Ph.D. in Medieval Arabic Literature, Oxford University, United Kingdom

Master’s Degree in International Relations, London School of Economics, United Kingdom


Arabic, French, Italian, Persian (Farsi), Portuguese, Spanish

Growing up in Belgium as the son of a professional translator, I was immersed in a world where multiple languages were spoken on a daily basis. I was introduced to French, of course, but our yearly vacations to Egypt also introduced me to Arabic and the Middle East. Seeds of fascination with languages were firmly planted in my childhood.

I have held a special fascination with Arabic, a beautiful but complex language. The grammar works through patterns of consonants and vowels; that is what makes the language so difficult to learn. But I was hooked, and eventually pursued a doctoral degree in Arabic Literature. I had the opportunity to examine centuries-old original texts, some of which had not been touched by another human being in all of that time. The mystical poetry of this ancient language really grows on you. I continue to find it extremely compelling.

Being fluent in both English and Arabic has turned out to be an invaluable skill for my work here at the United Nations. Shortly after obtaining my Ph.D. in Medieval Arabic Literature from Oxford University in the United Kingdom, I was recruited by the Organization to translate documents coming in from and going out to the Middle East, many of which were highly confidential.

Translating official speeches is particularly fascinating. Before my current position, I freelanced in speech translation for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. The President of the General Conference was an Arabic speaker, so all of his statements were delivered in Arabic. Because of the difficulty in conveying the shades of meaning directly word-for-word, I was given a bit of latitude in the translation. The particular challenge was that Arabic keynote speeches tend to be delivered in a style that is more rhetorical and literary than is usual in English. My job was not only conveying what was said, it was also trying to convey the tone of the original without sounding too artificial in English. For most of the participants, my translation was the only way for them to understand what he was saying.

As an English-language translator, a lot of what I do at the DGACM is translating reports and correspondences from Member States. In many cases, this is what makes it possible for Member States to communicate with Headquarters about the whole range of the work of the United Nations. For example, States often have to submit reports on counter-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, small arms and light weapons, human rights, women’s rights, and the rights of indigenous people. My job is to make sure all of that information reaches Headquarters in as accurate a form as possible. I also work on précis-writing teams: we sit in on meetings and draft a summary record that gets to the core of what was said.

Sometimes I need to quickly become expert on topics that are a bit more obscure. For example, I have translated national reports on fish stocks and fishing quotas. That involved an enormous amount of research into the words for different species of fish and fishing nets, which change from one country to another. Some of the answers were in biological dictionaries, and some I had to find on specialized websites. Perhaps the most moving document I have translated so far has been a postcard sent to the Secretary-General by a classroom of Italian children.

The best translation is usually the one that does not draw attention to itself. The real job satisfaction comes from taking the trouble to learn a specialized area and producing a document that is both polished and easy to read. Clear communication is essential when so many are working towards common global ideals, and I am proud that I’m able to help.

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