United Nations: The Language Competitive Examination (LCE)

Reprinted with gracious permission of the author. First printed in the ITI Bulletin.
By Maha El-Metwally

To become a staff interpreter at the United Nations, one must pass the Language Competitive Examination (LCE). This exam has always had a low pass rate that seldom exceeded 20%. With many staff interpreters retiring by 2018, a shortage of qualified interpreters in certain language combinations exists and needs to be addressed.

This led the UN to launch an Outreach Programme in 2007. Helping candidates prepare for the LCE, and getting better acquainted with the specificity of the UN work environment are among the objectives of that programme. Against this background, initiatives were developed in some booths to better prepare candidates for the LCE. In this article, I will look at the initiatives of the Arabic and French booths.

The Arabic booth conducted a 6-month training from July 2015 – January 2016. I interviewed Mr Ashraf Kamal, Chief of the Arabic Section at the UNHQ in New York, to learn more about that training. He started by shedding light on the background: “In the past, we always held LCEs in the Arabic booth but the success rate was usually low: 1-2 people. That was a big problem because the exams are costly and we also have the issue with staff interpreters retiring and we were facing difficulty in replacing them particularly in the English-Arabic language combination. We have been lobbying the administration for 10 to 15 years to allow us to hold training program but they always told us that there was no budget for this. At one point, the number of staff interpreters went down so much that the cost of recruiting freelancers became higher than the cost of covering the training for six months! We were asking for $1 million and eventually received $840,000 then we started the process of recruiting trainees. We advertised it on the UN careers portal, social media and at the universities we have memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with. We held 400 preliminary interviews with potential candidates who also had to do exams. Eleven were chosen but 1 dropped out after two months because the pressure was too high. We had seven trainees working with English and Arabic and three with French and Arabic. With the regard to the composition of the training, the trainees worked 8-9 hours daily and they had homework plus work to do over the weekend. They were trained on at-sight interpreting and also online for speeches. Starting the third week of the training, they had to do 2-3 hours per day of booth work. For every session, they were monitored by senior interpreters or lecturers from MoU universities, who were also recruited to work as freelancers. Every 2 1/2 months we held a mock exam that had the exact characteristics of the real exam in terms of duration, complexity, etc.

“With many staff interpreters retiring by 2018, a shortage of qualified interpreters in certain language combinations exists…”

As to the curriculum, we covered everything related to the UN committees, Security Council, ECOSOC and all the topics the UN discusses. To give you an example: in the first week we started by a two-day preparation on the Security Council. The trainees were asked to read everything on the Security Council and the sanctions committee. Then they had a briefing from the director of the Security Council for 45 minutes and they had the chance to ask questions for two hours on the elements that they could not find during their preparation. This was followed by three days of Security Council speeches both live and recorded. We applied the same method to all other subjects. The trainees would always have 2 or 3 senior interpreters to listen to them while they worked in the booths. Sometimes, half of them would go into the booth and the other half would give them feedback. I wanted them to become comfortable with critiquing each other’s performances. We used recorded speeches which are available on the webcast but also if there was a meeting that was being held live, and depending on that nature of the meeting, I would take them to the Security Council for instance and place them in three dummy booths. By the third month, trainees who made good progress were allowed to work in live situations.

We announced an exam at the end of the course and for the first time in 35 years, 13 candidates passed; eight from the training and five from outside. They were all recruited so this enabled us to fill all the vacancies.”

One of the trainees who passed the LCE for Arabic, Dr Marwa Shamy, talked to me about the difference the training course made for her, she said: “The training allowed me to gain a deep understanding of the institutional setting of the United Nations, familiarize myself with the format of different types of meetings, and enhance my knowledge of a number of relevant topics. In the exam situation, this knowledge helped me contextualize the exam speeches and facilitated the understanding of the underlying message. In addition to raising the trainees’ awareness of the UN context in general, the training dealt extensively with the nitty-gritty of relaying the message from the source to the target language. Trainers suggested concrete strategies to deal with the different challenges that we might encounter in the booth. Some of the difficulties are non-language specific, others were more associated with the structural discrepancy between English and Arabic. An example of a non-language-specific challenge is the high delivery rate, which due to limited speaking time, has become the norm rather than the exception. Trainees were instructed, for instance, to reduce the lag to one second to be able to keep pace with the speaker. The duration of the training allowed me to practice the recommended strategies and automate them, so that by the end of the programme, coping with such difficulties had become second nature and did not take up much processing capacity. Other challenges include dealing with different accents or relaying the flowery Arabic style into a terse English style. The training also gave me an insight into the interpreting norms prevailing in the organisation. UN interpreters are held to very high standards when it comes to completeness. Only minimal recourse to omissions or generalizations is condoned. Points are deducted in the Competitive Language Examination, for instance, when a noun is preceded by four non-synonymous adjectives and the interpreter only renders three. Take the example of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When the future Palestinian state is mentioned, I need to use the four adjectives pertaining to it: an independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous state. Overall, the training provided the appropriate conditions for us to increase our linguistic resources and enhance our interpreting skills through strategic action. But ultimately, the result depended on what each candidate made of it, i.e. to what extent they were aware of what needed to be upgraded and whether they engaged in deliberate practice to hone their skills.”

Mr Tarek Abboud is another trainee who did the Arabic booth training, passed the LCE successfully and is now a staff interpreter at UNHQ. He described the difference the training made for him as follows: “the training provided me with a unique environment to grow and experiment with different techniques, an environment that I had not been afforded earlier. I was not given a set formula to follow. I was provided with an abundance of material, time and space to make mistakes and improve individually. Thanks to the training, I can now look at my performance from a critical perspective and alter it accordingly, which is an important skill for any interpreter willing and ready to grow professionally.”

The French booth had two initiatives at UNHQ and at the UN office in Vienna (UNOV). Ms Alice Ryckmans, French interpreter as well as Outreach Focal Point and MoU Coordinator, shared with me information about the 9-week traineeship the French booth at UNHQ organised. Out of 175 applicants, 7 were chosen to participate in the traineeship; 4 with Spanish and English and 3 with Russian and English. The training course consisted mainly of 3-hour sessions, six times a week, with a full day on Wednesdays. The participants were offered a range of exercises, from sight translation to simultaneous speeches (with or without text). Most of the material used was original recordings of UN speeches. As with the Arabic booth training, the participants were briefed on UN specific topics. In addition, a special stress management workshop was organized with the help of a staff counselor from the Medical Service Division. The French booth had 10 successful candidates for the LCE that followed. Even though only one of them had participated in the traineeship, 7 had participated in previous unpaid internships organized since 2012. This means that efforts do not always bear fruit immediately and that the whole initiative has to be seen on the longer term.
“…it requires adequate training and preparation for the result to be satisfactory.”

Dr Marie Diur, Head of Interpretation at UNOV, participated as a jury member to the marking of the 2013 LCE. Based on that experience, she concluded that, “LCE speeches present specific challenges. Lacking the knowledge about the way the UN is structured or understanding the differences among the Committees might represent an added difficulty.” As a result, she designed a three-day intensive course that focuses on UN terminology and features of speeches in an attempt to help candidates prepare more effectively for the LCE, thereby increasing their chances of passing. The course is divided into two exercises. The first exercise looks at navigating the UN website, using the information in the Secretary General’s report and the monthly work programme of the Security Council, regional groups at the UN, researching world affairs, preparing glossaries and sight translation. The second exercise aims to teach trainees that the information given at the beginning of each LCE speech can help them deduct what might come up during the speech.

Based on the above, I conclude that the UN LCE is like any sports competition; it requires adequate training and preparation for the result to be satisfactory. In order to have enough time to prepare, future candidates are advised to regularly check the UN careers portal (https://careers.un.org) where all language related vacancies and exams are announced.


Maha El-Metwally is a conference interpreter for the languages: Arabic (A), English (B), French and Dutch (C). She works for a wide range of international organizations, including the European Institutions and the United Nations. She is a member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), The Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL) and the American Translators Association (ATA). She is also a Board member and member of the Admissions Committee of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI).
Maha’s most recent degree is an MA in interpreter training from the University of Geneva. She is associated with a number of universities both in the UK and abroad where she gives professionalization talks. She also teaches conference interpreting at London Metropolitan University.

New ISO Standards Relating to Conference Interpreting

Reprinted with gracious permission by AIIC.
Benoît KREMER, Klaus ZIEGLER. “New ISO standards relating to conference interpreting”. aiic.net July 19, 2017.

Three new standards related to conference interpreting and 2 updated standards on interpretation booths and equipment are now in place.

In December 2016, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published three new standards relating to conference interpreting (spoken languages and signed languages). The updating of the two standards relating to permanent and mobile interpretation booths (ISO 2603, Simultaneous interpreting — Permanent booths — Requirements and ISO 4043, Simultaneous interpreting — Mobile booths — Requirements), as well as the new standard on technical equipment in simultaneous interpretation booths (ISO 20109, Simultaneous interpreting — Equipment — Requirements), are aimed at interpreting booth manufacturers, companies hiring out technical equipment, events agencies and meeting room architects, as well as at conference interpreters themselves. Representatives from various AIIC Regions made a significant contribution to the drafting and updating of these three standards.

New and updated standards relating to interpretation booths and technical equipment

The review of the standards applying to interpreting booths, which are almost 20 years old, focuses in particular on architectural and functional requirements as well as sound insulation. Technical equipment requirements are now specified separately. These four restructured technical standards, will allow architects, sound installation designers and manufacturers to create improved next-generation interpretation booths. Members from several AIIC Regions were involved in the expert group ISO/TC 37/SC 5/WG 3 (“Facilities and equipment for interpretation services”), where they contributed their specialist knowledge as well as their experience gained from working in many different situations.

Permanent interpretation booths (ISO 2603:2016 or DIN EN ISO 2603)

As far as permanent interpretation booths are concerned, advances have been made, for instance on improving the interpreters’ view of speakers, the podium and presentations, as well as their access to an Internet connection (WLAN) and a sufficient power outlets for laptops, tablets, etc.

Mobile interpretation booths (ISO 4043:2016 or DIN EN ISO 4043)

The new standard is directed at interpretation booth manufacturers as well as companies hiring out technical interpretation equipment and their clients, meeting organisers and events agencies. The new version provides improvements to the quality of the workplace and ensures that requirements needed for interpretation quality and excellence can be even better met in future. In concrete terms, this means high air quality and optimal acoustic conditions in the booth due to sensors measuring CO2, quieter fans and better sound insulation from other booths in the meeting room.

Technical equipment for simultaneous interpretation (ISO 20109)

This new standard contains rules on the technological equipment used in the booth and other interpretation facilities (e.g. interpreting consoles, microphones and headphones), and provides an essential basis to guarantee the quality of the service provided and protect the health and safety of interpreters. This review provides improvements to microphone requirements and microphone management; sound input and output switching; speech intelligibility; image quality, image projection and lip synchronisation; video screen features including quality, and interpreter selection of video inputs; technical management of the interpretation facilities, disability compliancy of interpreting desks, hearing protection and appropriate seating. There is now a requirement for a display in the interpretation console showing when the interpretation is being broadcast (television, radio, webstreaming, video conference) or, more generally, when it is being recorded for future use.

Quality of audio and video signals for simultaneous interpretation (ISO/DIS 2018)

This standard defines the basic parameters applicable to the quality of audio and video input signals for simultaneous interpretation. It also sets out for the first time requirements on simultaneous interpretation in situations where the interpreters, the audience and the speaker are not all present in the same place (distance interpreting/remote interpreting). The final version of this standard is due to be published in October 2017.

First standard on conference interpreting: DIN 2347

In March 2017, the German Institute for Standardization – DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung e.V.) – published a new standard, DIN 2347, Translation and interpreting services – Interpreting services – Conference Interpreting. This standard is aimed at professional conference interpreters, and addresses the subjects of qualifications and working procedures. Internationally, the DIN 2347 standard is the first on conference interpreting. It was drafted by the DIN Standards Committee Terminology (NAT) working group “Translation and interpreting services”. Several members of AIIC’s German Region have supported the development of the DIN 2347 standard within this Committee over the last years.

The criteria included in the DIN 2347 standard cover requirements on language skills and conference interpreter training, as well as current important topics such as data protection or the responsible management of sensitive content. The work steps which are carried out before and after an interpreting assignment are also taken into account.

Certification is now possible

This new standard provides freelance conference interpreters with the possibility of demonstrating that they are certified according to the DIN 2347 standard, particularly to their clients certified according to the ISO-9001 standard, thereby proving the professionalism of their working methods. The audits verify the qualifications that are required to practice conference interpreting and inspect organisational procedures, the degree of standardisation and the level of information security. However, the inspection does not cover actual interpreting assignments.

AIIC requirements provide the basis for assessing qualifications and language skills. Today a university degree in conference interpreting is commonly the first step into the profession, and admission to the Association rests on proof of professional experience based on a minimum number of days worked in line with AIIC’s rules and standards, and endorsement by three AIIC members who have worked with the candidate and thus are able to assess his or her language qualifications in situ.


Reprinted with gracious permission from Karen Rückert first published on the Translator Mentoring Blog

Today’s post is an English translation with slight adaptations from an article I first published on my German blog. When reviewing the site stats for Translator Mentoring Blog earlier this week, I found that the most popular post by far continues to be Should I only translate into my native language? which suggests that this topic is one which translators, especially those just starting out, struggle to get their heads around. This is hardly surprising with so much conflicting information out there, apparent rules, requests which seem to run counter to these “rules”, and strong opinions. So, I thought that my readers might be interested in this article which is a brief summary of the main points I discussed at a workshop last year.

The future of the translation industry – what will translator training look like in the future?

In September 2015, an interesting invitation landed in my inbox. I was being invited to speak at a workshop entitled “Foreign Language for Future Language Professionals: Reassessing Market Needs and Training Programmes” in Trieste, Italy. The seminar was being organised by the University of Trieste and the European Union and would address, among other things, the topics of translator training and translation competence into the non-native language and the extent to which this is necessary given the native speaker principle which appears to dominate the industry.

As a representative of the translation industry, in my presentation I wanted to set the advantages of the native speaker principle against my experience of the requirements and needs of corporate clients and to explain why translators must be extremely competent in their foreign language(s), irrespective of whether they translate into their non-native language or not.

The native speaker principle

Personally, I am and will remain a proponent of the native speaker principle, but purely because this happens to fit my own personal circumstances. The main argument in favour of the native speaker principle is that it ensures that the translation is linguistically and grammatically flawless. In many cases, this is, of course, of utmost importance. However, being a native speaker of the target language alone is in no way sufficient to ensure that the translation also properly accurately conveys the source text message – and this must surely always be at the very top of the list of objectives.

The native language of the translator therefore is only one factor which must be considered when commissioning a translation. Equally important is whether the translator understands the source text, i.e. the level of his/her foreign language competence and specialist technical language of the subject-field concerned. Only if the translator has a very good command of the foreign language and the specialist technical language, can he/she produce an accurate translation into his/her mother tongue.

Unfortunately, this second point is often ignored when applying the native speaker principle.

From ideals to reality

What is more, academic rules and ideals (“only translate into your native language”) are often not in line with the requirements of the industry and the needs of clients. It is increasingly the case that companies and clients are looking for their internal translators to meet all of their translation needs. Perhaps a company has a regular translation requirement and therefore wants to employ an internal translator, but doesn’t have enough translation work for it to make economic sense to employ one translator per language pair, let alone one translator per language direction. In such cases, it clearly makes business sense to employ one translator who can offer all of the language pairs required in both directions. But even companies which work with external translators are increasingly looking for a one-stop shop – often due to time constraints and concerns relating to confidentiality.

Translator training

Whether future translation graduates translate only into their own mother tongue or in both directions is, in my view, a question which each new translator must decide for him/herself. There will always be a market for translators who only offer the highest quality translations into their own mother tongue, providing that they also have extensive specialist knowledge in their field. However, there will also always be a market for translators wanting to translate in both directions.

Whatever the decision these translators make, it is, however, extremely important that they are given the opportunity during their training to increase their foreign language competence to the highest possible level and to polish their writing skills in the foreign language because, irrespective of whether they later decide to translate into the foreign language or not, one thing is for sure: in order to be successful in today’s translation industry, more than average foreign language competence is absolutely essential, not least for marketing purposes and communicating effectively with clients.

Your choice

So ultimately there is no “right” or ”wrong”. Whether you decide to translate in one direction or both is simply a choice that you, as a businessman or businesswoman, are free to make on the basis of your skillset, your strengths and weaknesses and your vision. Know that whatever choice you make, there are clients out there for you – it is your job to find the ones which are the right fit for you.

For read more from the blog please follow the link below:


Tearing up the Asphalt—Language Professionals Inside and Outside the Beltway Unite!

Written by Joe Mazza, Administrator ATA Government Division

On the morning of Monday, August 17, 1964—just days after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution expanded the Vietnam War, and only days before the Economic Opportunity Act helped launch LBJ’s War on Poverty—the newly completed Capitol Beltway opened to automobile traffic. It was a busy month in DC that summer. The fanfare over the roadway was minimal—segments of it had been opening for years. Despite the fact that the modest ribbon-cutting ceremony jammed up traffic for hours, most DC-area commuters in that pre-telework age rejoiced briefly, then launched a rich tradition of cursing the highway on a twice-daily basis. More importantly, and perhaps unintentionally, a line was drawn—forevermore, there would be a world “inside the Beltway,” and one “outside the Beltway.” Both worlds would claim to be all knowing. Both worlds would stare over the dented guardrails at the other with a mixture of confusion and suspicion.

Nearly two decades later, I was inducted into the venerable FBI (Fraternity of Beltway Insiders). We still called it a “fraternity” in that less inclusive age. Despite Reagan-era proposals to shrink the Federal Government workforce, the Navy Department had hired me “on a temporary basis” to translate articles from the Soviet press. That temporary gig has lasted 33 years, first at the Navy, then at the State Department. And while there are days when my ancient insider status helps me to navigate the “government language community” within the Beltway, there are far more days when I still wish I had been issued a better road map.

Or, in keeping with my original seafaring focus at the Navy, a better nautical chart. For what was true then remains true now–the language islands in the Federal Archipelago are scattered and they are many. There is a new one, for example, at the Census Bureau in Suitland, MD, where translators help folks to be counted—in dozens of languages. In Bethesda, MD, there is another island at the National Institutes of Health, where translators work with medical literature from all over the world. Other islands—whose exact coordinates are revealed solely “on a need to know basis”—deal with words in over a hundred languages, so others can analyze threats to national security. My current island—the Department of State’s Office of Language Services (LS)—deals with diplomatic translation and interpreting, and has sat proudly in downtown DC since the Federal Capital moved here in 1800, making it the oldest of the islands. Before that, it drifted about the eastern seaboard as the young republic decided where to moor its government—including two stays in New York City. And there are dozens of other language islands, atolls, and cays—each with differing recruitment needs, security policies, career paths, and working procedures. We who dwell on them used to assemble from time to time under the banner of the now defunct Society of Federal Linguists (SFL)—a haven for the scholarly polyglots who streamed to DC during the Cold War era. Some of us gather still at the monthly Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR), where we hobnob with language testers and trainers, sharing technological breakthroughs and heartbreaks. Still, we government language islanders often feel unconnected to each other, and to the world beyond those battered guardrails along the outer loop of the Beltway.

And what of the language professionals who never received that “insider card”—those who happen to work or study in the other 99 percent of the US landmass? We DC-based cardholders meet them all the time at various language forums and at universities around the country. Outside our Beltway perimeter, we feel recharged and refreshed by all that is happening in our industry in the wider world. Perhaps this shows on our faces, and makes us more approachable. Because when government agencies table at language-focused events, the lines are long. And when we send government colleagues to speak on our behalf, they are typically bombarded with questions. At conference after conference, it is clear that “they” want to know as much about “us” as “we” want to know about “them.” Translators, interpreters, and T&I project managers from around the country want to know who we capital language folks are, what we need, and how we work. By far the most frequent of FAQs is simply: “where do I sign up?” Other FAQs include:

I passed an interpreting test with another government agency in 2009. Why do I need to take a test with your agency? Isn’t there just one unified test for the whole government?
– I was told by one government agency that I would need to be a US citizen in order to be a freelance translator. Does that mean all government agencies have that rule? What if I am a dual national?
Don’t all of US Government agencies share the same roster of freelancers?

– Is it true that I have to move to Washington, DC, to be a US Government translator?
For those of us insiders sitting at exhibit hall tables or standing at the speaker’s rostrum, it is no easy task to provide answers that take into account the wide variety of habitats and life forms our federal language archipelago hosts. Complicating the picture is the fact that nowadays, there are government language professionals working all over the country—some as contractors or staff teleworkers who translate or manage projects from home offices; others as interpreters, translators, or project managers reporting to government offices around the country. Think of the many US Government field offices in the New York City area, for example. The truth is, those of us government language professionals who make our lives in the DC area are only a subset of wider government language community. The Beltway barrier has morphed from an asphalt one into a virtual one. Nevertheless, the Beltway barrier persists, and the questions keep coming.

When I started teaching Spanish/English translation at the University of Maryland’s Graduate Studies in Interpreting and Translation (GSIT) program three years ago, these questions assumed a new importance. Now it was my students who were posing them. Would there be government jobs—staff or contract—for the younger translator entering the workforce? What languages or skills should they add to their repertoire to make themselves more employable in the government? What was the future for which I was training these eager students? I always ask my students where they see themselves in our profession in 20 years. My favorite answer is one I have heard more than once: “having your job”!

These were the questions racing through my own mind back in 2015, when Dr. Maria Brau, a colleague from the real FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, called to seek my support for the establishment of a new Government Division within the American Translators Association (ATA). After suffering three decades of varying confusion about what my sisters and brothers in the federal language community do, I was ready for an ATA Division to solve that problem once and for all, and gave my wholehearted support. A year later, I found myself running the thing as Division Administrator! Now I would be have to be the mapmaker. Fortunately, I have help. Monique Roske, a longtime interpreter and instructor of interpretation, is the Assistant Administrator. As we build up our Division, Monique is frequently heard to utter “remember those outside the Beltway!” One of our goals is an online compendium of US Government “language shops” with thumbnail sketches and ample hyperlinks for fuller details. Another is to reach out to government language units at the state and local level.

The ATA Government Division is among the youngest of the 20 ATA Divisions, and in addition to building our institutional infrastructure, much of our activity this year has focused on the upcoming Annual ATA Conference right in our own backyard—at the Washington Hilton in mid-town DC. Given that the nation’s capital is hosting this year’s conference, government language activities are an inevitable focus. The ATA’s last DC-area conference was in 1989, so it is high time to meet again on the Potomac and think about the language career options the Federal Government provides. To that end, the Government Division has worked to offer the following to this year’s ATA Conference attendees:

Presentations: this year’s ATA Conference offers no less than eight carefully chosen sessions focusing on government language activities, including talks by the National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC) and the Census Bureau, a panel discussion on the impact of artificial intelligence, several talks on interpretation, and a presentation on coaching for translators in the government and beyond. See the Preliminary Conference Program at the ATA website for details.

Networking Event: like our fellow ATA Divisions, we will offer a chance to gather after hours at a local eatery to share drinks, food, and conversation. The ATA Government Division networking event will be held at 6 pm on Thursday, October 26, at a DC landmark—Mama Ayesha’s Middle Eastern Restaurant at 1967 Calvert Street, NW, just a few blocks from the Conference hotel. Read more at the Division events page on the ATA website.

Division Meeting: we will meet briefly at 12:30 pm on Friday, October 27, during the Conference, to map out strategies for the coming year. See the Final Conference Program for exact location details. Forging ties with state and local governments is foremost on our agenda.

In addition, a number of government agencies will be hosting tables in the Conference’s Exhibit Hall. Compose your questions and seek us out early, for the lines are sure to be long!

As you get to know us, you will realize that we are not all work and no play. A favorite pastime of the “insiders” is poke fun at bureaucratic speak, in all its guises. We see more of it than most of you, and we tend to view it as a hairdresser contemplates an unruly head of hair: it is something to be teased, trimmed, curled, or colored—even if a full head shaving would seem to be the only remedy. One federal colleague collected what he called “egregious noun pile-ups” in bureaucratic writing. True to form, this year’s DC-based Conference includes a session by my State Department boss in understanding and taming bureaucratic prose. As we say in DC, it promises to be a “robust practice-based language skills enhancement education colloquium.” Try fitting that into a PowerPoint textbox in another language!

Whether you travel to DC for the ATA Conference to meet us in person, or stay connected to the ATA Government Division on line, via our listserv or our soon-to-emerge website, the Division’s goal is to expose you to a benign strain of what some call “Potomac Fever.” I contracted it in 1979, when I chose to study languages in Washington, DC, with a dream to use them someday in a government job. There are thousands of similar case studies. Inevitably, those afflicted will say the same thing: government language work is intellectually fascinating and rewarding. Not just for the work in itself, but also for the sheer number of resources that emanate from the Federal Government. Take the four reading rooms at the Library of Congress that cover geographical regions of the world: the Hispanic; the Asian; the European; and the African/Middle Eastern. Many of their holdings are now available on line, accessible to all throughout the land. Yet when the heads of these reading rooms gave a presentation at a recent Interagency Language Roundtable meeting, I found that many of my “insider” colleagues did not know about those physical spaces on Capitol Hill, let alone about the cyberspaces they had created. The human resources in the government language community are truly its greatest assets—my capital colleagues take pride in being authorities in the languages they use on the job, all the while studying further to keep those languages fresh. Meanwhile, they become subject matter specialists on everything from antisubmarine warfare to international child abduction. I worked with a gentleman at the Justice Department, now retired, who was an expert in Spanish slang from every corner of the Americas—try as I might, I could never stump him. I have worked with a Labor Department colleague who studies Quechua and Aymara in her spare time. Several of my LS colleagues at the State Department have worked comfortably in over a dozen languages at a time—one certified a treaty in Faroese; another invented his own language. With a government language community of this caliber, the republic is eminently well served.

Beyond the intellectual charge it delivers, the work of the government language community delivers an excitement often described as high-stakes and cutting edge. The adrenaline often rises; the knuckles occasionally whiten. Whether our interpreters are helping to bring peace to warring factions, or our translators are helping to cure a disease more virulent than Potomac Fever, our work can impact millions. This is a source of pride for the government language professional, and a source of sleepless nights for us too.

My advice to the language professionals of the New York area: contract Potomac Fever and lose some sleep with us. Bust through the Beltway—or at least bridge it. Let the ATA Government Division be your guide.

One postscript: There is a time-honored tradition of government service from the New York translator and interpreter community. In fact, the State Department’s first three translators—John Peter Tetard, Isaac Pinto, and John Pintard—were New Yorkers hired while the Department was headquartered in New York City for two short stretches in the 1780s. Tetard had to face the capital’s brief move back to Philadelphia, before resigning to become the first professor of a modern language at King’s College (just as it changed its name to Columbia University). Once the capital shifted back to New York again, translators Pinto and Pintard reported to work at a repurposed Fraunces Tavern down on Pearl Street, where you can still see the reconstructed offices of Foreign Affairs Secretary John Jay on the upper floors, including his ledger books recording subscriptions to foreign-language periodicals. Pinto’s knowledge of Arabic—an exceedingly rare skill in those newly United States—surely came in handy after the young nation signed a Treaty of Friendship with Morocco in 1786–the oldest U.S. treaty still in force. A century later, Henry Livingston Thomas (1835-1903) of the Hudson Valley became the first State Department translator to receive a Civil Service appointment.

Somewhere inside the Beltway, or perhaps outside it, there is a government office that needs your talents. Log into the Divisions section of the ATA website and join the Government Division today!


By Ravi Kumar, Founder, Modlingua Learning
First presented at International Symposium on Technical Translation and Terminology for Cross-Cultural Dialogue. Reprinted with gracious permission by the author.

The Translator as an entrepreneur

After several years of struggle, in many countries Translation has evolved as a professional activity and its practitioners have been able to get a professional status. However, it is important to note that India, in spite of having recognized and documented the presence of 1635 rationalized mother tongues, classified into 234 mother tongues and grouped under 122 languages, has failed to achieve professional status for its translators. Translation is an activity that not only helps bridge communication gap, rather it facilitates the whole set of business activity in terms of localization and globalization thus generating employment. An individual translator not only generates employment for himself/herself but also facilitates multiple activities and thus multiple employment activities ranging from DTP, advertising, education etc. to development and facilitation of high-end software and products. A translator applies his knowledge, skills and competencies and consistently evolves and applies new ideas at the individual level or collectively and in most of the cases, he/she is one person enterprise that generates employment and wealth and contributes to the economic development of the country.

It is also notable that most of the translators in India are forced to orient their profession and tune it as per the language demand of the industry by being restricted to the roles of language teacher, BPO employee, tele caller, etc. Those who remain loyal to their professional orientation as translator become freelance translators and often slowly grow into translation agencies. Unlike big business houses, translation businesses are usually run from home or from sparsely-furnished small offices, have limited resources and often the owners don’t know where the next penny is coming from to keep the operation going. Most of the time, such translators or agencies work in isolation and lead lonely existences as few can empathize with their troubles.

Socio- Cultural situation of translators in India

Bilinguals have always been respected in India as persons with superior qualifications, and they have played a pivotal role in social and cultural change. Slowly, bilingualism has become so widespread that it is complementary in nature. For example, an individual may use a particular language at home, another in the neighborhood and the bazaar, and still another in certain formal domains such as education, administration, and the like. In addition, the languages of national and international communication, Hindi and English, are also part of the linguistic repertoire of a sizeable number of Indians. In India, linguistic diversity is not by accident, but is inherited in the process of acquiring the composite culture of India.

Economic Situation of a translator in India

On the one hand, bilingualism/ multilingualism have played a pivotal role in shaping the diverse society of India, and even UNESCO has appreciated India’s situation on maintaining its linguistic diversity. On the other hand, Indian translators face challenges that are byproducts of the bilingualism / multilingualism inherent in Indian society. For example, it is very common to equate a translator with a bilingual neighbor, friend, relative or office colleague who are readily available for help or extend their services either at a very low price or, many times, even for free. I define these actions as part of the entrepreneurship attitude inherent in almost every Indian who tries to make best use of available resources and economizes his/ her efforts by making use of available resources. In this case, the resources are readily available bilinguals or multilinguals. These challenges become tougher when a Project Manager, knowingly or unknowingly equates the service cost of a professional translator with that of his in-house bilingual colleague whose services he / she has been availing of, free of charge. The challenge becomes stiffer when a translator has to explain to the Project Manager or the Indian Businessman (who still insists on using online freeware like Babelfish, Google or Systran) the difference between a machine translation and a professional translation, while trying to bid for an international project. This further confirms the resolve of an Indian businessman to prove his entrepreneurship skill which finally leads to a fiasco.

Making of a translator in India

As explained above, in spite of India’s very rich and continuing diversity of languages, there are only a few universities that offer translation courses in their curriculum, and these find it difficult to sustain themselves because of lack of infrastructure, lack of trained faculty, lack of well formulated course curriculum and, above and all, public lack of awareness and government apathy.

In this situation, it becomes very challenging for a translator to evolve as a professional, and those who evolve as professionals can be easily put into the category of entrepreneurs as they develop the ability to create and build something from practically nothing, and they practice this process of building wealth daily and continue to face all odds with a hope that one day they would be established translators.

External challenges faced by the translator entrepreneur

Once a professional translator starts interacting with the Industry, external challenges multiply. The translator goes on to face many other issues, including payment issues with clients followed by lack of continuity of work, government apathy towards professional recognition, lack of established standards, lack of certification, lack of funds for up gradation of skills, etc.

Global challenges faced by the translator entrepreneur

Many of the leading portals have developed a strong foothold in India. It is true that they have given good opportunities to many of the translators to get in touch with domestic as well as International agencies and that this has resulted in an increase in income. However, it is important to note that most of these portals are operated from outside India and they follow their own rules. Many times, Indian translators are cheated and then, to add insult to injury, blamed for bad quality. This kind of situation arises because of a mismatch of expectations, lack of documented guidelines and supports that agencies or clients must offer translators. Outsourcing is a good phenomenon, but service takers as well as service providers need to develop trust and culture sensitive relationships that is so often lacking in these web portals.

Competition from International agencies

It is true that the majority of Indian translators still follow the translation approach of translation – many times translations are handwritten, followed by typing, re-checking – and final delivery; this translation approach has its own importance, but it results in delivery delay and lack of quality control, making the whole affair vulnerable to stiff competition.

On the other hand, International agencies who maintain in-house teams of translators are sophisticated. They make use of trained translators who are well versed with computer applications and CAT tools (Computer Aided Translation Tools). Unless Indian translators also upgrade themselves with this modern translation approach, they will continue to suffer the snobbery of a select privileged few. Also, there are a few MNCs who have already made their presence in the Indian market, and, as a matter of practice, with their organizational strength and economic power, it would be easy for them to develop an economically competitive process that would be a big challenge to Indian translators entrepreneurs who are still struggling for their identity. By the time they realize their weaknesses, it would be too late to start competing with these translation houses.

Internal challenges faced by the translator entrepreneur

An individual, after having gone through the hurdles involved in evolving as a translator, faces the next stage of problems and challenges that many times originate from his / her own self:

  1. Translation activities have been treated as a very personal and private affair by individual language professionals. Many times, even best friends do not share information between themselves about their translation projects.
  2. Translators suffer from an identity crisis – Let us say, an Indian language professional refers to himself as a translator in a gathering of friends or acquaintances who otherwise have no other association with the translation industry. The response the professional’s statement would commonly receive would simply be, “Okay, this is what you do. But what is your profession?” This underlines the very simple fact that the translation industry generally has very little professional recognition in the perception of the masses. This does affect the credibility and the position of a professional translator in the eyes of his social peers. This is what we translators refer to as an Identity Crisis.
  3. Ego clashes – identity crisis makes an individual more sensitive to issues that have been making him suffer, any new initiative is regarded with suspicion – once suspicion comes – questions are asked, many times resulting in absurd questions offending egos and ultimately, failure of any collective initiatives for professional development.
  4. If at all logic prevails – the established translators start fearing loosing their business which they have established since years, making personal efforts – but very privately. Under no circumstances do they want to come to a common platform and discuss relations or issues related to their clients. But this thought is not expressed directly (part of identity crisis), rather it is expressed in terms of pin-pointing personal or professional or organizational weaknesses of the individual who has taken the initiative.

Successful translators and diversification

In spite of all the odds mentioned above, there are quite a good number of translators in India who face these challenges and overcome all hurdles to finally make a living and contribute to the economic and cultural growth of the country. In addition, there are a few who grow enough to launch small and medium sized translation enterprises which further add value to translation as a profession.

Need for collaborative efforts

With the collaborative efforts of a few like-minded professional translators, the Indian Translators Association was established in December 2007. It seeks to unite the widespread translator and interpreter community of India on a common platform to address issues for the betterment of the industry and take steps to ensure that its members provide services meeting the professional standards of the industry. Its integration with the International Federation of Translators (FIT) in July 2008 and its subsequent collaboration with Termnet Austria prove its commitment towards achieving its objectives and goal of developing a vibrant platform for the translator’s community of India.

Networking as a Possible Solution

To counter external as well as internal challenges a translator needs to take into consideration the phenomenon of globalization that has brought tremendous dynamism into market forces. The world is evolving towards finding innovative ways of achieving customer satisfaction that is based on N =1 (one consumer experience at a time) and R = G (resource from multiple vendors and often from around the globe). [5] To achieve competitiveness and provide unique, personalized experiences to consumers the firm needs to create a system that involves individual customers in co-creating a product / service that provides a unique experience. No firm is big enough in scope and size to satisfy the experiences of one consumer at a time.

Therefore, all firms will access resources from a wide variety of other big and small firms – a global ecosystem. The focus is on access to resources, not ownership of resources. Not to go too deeply into the logistics of this innovative thought, it is very important to understand that even the biggest companies do not own all the necessary resources to cater to the needs of their customer, nor do they have complete production in-house as the new dynamics of market demands inter-dependency on internal and external sources.

The above thoughts are very encouraging for an entrepreneur and especially for the translator who depends heavily on external sources and who does not have enough funds to own resources. As explained above, nor do the big business houses have the complete ownership of resources. The idea is to have fast access to these resources. A translator entrepreneur needs to be connected to fellow translators within his own country as well as outside the country to have access to information and knowledge and develop teams for the execution of a project through available resources and provide services and achieve customer satisfaction. For developing connectivity and networking, there are already various online systems in place that allow free access to their platform and offer options to develop connectivity and develop social or professional networks that further helps individual members to build on relationships, share knowledge and help in the overall growth of a complete social or cultural system thus allowing the creator of the system to benefit from the presence of a large number of human networks connected to its server. Amongst many other networks, I find Google, LinkedIn, Face Book, Hotmail, Groupsite and Twitter to be examples of the N=1 and R=G phenomenon.

Even for translators, there are well known networks that work wonders, and a translator must tune himself / herself to changing dynamics and bring competitiveness through using these networks (for example, Termium Canada, Terment Austria or even Termtruk and various other initiatives). In the Indian context, although there has not been a very visible network of translators, empowered by big business houses, however many personal initiatives are in place (for example, www.modlingua.com) and it is expected that in times to come when better understating of the market comes, translators would start networking in an organized way and such private initiatives would become part of a collective initiative covering a considerable number of translators.

All that remains to be said in conclusion is that, while Indian translators as entrepreneurs are slowly evolving, in spite of many obstacles, they are yet to explore their fullest potential by adopting a common platform. On the one hand, this, and the other hurdles and set backs can be attributed, to a large extent, to vestigial colonial mind sets on all sides (the colonizer and the colonized) which have so far endured past their expiry dates yet continue to exert influence. Perhaps the time has come for change and, given the shared impacts of events, East or West, North or South, salvation for all lies in sharing knowledge, experience and resources. The future of translation as a profession lies in the “networking” of entrepreneurs to economize processes and sustain growth by using all available resources and infrastructure. All that this requires is the investment of goodwill across the globe.

[1] R. Gopalakrishnan, Prosperity Beyond Our Cities by Spreading Enterprise, AD Shroff Memorial Lecture, October 17-18, 2007
[2] Dwijendra Tripathy (ed.), Business Communities of India: A Historical Perspective. 1984
[3] Tarun Khanna, Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India are reshaping their future and yours, 2007
[4] See Pawan K Verma, Being Indian
[5] This phenomenon can be more understood by going through the writings of management guru C.K Prahalad and M.S. Krishnan in “ The New Age of Innovation: Driving Co-Created Value through Global Networks, Tata Mc Graw Hill, 2008

This Article is written by Ravi Kumar, Founder of Modlingua Learning, India’s No.1 Certified Translation Service Providers