Starched stiff: a translator's view of UN-speak French

By Santiago Artozqui (En attendant Nadeau)

Like most international institutions, the United Nations functions in several languages, demanding the translation of its thousands upon thousands of documents of various kinds into six tongues. But the task of its professional translators is far from straightforward, as Santiago Artozqui, a translator of UN texts from English to French, explains here. Not least is what he calls “a misplaced Atticism” required of French-language documents which “dunks the language in starch and leaves it as stiff as the shirt of a notable”.


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In order to understand the task of translation for the United Nations (UN), it is necessary first to take a closer look at “the contraption” (in French, “le machin”) as it was called by Charles de Gaulle, who was not, in a formal sense, all that wrong. Indeed, the “contraption” is a complex machine with multiple cogs which, in local idiosyncrasy, is called “the United Nations system”, and which includes: