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Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to the US and the United Nations (UN) has thrown the activities of translators at the UN into focus. An article in the China Daily provided an insight into the work of the 70 people who make up the Mandarin translation team at the UN. Mandarin is one of the six official languages of the UN.

The team is led by Ma Xuesong who joined the UN from China’s Foreign Ministry in 2000. He and his team are responsible for translation of documents, meeting minutes and correspondence, and his description of the challenge is very familiar to Accutranslate, though of course on a much larger scale:

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

“Because of the variety of subjects and the specificities of the organisation, you feel like you have to learn everything anew,” he said. “The consistency required by institutional translation also creates a certain degree of tension between individuality and creativity. There is no room for mistakes.” An additional challenge is that many of the documents for translation may have been written by non-native speakers of English, so the Chinese translators have to recognise idiosyncrasies in the phrasing and vocabulary, and still render an accurate translation in Mandarin.

Mr Ma explained the characteristics that make a good Chinese translator: “common sense, a lot of experience and institutional memory”. The importance of experience in dealing with UN translations is reflected in the fact that Chinese translators are now able to work their whole career at the UN, whereas in the past they were posted to the UN for 5-year periods.

Mr Ma considers that “a perfect command of the mother tongue… is the most important competence”, and that even though electronic tools are available to assist, the translators “must rely on their extensive language skills and substantive knowledge to produce documents that are clear and coherent.”

For Accutranslate, we definitely concur that the key skill is competence in the mother tongue, as all our translations are done by translators into their native language. What amazed us is that the UN Chinese translations are done with a team of only 70, given the size of the work.

For your Chinese translation requirements, remember that UK-based Accutranslate offers you native-speaker translations, with UK service and response speeds you don’t have to be the UN to get the best translations!