have an active application. As part of your application, you will fill out your profile including information about your education, job experience, and skills.
All the LCEs on the UN career page are actually listed as jobs, so you can search for them the same way that you search for jobs. Once you find an LCE that you’re interested in, you add the job (or exam) to your application.
Depending on the specific exam, you might have to answer additional questions. Once you’ve responded to everything, all that’s left for you to do is to submit the application.
Press that button!
This step is really out of your hands. Once you submit an application, it is checked to see if you meet all the requirements laid out in the application. If so, you’ll get a notification that your application was accepted and you’ll get an application number.
If it’s rejected, you’ll have to start over.
Test Center Assignment
If your application is accepted AND the LCE that you’ve applied for has an upcoming test, you will be assigned a test center for taking the test. The test is generally broken down into two parts:
Test: Part 1
Part one of the test is a career-specific skills test which depends on the specific LCE. So for example, if you are taking an interpretation LCE then you will have to perform simultaneous interpretation.
Test: Part 2
If you pass the first part of the test, you will then be invited to take the second part of the test, which is often referred to as a competency-based interview. In this portion of the test, the interview (which will be conducted in either French or English) is used to make sure that your skills match the requirements for the job.
Once you finish both parts of the test, you’ll be notified of how well you did. A Board of Examiners is responsible for placing the most qualified applicants on the roster for that particular job.
If you are one of the most qualified candidates for the position for which you applied, you will be place on a “roster” for that particular position and language. A roster is similar to a pool of applicants that recruiters draw from when there are openings. It’s important to remember that placement on a roster doesn’t mean that you have an offer of employment. In some cases, it can take months or years for that offer to come.
If you’re an excellent candidate and have a little luck on your side, you’ll receive an offer for employment as a language professional at the UN. Initial offers are usually for a two-year trial period.
UN Salary Information
So, if you’re thinking of having a UN career, you probably want to know how much you’re going to earn!
The first thing to know is that salaries at the UN are based on a grade-step system similar to other U.S. government jobs. Additionally, different UN locations will have post-differentials, basically meaning that some places will pay more based on where they’re located while others will pay less.
The best place to look at the actual salary scale for the different grades and steps is the UN salaries and post adjustments website.
In addition to salaries, the UN also has rates for freelance translators and interpreters.
Here are the relative monthly rates:
And here are the daily rates for translators:
So, for example, the average salary of a translator in the UN in New York (monthly) is about $533 a month, depending on translator level.
And these are the short-term rates for freelance UN interpreters:
And there you have it.
Everything you wanted to know about becoming a language professional at the United Nations.
It’s a great goal to pursue and I’d love to hear from you if you currently work there as a language professional or are working to become one.
Be sure and leave a comment below!
Don’t want to work at the UN? Be your own freelance translator.