12th CTS Professionalisation Talk 2018-19

On 13 March 2019, Sarah Scott delivered an editing workshop, direct from Vienna, to CTS students at the University of Leeds.

Sarah works at the United Nations office in Vienna as an English editor, where she edits a wide range of English texts, often written by non-native speakers. Sarah studied French and Spanish at university, before completing a Masters degree in translation. She worked as a freelance translator and editor before starting work at the UN. She emphasised the usefulness of her knowledge of foreign languages and experience with translation in her current role.

Sarah also informed us of useful resources for those interested in an editing career at the UN. These include the UN editorial manual, the style guide for UN writers, and UNTERM, the UN’s terminology database. The latter can be used, for example, to find the official name of UN member states used in UN documentation, which may differ from their commonly used names. Sarah also recommended reading widely in order to grasp an understanding of English writing conventions and how these change over time. Finally, Sarah advised looking at the Oxford Collocations Dictionary, which is based on the Oxford English Corpus.

Participants then completed a grammar exercise introducing some of the typical grammatical errors, inconsistencies and issues that can be found in UN texts. The exercise included the following, taken from Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie (1993):

  • Changing a text to gender-neutral language. This included changes such as Chairman > Chair and Mankind > Humankind.
  • Inserting correct prepositions. These need to be checked carefully as preposition errors are common in texts written by non-native English speakers.
  • Easily confused word pairs. These included the homophones ‘principle’ and ‘principal’, ‘apprise’ (to inform) vs. ‘appraise’ (to evaluate), ‘disinformation’ (false information spread with malicious intent) vs. ‘misinformation’ (incorrect information), ‘disinterested’ (impartial) vs. ‘uninterested’ (not interested) and ‘ordnance’ (weapons) vs. ‘ordinance’ (decree).

Sarah went on to present a series of example sentences on the screen and invited the audience to suggest edits to correct them or make them more idiomatic. She then shared possible changes to these sentences in order to show editing in context. Some linguistic issues arising from this were:

  • Personification of nouns such as ‘law’ or ‘provision’. Sarah mentioned that these words are often made into the grammatical subject of a sentence, whereas provisions and laws have no inherent agency and must be the grammatical object instead. For example:

‘A provision in the extradition law aimed to expedite the handling of urgent extradition requests’ > ‘A provision in the extradition law was aimed at expediting the handling of urgent extradition requests’.

  • Tautologies. Typically, phrases such as ‘for example’ or ‘inter alia’ can be omitted in sentences that introduce lists with the word ‘including’ as they represent an unnecessary repetition of meaning.
  • Preposition mismatching/omission in noun phrases. For example, ‘Some States provided examples of investigations and prosecutions for foreign bribery’ > ‘Some States provided examples of investigations into and prosecutions for foreign bribery’.

Sarah then demonstrated her work process live on-screen, looking up terms or writing conventions as she edited a text. Some useful examples arising from this included:

  • Writing out ordinal numbers rather than numericising them.
  • Deleting country names when mentioned in conjunction with their capital city.
  • Using currency symbols instead of currency codes unless disambiguation is needed (e.g., US dollars vs. Canadian dollars).
  • Capitalising words such as ‘States’, ‘Governments’ and (UN) ‘Secretariat’.
  • Use of ‘and’ rather than a hyphen between numbers in a range, e.g. ‘Between 17 and 20’.

Participants were also invited to complete a spelling exercise. This highlighted issues such as hyphenation, US versus UK spelling and capitalisation, as well as familiarising students with UN conventions, including unconventional spellings such as ‘super-Power’.

Sarah then moved on to a more comprehensive editing exercise giving participants an example of the multiple issues contained in a single paragraph. For example, names of UN member states need to be standardised and, if listed, alphabetised. Acronyms are used sparingly and should always appear first in brackets following the full name of the entity to which they refer. Some institutions (such as the UN or EU) are never referred to by their acronyms in UN documents. Sentences should be altered for clarity and concision, especially as they are usually used as source texts for translation into the UN’s five other official languages. If factual discrepancies arise, editors should contact the document’s original author for clarification.

Sarah also hosted an enjoyable UN quiz, including questions such as the number of member states and official languages, the meaning of various acronyms and facts about the member states themselves. As well as presenting participants with the answers at the end of the quiz, Sarah showed how to locate this information, providing further insight into the research processes involved when editing.

The workshop was concluded with a Q&A session, in which Sarah outlined the daily output of an editor (11-13 pages of approximately 330 words per day). She also talked about the skills and qualifications required for an English Editor position at the UN. While no prior experience is required, editors need fluency in an additional two official UN languages to apply for the role, a university degree and to have passed the UN’s translation and editing exam, which is the same regardless of whether an applicant wishes to be a translator or editor.

Further information on careers in the UN.

Report written by David Gray, Luke James and Chloe Stout (Leeds CTS students).