The history of conference interpretation

Nowadays, conference interpretation encompasses two different techniques: consecutive and simultaneous interpretation. However, the need for interpretation was present throughout history and is linked to the first conquests. Interpreters are already mentioned in Egyptian, Greek and Latin sources: the conquerors did not bother to learn the language of the peoples they defeated and often used slaves as interpreters to communicate with them, even though they could not be fully trusted, which is why information was often inaccurate and misunderstood.

With the advent of the XX century, a new professional figure was born: the conference interpreter.

Consecutive interpretation was the first to develop, which is quite logical if one thinks that simultaneous interpretation requires complex technological equipment. During the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, consecutive interpreters were employed to make it possibile for people speaking different languages to get the same information. As a result of this multilateral conference, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the League of Nations (LN) were established, which meant an even greater need for interpreters. Conference interpreters took notes and delivered the speech in another language, but this technique caused the meetings to be excessively long, making it difficult for both participants and interpreters to stay focused; furthermore, cultural nuances often got lost.

Colonel Léon Dostert, a French-born American who acted as interpreter for General Eisenhower, was entrusted with the task to develop a technique for simultaneous interpretation and was responsible for the progress achieved in this field. During the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, which were held to prosecute Nazi leaders, an interpretation service in four languages (English, French, Russian and German) was provided: for each language, a team of six interpreters, twelve translators and nine stenographers was employed, while the whole service was coordinated by Colonel Dostert and Commander Alfred Steer. The interpreters sat right next to the accused, in order to be able to translate everything they said: the first team interpreted for 45 minutes, while the other sat in an adjacent room listening to and keeping up with the proceedings. Unfortunately, simultaneous interpretation was still a new technique and few professionals were actually trained to perform it, especially in such a specific setting like a court: nevertheless, it was a success.

As for the equipment required for simultaneous interpretation, in 1926 IBM received a patent for the technology it designed thanks to the involvement of its founder, Thomas Watson Sr., who managed to further develop Edward Filene and Alan Gordon Finlay’s revolutionary idea to use telephone equipment.

Simultaneous interpretation has obviously evolved, becoming what we know today: the interpreter sits in a soundproof boot (which needs to comply with specific International Standards) and sometimes employs portable transmitters. Aside from the progress achieved through technology, simultaneous interpretation is still based on the original concept, since it is aimed at providing the accurate and timely translation of a certain speech.

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