Pauline Escalante, Senior Editorial and Desktop Publishing Assistant, at her desk © UNOG Staff Union

Do we need typists?
Here’s how UN Staff adapt to the future
1 Jun 2023

You probably have no idea what a DPU is. You would be forgiven for thinking this is an obscure component on your smartphone, or a new AI bot capable of instantly producing an academic paper on quantitative easing. But what if I told you that DPU stands for ‘Desktop Publishing Unit’, that there are six of them in UNOG, and that they used to be called “typing pools”?

When I arrived in Geneva as a young translator in 2003 and I learned that we had typing pools, I was amazed. I could type, format and proofread my own work. This was the 21st century for crying out loud, technology had move on! At the time, it was still common for translators to dictate their translations and send the tape to the typing pools, which would then produce a draft the translator would edit by hand and resend to the typists, to send a retyped version to the reviser, who would then send the revised text to the typing pool for typing and formatting. Madness, right?

This anachronistic process, this incongruous relic of a bureaucratic past, I was convinced, would disappear in a matter of months, perhaps a couple of years. Little did I know that I was not witnessing the end of a dying breed of professionals, but a snapshot of the wondrous self-reinvention routine the then-called typing pools are experts at.

Time has passed, translators work very differently and DPUs do way more than just typing, but every young translator I have met reacts in the exact same way I did 20 years ago. They think DPUs are a vestigial appendage that is of no use to them and should be promptly excised for efficiency. They quickly realize, however, that their DPU colleagues are, in fact, indispensable.

At the DPU stage the document takes its final form © Pixabay

For UN documents and publications to be readable and effective, they need to adhere to certain standards of quality. This is a complex endeavor because it can involve, among many actors, the author of the document, colleagues from the Document Management Section, editors, translators and/or revisers and finally, from the DPU of each language, the editorial and desktop publishing assistants (formerly typists). It’s at the DPU stage that the document takes its final form, which can be tricky when tables, footnotes and other layout features don’t want to play ball. And, crucially for our young recruits, this is also the last chance for typos, missing bits of text, incorrect paragraph numbering or out-of-sequence footnotes to be detected. Countless translators and revisers have been saved from opprobrium and reprimand by an eagle-eyed DPU colleague on proofreading duty. Most recently, the undersigned received a kind reminder that, ideally, the totality of paragraphs in an original should make it to the translation, or, as softly but more directly stated by Marcel, the unfortunate soul that had to deal with my carelessness that day: “Pablo, paragraph 23 is missing”.

Marcel González Pérez (Spanish DPU) knows that obsessive attention to detail and mastery of information technologies are the key to performing at the standard required from him and his colleagues. These qualities are flagged by many in the profession as fundamental to do a good job. DPU colleagues come from many different backgrounds: some of them used to work for their country’s foreign service, others trained as linguists, architects, or journalists, some even had their own companies in the past, but they all share the same passion, patience and precision in what they do. Anna Petelina (Russian DPU) is driven by her own ambition for perfection, but also by the imperative to look after the organization’s reputation, a job made more difficult by the increasing number of mistakes that reach our DPUs, due to mounting time pressures upstream in the documentation process. Carlos Bragunde López (Spanish DPU), like many of his colleagues, is well aware of the challenges his profession is facing. He knows DPUs have been under threat for years, that they’ve been decimated by attrition. Their role and amazing adaptability are neither widely known nor understood.

Too often, the organization has thrown away valuable expertise after having spent years (and Member States’ money!) carefully building and curating it. The same must not happen to DPUs. They have embraced and mastered every technology that has come their way: from a piece of paper to word processors, from mechanical typewriters to computers, from magnetic tapes to audio files, from scribbled notations to desktop publishing software and data analytics. Each of those technological changes transformed or discontinued their existing roles. But they also created new ones, like aligning originals and translations, thereby supporting the organization’s translation infrastructure, or taking care of publication layouts. Because technologies come and go, but expertise must always remain.

Pauline Escalante (English DPU), for instance, has seen many of those changes. Currently, she is very excited about the possibilities offered by HTML tagging, by which DPUs could support machine-readable documentation.

Contrary to what young, foolish me would have you think, it looks like our DPUs have earned their place in the future of the organization. 

* Pablo González Silva is a reviser in the Spanish Translation Section and is currently the Deputy Executive Secretary of the UNOG Staff Union.
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