Going Institutional: A Primer on Translation for International Organizations

Many experienced translators consider a shift toward international organizations, either as part of the staff or as freelancers. But how is translating for an international organization different from commercial translation? This overview will consider what matters most when translating for an international organization.

Many translators consider translating for an international organization as a next step in their career, possibly leading to greater stability, better pay, and more interesting assignments. Things don’t always work out that way, and institutional translation is not for everyone, but if you want to give it a try, here’s a summary of what to expect.

How Is Institutional Translation Different?

There may be several reasons why an international organization needs translation services, but the main one is that many of them have official languages, defined as such in their charters. Some organizations differentiate between official and working languages, although there are differences in what each term means: in some institutions, working languages are a subset of official languages, and vice versa. The key idea, however, is that some organizations are mandated to make at least some of their documents available in more than one language. Depending on the size of the organization, they may have an in-house team of translators, revisers, and other language specialists, or rely on subcontractors, or use a combination of both.

A lot of the documents that are translated in an institutional setting consist of parliamentary documentation, which means documents that are circulated before a meeting and then discussed, negotiated, and voted on. Obviously, the different language versions must match exactly, including all nuances and formal structure. Otherwise, imagine the delegate from Narnia saying, “I will only vote in favor if we remove the bracketed phrase in paragraph 47,” and the delegate from Lalaland responding, “there is no bracketed phrase in paragraph 47 of my document.” It doesn’t matter if the translation was otherwise correct and the expression was set between commas. If the meeting has to stop because of a translation issue, the credibility of the entire document is compromised, and that might impact the flow of negotiation. Sure, replacing parentheses with commas may be fine in other contexts, but not in institutional translation.

So, how is institutional translation different from other types of translation? The truth is, it’s not that different from translating for a large company. There will be glossaries, style guides, and conventions or “house rules.” There will also be many reference documents that may be similar or almost identical to the text at hand. There will be humongous databases and parallel corpora that will be both a blessing (the answer to your terminology question is probably a few clicks away) and a curse (sometimes you must reuse previous language, unchanged). In both settings, corporate and institutional, translation is an inside job that’s carried out collectively.

Characteristics of Successful Institutional Translation

To be successful, the institutional translator must:

Lose Their Individual Voice: A salient characteristic of institutional translation is the need for the final product to be entirely anonymous, without a trace of the personal voice of an individual translator. Think of it as a chorus singing in perfect harmony, where the result is the sum of multiple voices, but each of them must be indiscernible. There are several reasons for this. The most obvious is that the translated document, just like the original, belongs to the institution, which is its sole author, but there are other practical, very compelling considerations, such as the need for consistency.

Be Stylistically Consistent: One reason for stylistic consistency is that many originals are broken down into two, three, or maybe 20 pieces, each going to a different translator. Everybody agrees that splitting a document is not ideal, but there simply is no other way to handle a report that’s over 200 pages long and needs to be formatted and circulated in a week. To complicate matters, there’s often no time for a final, unifying round of revision. In another setting this would be a recipe for a Frankenstein monster, but institutional translators are used to following “the house style,” which may be stilted and sometimes awkward but highly consistent. And consistent writing lends itself very much to a seamless outcome.

Adopt the Institution’s Working Methods: Splitting a source document among several translators is not the only counter-intuitive practice in institutional language services. Another one that’s sure to puzzle newcomers is the nonlinear processing of documents, which means working on an interim version of the source while it’s still being negotiated or refined. This requires working on the assignment twice, first with the draft and then with the final version, not counting the multiple corrections and minor updates that may materialize along the way. Nobody likes to work like that, but, again, sometimes it’s the only way to meet deadlines. And sometimes the translator updating the interim translation is not the same one who worked on it in the first place, which showcases the relevance of uniformity and adherence to conventions.

Learn to Write Like Everyone Else: Another reason for stylistic consistency is that most assignments involve some degree of recycled text from a similar original. Again, if the translator gave in to the temptation to show off their talent and knack for elegant prose, the result would be a messy patchwork. The ability to write just like everybody else is one of the most valued strengths of an institutional translator. Mastering it requires a great deal of attention and humility, but it’s worth cultivating.

Adhere to Vetted Terminology: Strict adherence to vetted terminology is another way to achieve consistency within and across documents. Most institutions have their own terminology databases, which are living organisms that grow and evolve daily. These databases are maintained by terminologists who are themselves translators, or at least work in close proximity to translators.

A lot of work and research goes into each entry, and there may be excellent reasons why a certain term is translated “this way” instead of “that way,” even if “that way” is the preferred term in another institution or if the translator knows for sure that “that way” is also correct or, possibly, better. A term with an entry in the database must be translated “this way,” provided that the context matches. If the translator thinks there is a compelling reason to depart from the database (and sometimes there is), a good approach is to ask a terminologist or a more senior translator for guidance. If the term is not in the database, the translator should do some research and submit a proposal to the terminologists. All of this takes an awful lot of time.

Adhere to Precedent: Adhering to precedent is also very important for consistency and integrity. This means that, whenever there’s a quote from or a reference to a previous document, no matter how long or short, you must assume there exists a previous translation that needs to be found and reused. It would certainly be easier, or at least faster, just to translate it from scratch, but that would be bad practice.

In the best case scenario, your key document will be referenced explicitly, right there, as in this example: “The Chairperson’s end-of-year report, published in January 2020, acknowledged there had been ‘unexpected outcomes’ that warranted shelving the project.” You can’t just translate “unexpected outcomes,” you have to dig out the chairperson’s end-of-year report in your target language and find out precisely how the phrase was translated. While you are at it, check for “shelve” and its variations.

Hidden quotations are trickier because they are hard to recognize. These would be words taken verbatim from a previous document, but with no quotation marks around them. If the coincidence involves a whole sentence or paragraph, chances are our computer-assisted translation (CAT) tool will alert us, but what if it’s just a partial match, or just a phrase? Here’s where experience and institutional memory, together with good technique (i.e., systematically checking databases for suspicious phrases), are priceless.

For example, imagine your original has a sentence that reads: “In Albanta, delegates pledged to provide a strong impetus to inclusive prosperity and welfare for all citizens.” You may just see a sentence here and simply proceed to translate it to the best of your ability, but you would be missing a hidden quotation. The delegates got together in Albanta sometime in the past and agreed to an institutional declaration that read precisely like this: “We pledge to provide a strong impetus to inclusive prosperity and welfare for all citizens and to take special care of those struggling with inequalities.” Most CAT tools would miss the coincidence. It’s up to the translator to recognize it and find the right reference.

But how would you know there’s even a reference document, let alone find it? In this case, you have a strong hint: the word “pledged.” Pledge is not something delegates do casually in their own time. It’s a deliberate commitment, and there has to be an institutional record of it. If you’ve been working for this institution long enough, you may be very familiar with the Albanta Declaration, so there you go. Otherwise, be alert and heed the “pledge” hint, and scan your databases for key words such as “impetus” and “inclusive prosperity” in case there is a coincidence. It may take a while, so don’t give up too soon.

Not all precedent has to be followed all the time. It depends, mostly, on the hierarchical value of the reference. If it’s a legacy document (i.e., a treaty, agreement, or institutional declaration such as a resolution or decision), you need to reproduce the language verbatim. Otherwise, there may be some leeway, but the general rule is: follow precedent, unless you have a good reason to deviate. Not being aware of the precedent is not a good reason to deviate.

Some Givens about Institutional Work

An institutional translation must be linguistically flawless. This is a given, and it’s not something that can be learned on the job. If a translator has trouble with dangling modifiers in English or the proper use of gerunds in Spanish, or whatever high-level difficulty their target language might present, they may still have a bright future in translation elsewhere, just not in an international organization. This is one of the reasons why passing rates in access exams are so low: the house style, terminology, conventions, and procedures can be taught, but a translator has to come on board in full command of the target language.

Another given: translations must be submitted on time. True, meeting deadlines is important everywhere, but in other settings many project managers build buffers into their planning because, well, life happens. In the institutional world, life happens too, but the consequences of a delay may be extreme. Don’t submit late, ever. And if you absolutely must, be proactive. Let the scheduler know as soon as you become aware of the extenuating circumstance so they can make alternative arrangements (i.e., someone else will pull an all-nighter to finish your work).

Accuracy is another hallmark of institutional translation. In addition, you have to be extremely mindful of political and diplomatic considerations. Nuance and emphasis must be carefully weighted. The safest approach is to stick very close to the original, sometimes closer than you would like. The result may not flow as beautifully as that other rendition that came to your mind; it might even be unnatural or clunky. But, as long as it’s faithful, that’s the right translation.

Conversely, institutional translation is not necessarily idiomatic. In an ideal world, it definitely would be, but your focus has to be on the must-haves above. If you have to give up something, give up idiomaticity. Did the original use two adjectives that sound redundant in your language? Go ahead, be redundant. That’s better than raising eyebrows and having someone question the integrity of your translation.

How about ambiguity? Should institutional translation aim for an unequivocal, crystal-clear message? Not necessarily! There is a lot of deliberate ambiguity in the originals. A translator’s goal has to be to detect any ambiguity in the original, which is easier said than done, and recognize if an obscure passage is accidental or intentional, and ask for clarification when necessary. The translation may need to mirror the ambiguity in the target language, which also requires skill.

By the way, there are a few fascinating cases in history where ambiguity was elevated to a form of art in the world of diplomacy, but that is beyond the scope of this article. If anyone is curious, go check “constructive ambiguity” on Wikipedia.

And what if the original has an obvious error? Outside of the institutional setting, you may be tempted to just translate what’s in front of you without questioning it, or you may consider just fixing the mistake in your translation. Neither solution would work in an institutional context. Instead, you are expected to raise the issue with someone in a position to contact the author for clarification and correction. Otherwise, you’ll end up with mismatched versions, a problem that might be compounded if there are multiple languages involved.

In addition, there’s always the risk that you misunderstood something, or that you “fixed it wrong.” See, for example: “The index increased from 596 in the first half of 2017 to 577 in the same period of 2018.” There is clearly an error in this sentence, but is it that the index, in fact, decreased, or are the figures swapped? Or is there a typo in one of the figures? There is so much opportunity to make an error worse! Bottom line: don’t assume anything!

What Is Quality in an Institutional Setting?

One might want to summarize all the above under the umbrella of “quality” and say that institutional translation must be of the highest quality, but things are not that simple. What, precisely, is quality in an institutional setting? A translation that contains no errors? Does this mean no stray commas, no typos, no misplaced footnote calls? No nuance lost? It depends!

The important thing to understand is that there’s no external, objective definition of quality in institutional translation. Quality is defined by the organization, and it’s document-specific. A quality translation is one that meets the institution’s expectations, whatever those may be, for that specific document. The term of art is “fit for purpose.” There are many factors involved, but the main ones are visibility (including political aspects), shelf life, and legal/financial impact.

Given an unlimited budget and timeframe, we would all strive (with more or less success) for absolutely perfect translations. But reality has a way to bring us back to earth, and the fact is that budgets and deadlines are often tight and shrinking, so the best practice is for the team in charge to assign the right amount of time and resources to each project so that the institution’s commitment to multilingualism is duly honored. If the assignment is for a working internal document that will undergo several rounds of negotiation, the bar will correctly be set much lower than for the final version of an institutional declaration that will get quoted, referred to for generations, and possibly sculpted in marble, figuratively or even literally.

In practical terms, a translation is fit for purpose if it goes entirely unnoticed. If it’s delivered on time and nobody raises concerns—success! If you’re a freelancer translating for an institution, fit for purpose also means delivering a translation that requires little to no intervention by the in-house team. And remember, it’s emphatically not up to the translator to define what the standard of quality is for any given document. It’s up to the institution. The translator’s responsibility is to do the best they can in the time assigned, without cutting corners.

Not for Everyone, but Very Rewarding

I said at the beginning that institutional translation is not for everyone. It requires skill, experience, and the right tools, as well as good instincts and a deep understanding of the particular institution and its workings. In addition, the institutional translator has to be willing to check their ego at the door and sing in harmony with everyone else, and to take the time to submit terminology proposals, ask the right questions, and learn all the conventions. The learning curve is very steep and not all assignments are exciting or interesting, with hundreds of pages of tedious budgetary documents that are, nonetheless, equally crucial and demanding of your full attention to detail.

Why, then, choose this field? First, it offers an environment of steady work and predictable income, which are nothing to scoff about in the industry these days. It also provides daily opportunities to be on top of world affairs and to work on assignments that make a difference. And, interestingly, what makes it hard is also what makes it easy, with those gigantic multilingual corpora and databases at your fingertips and many brilliant colleagues, right next door, all sold on teamwork and willing to coach the newcomers and share their burden.

Izaskun Orkwis, CT has been a translator for more than 20 years, both as a freelancer and in-house, working mainly for international organizations. She is currently a staff reviser for the Spanish translation service at the United Nations Secretariat in New York. She has a BA in Romance languages and an MA in institutional translation. She is an ATA-certified English<>Spanish translator, a certified court interpreter in Virginia, and a sworn translator in Spain. Contact: izaskun@gmail.com.

3 Responses to "Going Institutional: A Primer on Translation for International Organizations"

  1. martha gutierrez steinkamp says:

    Resending –

    this is an excellent article –

    would like to call attention to the issue of copyright – working with international cultural institutions often encounter material in quotes written by author only in the language to be translated – exercise caution – clear copyright with source –

  2. Michael Larrass says:

    Thank you for this comprehensive advice, which I will share with our newcomers. One of our most tricky challenges is genderization, especially for francophone clients: sometimes only for key terms, sometimes for all, sometimes client.e.s, sometimes client(e)s, sometimes clients et clientes (but not chef.fe!).

  3. Matías Gonzalo Torrejón says:

    Thank you very much for this insightful article. It gives translators a glimse of what institutional translation is really like. Very challenging and comforting and the same time. It also encourages me to keep going and improve myself.

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