Hundred and Ninth Session
Rome, 9 - 13 May 2005
Translation services in FAO
1. First, the Secretariat is keen to thank the Finance Committee for its interest in translation services as evidenced by the Chairman’s written questions to the Secretary of the Committee. This document replies to the queries raised by the Chairman.
2. The issue of documentation is best summarized in the words of the Secretary General of the United Nations who stated that UN documents (and FAO is no exception) are "too long, too many and too late". To cope with this situation FAO, in common with other international organizations and with the resources at its disposal, has made efforts to maintain the quality of documents and respect deadlines for dispatch.
3. As Graph 1 and 2 in the annex indicate, the total volume of work, expressed in number of translated words, rose from 7 393 619 in 1997 to 11 917 295 in 2004, representing a 61% increase. There was a peak of 12 764 617 in 2001, corresponding to a 72.6% increase from 1997. There are principally two interconnected reasons for this increase: the demand from member countries for more information and the Secretariat's concern to provide member countries with comprehensive information, leading to excessively long and numerous documents.
4. While the volume of work has continued to rise sharply, there has been a concurrent decline in internal translation capacity and thus greater recourse to outsourcing. The proportion of volume handled by internal capacity – already heavily reduced in 1996 – further decreased from 70% in 1997 to 43% in 2004. Conversely, outsourcing increased from 30% to 57% during the same period. Managing external contracts with an erratic flow of documents adds to the many difficulties that occasionally cause delays in document processing.
5. External capacity is in theory infinite but is in practice restricted by time and quality factors. External translators need some minimal familiarity with FAO technical terminology, as the use of standard terminology with a degree of consistency between and within documents facilitates reader comprehension. In addition to the 19 staff translators/revisers, FAO has a pool of over 200 suitably qualified external translators/revisers, covering FAO’s five working languages and other languages as required. Many as they are, these external translators still need to be available, especially for unplanned and urgent work.
6. It is important to consider the process of document preparation prior to actual delivery to the translation services to better understand where translation fits into document workflow.
7. The Committee will appreciate that the preparation of a document is a complex process that necessarily requires a broad time frame to enable research, compilation of comparative data and contacts with all concerned, given the importance of the subject matter. In practical terms, document production generally requires two months for drafting, editing and finalising, and a further month for translation, revision, printing and dispatch.
8. Graph 3 clearly indicates that the number of words translated for Finance Committee (FC) and Programme Committee (PC) documents rose by 304% and 407%, respectively, between 1997 and 2004. If we include FC and PC documents that were also submitted to the Council and Conference, the combined increase drops to 230% for the same period because of a 40% reduction in volume of the audited accounts document, a moderate 60% increase in the Summary Programme of Work and Budget document and no change for the Programme of Work and Budget document.
9. Graph 4 tracks workflow for the many and long documents required for the FC and PC sessions of May 2004. We can see that only 20% of these documents were submitted for translation within the deadline, while 35% arrived one week late, 10% two weeks late and 10% three weeks late. A further 15% were delivered for translation around the time of the dispatch date, while the remaining 10% were delivered after the dispatch date. In contrast, 75% of the documents were translated, printed and delivered in time for the dispatch date, which means that much of the delay originating in the pre-translation stages was absorbed. The late dispatch of the remaining 25% was obviously unavoidable as the documents were submitted for translation on or after the dispatch date – which raises the further problem of quality and the time needed to revise documents translated externally and at the last minute. Quality control – one of the primary functions of internal translation – is sacrificed in order to minimize delay in dispatch.
10. The funding of translation services (including staff, contractors, training, equipment, etc.) is not centralized but backcharged to originating divisions and secretariats of governing bodies. Each biennium, rates are established on the basis of projected total volume of translation and projected total costs in order to produce a closure with zero balance. The rates can fluctuate each biennium on account of actual costs and projected volume.
11. It should be noted that the average rate per 1000 words charged to originators fell from US$526 to US$399 between 1997 and 2004, representing a 24% reduction.
12. This was made possible principally by introducing new information technology reflecting best practices within the United Nations system and other major international organizations, as exemplified by:
13. In order to continue improving document management, and given the inherent complexity of the production process, a degree of mutual understanding is called for. The secretariat will continue to make efforts to ensure a stricter respect of the deadlines for submission of documents, and that content be as focused, pertinent and clear as possible to avoid excessive length.
Graph 1. Total volume of internal translation 1997-2004
Graph 2. Growth of volume of internal translation by language and biennium (1998-2005)
Graph 3. Evolution of the number of words of documentation of the Programme Committee and Finance Committee (1999-2004)
Graph 4. Time pattern of submission and dispatch of documentation for the May 2004 sessions of the Programme Committee and Finance Committee