MAKE IT OFFICIAL
Over the course of my professional life, I’ve put into English two novels, some short stories, and a scattering of articles and ephemera—mainly from Russian, with some French and Italian things and even a short biographical piece in Spanish by the novelist Isabel Allende. But I’d almost never translated or even edited institutional or diplomatic prose, the language of officialdom, government, ministries, agencies and so forth. In fact, I expended a fair amount of energy removing some of the worst traces of this kind of writing and speech—you know the sort of thing: passive constructions, unnecessary five-dollar words, dead metaphors—from books and articles I worked on as an editor of English. For the last few years, though, officialdom is where I’ve made my living, translating and editing for that most institutional of institutional bureaucracies, the United Nations.
The verbatim record—sort of
My particular corner of the UN is known as the Verbatim Reporting Service; we produce the official record of everything that gets said in Security Council and General Assembly meetings. Oh, except the parts that actually don’t go into the official record, such as most of the thanks to and introductions of speakers by the person presiding over the meeting, because they’re so pro forma and space-wasting—although the exceptions to that exist too, such as introductions for non-Security Council members speaking in the Security Council, and for special advisers and representatives of particular agencies or committees—yes, and then during the big important general debate that always starts the General Assembly’s new session each September, when the heads of state and prime ministers come to New York and speak in person, each of them has to be escorted to the rostrum (one “action line” in our record) and from the rostrum (another action line!) and introduced according to strict protocol with all the requisite His Majesties and Excellencies and Democratic People’s Republics of This and That. The arrival of just one head of state can add almost a page to our typed record of a 10-minute segment of a meeting!
There are countries with special long versions of their names that—as far as I can tell—only the UN is required to use: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North to you), the Syrian Arab Republic, the Islamic Republic of Iran… Did you know that until Qadhafi fell, his country rejoiced under the name of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, and that is what we had to insert every time it was mentioned? Of course we think of all the lives that may have been saved by that one man’s downfall—but what about the paper? And there’s more: in the organization where the acronym is king—UNDP, UNHCR, UNESCO, WHO, UNICEF—what about using acronyms or initials for the main bodies of the UN (like the “UN”!) or for country names (U.S.; U.K., etc.)? Verboten. Nope, write them out in full, and that includes the ever-annoying Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which even its own UN representative (currently a man with the admittedly rather marvelous name of Sin Son Ho) refers to in speeches as “the DPKO”—it’s just that we official recorders aren’t allowed to.
It’s right, except when it’s wrong
When a new verbatim reporter comes to work in our office (the English department, as opposed to the other five VRS offices, for the other official UN languages—Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish), he or she is given a sheaf of typewritten pages containing the distilled and updated wisdom and advice of decades. My favorite bit is the second paragraph, which reads:
“There are two basic rules.
Rule 1: put down what the speaker said.
Rule 2: don’t.”
It’s not really some Oxford philosophy department joke. As the author of the Verbatim instructions continues, “reconciling those two rules is what verbatim reporting is about.” We have to be right. In other words, we have to accurately report what the guy said—except when he got it wrong, or expressed it badly, in which case we have to fix it so that anyone can understand what he meant—or what we think he meant to say, which isn’t necessarily quite the same thing. All this, of course, while not minding that the average quality of the writing we’re transmitting is lower than some form you have to fill out at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Here is an example of the kind of writing I see every day:
“At this juncture, it is of the utmost importance that we continue to coordinate our efforts and speak with a single voice, underscoring that the international community will not, under any circumstances, tolerate the unconstitutional seizure of power. Now it is time to seek convergence and align our actions with the purpose of rendering them as effective as possible.”
I did not seek that paragraph out for special dreariness. I went to the just completed record for the most recent Security Council meeting—held on the day I wrote this article—and plucked it straight out of one “take” (someone else’s, but it could just as well have been mine) or 10-minute chunk of the meeting. Sad to say, the UN is full of those ready-made phrases—“utmost importance,” “the international community”—because, as George Orwell pointed out 60 years ago in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” they enable us to avoid thinking. Diplomacy is all about euphemism, about substituting one phrase for another so that the listener does not have to bear very much reality. It’s not that no one in the UN ever thinks. Indeed, many of the representatives and people who speak in its halls are brilliant, the diplomatic crème de la crème of their countries. But they are constrained; constrained because they will lose their jobs if they utter phrases like “third world” instead of “less developed,” or “President Mugabe” instead of “Robert Mugabe, the dictator of Zimbabwe who has murdered its citizens and sucked his country dry.” They have to keep on trying, and so they must describe things in a particular way—and so must we, their translators and editors.—TAMARA GLENNY