UN Translators Describe Remote Work during COVID-19

Remote work in 2020 is difficult for any profession. How have UN translators and translation teams managed during the transition?

United Nations translation teams received a spotlight from the Department of Global Communications this week to shed some light about they have transitioned to remote work and sustained an efficient workflow since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the shutdowns abruptly curtailed on-site activities at Headquarters and other UN premises, the translation services of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) transitioned to remote working almost seamlessly, although not without ongoing difficulties.

“Several factors enabled us to transition so easily, not least our commitment to remaining at the forefront of language technologies and developing in-house our own suite of high-performance web-based tools,” says Oxana Sobkovich from the Russian Translation Service. “DGACM had already implemented a fully electronic workflow and built a set of sophisticated computer-assisted translation and editing applications, such as eLUNa and UNTERM, to support the production of multilingual documentation. In addition, we had just reorganized all the translation services’ online resource libraries at the end of 2019 and started working with Sharepoint and Teams.”

With strategic activities like recruitment online, the translation services held the first part of their sixth fully remote online competitive examination, this time for Spanish translators, editors, and verbatim reporters, on July 7 with over 1,400 test takers. On April 1, The Documentation Division (DD) also launched a new online training platform, The SPOT (self-paced online training), which contains over 500 learning activities. The project will be extended to other areas of DGACM and duty stations in the next phase.

Likewise, the gText suite of translation, editing, and terminology tools have proved invaluable, with other departments and even other UN entities requesting use. In April, staff from the Department of Global Communications, as well as interpreters and verbatim reporters from the Meetings and Publishing Division were set up with the tools. The World Health Organization soon after followed suit, as the latest organization to join the group of UN entities that have adopted eLUNa and UNTERM as their translation and terminology solutions.

Despite the smooth transition made possible by new practices and software, much of the DD staff realized major technological gaps between their homes and workplace. Staff who were assigned laptops by OICT had to visit the Secretariat Building to collect them at scheduled times for health and safety reasons. The necessary software applications were then installed remotely with the Business Analysis Section of DGACM and OICT support.

Besides obtaining the necessary tools to complete their responsibilities, many Finding sufficient quiet time was a challenge for many. For some, sharing a workspace with a spouse whose job involved a lot of time in video or phone calls was a major source of stress; for others it was combining teleworking with what was effectively home schooling. Flexibility and compromise and non-standard work schedules seem to have been the best coping mechanism.

“My children were home, and having to supervise the remote learning and after-school care of a highly active 7-year-old and an 11-year old, meant that the interruptions were constant. Translation requires concentration, and I kept having to reread what I had just written and pick up my train of thought again or put off my own work until nighttime,” said Olga Begisheva of the Russian Translation Service.

Despite the turmoil in the personal lives of the editors, translators and text-processors have been able to produce the multilingual documentation on which the work of the Organization depends. “I am very proud of the dedication and commitment shown by the staff of DD,” says Cecilia Elizalde, director of the Documentation Division. “They rose to the challenge and responded with extraordinary team spirit.”

Furthermore, to address the loss of the spontaneous, in-person interactions that often lead to valuable learning moments in the work place, some services have organized regular virtual coffee gatherings, and the Division has organized a series of online lectures, covering a range of topics, from remote tours of artwork, to how COVID-19 case projections are calculated, to yoga classes. To complement the self-paced learning activities in The SPOT, small online discussion groups and workshops have also been organized to build skills and increase knowledge transfer. In this and other ways, the Division’s staff continue to innovate, build resilience, and support one another.

“We can do this, and we are willing to do this, despite the personal difficulties and even across time zones, because this is a crisis situation, but I am not sure how long working at this level and at this pace under these conditions is sustainable,” worries Frank Schramm, from the German Translation Section. “However, we pride ourselves on our professionalism, on our ability to deliver high-quality translations on time, as the United Nations and the public worldwide deserve. And knowing the UN translation services and their capacity for innovation as I do, I am sure we will find the ways and means to continue to do that.

MultiLingual Staff
MultiLingual creates go-to news and resources for language industry professionals.


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