No meaning lost in translation: The UN’s quirkiest contest

No meaning lost in translation: The UN’s quirkiest contest

Bursting with translation anticipation, a quirky UN contest has had translators, interpreters, students, and lovers of a good multilingual idiom challenge submitting entries from around the world to the 2023 St. Jerome Translation Contest.

On hiatus for three years, the contest is back and participants from across the world were limbering up for a new bout of linguistic gymnastics. 

AI beware

A panel of expert judges have combed through entries for each language, looking for accuracy in conveying not only the meaning of a frustrating household task, artificial intelligence (AI), and a traditional Spanish dish, but also the nuances of the source text, as well as style, submitted by students to seasoned translators.

The goal as always is to make sure nothing is lost in translation.

“In spite of the rise of Google and AI, which are threatening the very existence of our profession, there is continuing interest in translation,” said one of the judges, a senior text revisor in the Russian section of the UN Office at Vienna.

“We were very pleased with the liveliness of the language of many translations; it seemed like most of the contestants had had the same kind of problem loading dishwashers, and some of them seem to have PTSD when recalling those feats,” he told the audience in Vienna at the official award ceremony on Wednesday.

“At a time of tweets, likes, and reposts, live language literature – given the biting and ironic nature and humour of the original [texts] – is something we found in the work we read,” he said. “This was a breath of fresh air.”

Patron saint of translators

This year’s glottologists [check that one before translation!] united in their love for philology were current and former UN staff and interns, UN-accredited diplomatic mission staff, and students at partner universities.

The English Translation Service at UN Headquarters kicked off the annual contest in 2005 for International Translation Day, commemorated on 30 September, a landmark date for translators worldwide.

That’s the day to celebrate the feast of St. Jerome, considered by many as the patron saint of translators. The northern Italian priest translated the Bible into Latin from Greek manuscripts and parts of the Hebrew Gospel into Greek. The multilinguist of Illyrian ancestry died near Bethlehem on 30 September 420.

More than a millennium and a half later, the UN’s eponymous translation contest has gone global. German translators even have their own edition.

And the winners are….

Prizes were awarded on Wednesday for translations of the English text into Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish, or German and of the Spanish text into English. The UN’s six official languages are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, and Russian. Winners came from all regions of the world.

They included Hanine Jaafar, a student at Saint Joseph University of Beirut, Kaiss Jarkass, an Arabic translator at UN Headquarters, and Mustafa Daraghma, an Arabic reviser at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.

For details on all prize winners and their titillating translations, visit the contest’s website here.

In case you missed it, watch the official award ceremony courtesy of UN WebTV here.

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