When staff members of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) mention where they work, one of the most common reactions is: “Wow! And how will the weather be tomorrow?” However, this specialized agency does not prepare weather forecast, its role is quite different.
As stated in the WMO Convention, the founding charter of the organization, the role of WMO includes facilitating global cooperation in meteorology, hydrology and related environmental fields, as well as promoting the exchange of data and the delivery of training in these areas.
It is obvious that, to fulfill this coordination role, communication is essential and that for successful global coordination, multilingualism is key. Of course, English is one of the main languages of communication in the international arena, and in the scientific and technical fields in which WMO operates, the dominance of this language is undisputed.
Nevertheless, multilingualism is one of the core values of the United Nations. As Secretary-General António Guterres has said, “multilingualism helps guarantee the effectiveness of our multilateral system.” At WMO, it is of paramount importance and demonstrates a commitment to ensure diversity, inclusion and mutual respect.
Beyond this commitment, though, multilingualism is essentially a practical tool by which the organization can deliver its message to all members and ultimately to all users in the field, whether they are forecasters predicting the landfall of a tropical cyclone, meteorologists ensuring the safety of aviation operations, or climatologists producing outlooks to predict the impacts of climate change.
Interpretation services are the paradigmatic example of multilingualism. Without interpreters, negotiations between delegates from different countries would be virtually impossible. Equally crucial is the role of translators, who prepare the documents on which negotiations are based in all official languages, in advance.
However, at WMO, multilingualism goes beyond the obvious. It is actually crucial to the success of the organization’s mandate. WMO members require translation of many publications because their content is highly practical and extremely useful in the field. They also ask the organization to provide training in local languages, because it is the best way to make the training effective. Without the translation of the relevant materials, this would be impossible.
The translation of training material into French and Spanish on the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) allows the public to be alerted of imminent meteorological hazards. As does the translation into French of a training course on flash flood modelling and forecasting.
This gives us a glimpse of the importance of multilingualism for professionals working in meteorology, climatology, hydrology and related fields, and of course for the public who benefit from their services. However, the significance of multilingualism reaches across all scales. WMO recently supported the translation of a children’s book series into several languages to clearly explain to children what to do in case of natural hazards such as floods, earthquakes and landslides.
The WMO Secretariat, through the Linguistic Services and Publishing Section, works to make multilingualism a reality. However, it is a major challenge for a small organization coping with a heavy workload (technical publications, meeting reports, correspondence, institutional documents and so forth). For this reason, state-of-the-art technology is used, in particular the eLUNa platform, which is a software that integrates a terminological database and a computer-assisted translation tool.
Given the emergence of artificial intelligence and its linguistic applications, such as machine translation tools (not to mention ChatGPT), one might think that translators are now redundant. And while it is true that these tools increase the efficiency of translation processes, in the WMO context, human intervention remains essential for many reasons.
It cannot be denied that science and technology are characterized by their relentless development, and that the language used to convey these scientific and technological advances must also evolve very quickly. Therefore, if new concepts are to be communicated, new terms must be created, or new meanings given to existing terms. This is still the task of linguists, who work hand in hand with the organization’s experts to provide accurate and faithful translations that are useful and meaningful for the final users. Only when a new term (and its equivalents in other languages) has been coined and validated can it be entered into the terminological database that a computer-assisted translation system will use.
Even with a powerful machine translation system fed by a good terminological database, a translation will be no good if the quality of the original text is poor. WMO scientific editors correct linguistic errors in the original manuscripts and ensure that the text is consistent and has a clear and accurate message. Once this master document is ready, WMO translators step in to take in all the information and capture its subtleties, taking into account the specificities of the target language.
In the last phase of the publication process, WMO publishing assistants prepare the format of the final documents: they adapt the graphic material (figures, maps, tables) to the respective languages, check the layout and produce documents that will allow readers to understand the message in their respective languages.
High-quality documents, published in all United Nations languages, are therefore the result of the collaborative efforts of a complex multidisciplinary team: a job that, at least for the time being, cannot be replaced by the click of a button. The quality standards set by WMO, and the importance of the message that the organization needs to convey in key areas such as climate change, early warnings and greenhouse gases, mean that the best professionals are needed to produce the best documents.
An early warning of an impending natural hazard will only save lives if it is properly understood by the final recipients. Similarly, the organization will only be able to get its message across if it is adapted to the various languages and the different realities they entail, with all the linguistic, cultural and social nuances this implies. In this endeavor, multilingualism is key and a true core value at WMO.