This year marks the 100-year anniversary of conference interpreting, which officially dates back to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919! To celebrate the centenary, the FTI and ILO are co-hosting an event on the theme ‘Looking back and looking forward!’ in Geneva this October.
It will include presentations and debates on the history and future of conference interpreting, including talks by a number of renowned experts. It sounds truly enthralling, and I’m sure it would be every interpreter’s dream to attend! https://www.unige.ch/fti/conf1nt100/conference-theme/
Reading about the event got me thinking about how conference interpreting has changed since its inception — and it is absolutely incredible. Just think about it — back in 1919, we still used consecutive interpreting for conferences. The technology for simultaneous hadn’t even been invented yet!
That wasn’t available until the 1920s, and even then it was rarely put to use. There are a few historical mentions of what they called ‘telephone interpreting’, but it wasn’t until the Nuremberg Trials that simultaneous interpretation was really used at a large scale.
To interpret the entire Nuremberg proceedings between French, English, Russian, and German was an incredible linguistic and technical feat — if you’re at all interested, I highly recommend listening to this fascinating interview with one of the interpreters, who was only 22 years old during the trials. And here is some live footage of the interpreting, starting at the two-minute mark: https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn1002410.
The ground-breaking interpreting system they used was devised by a visionary linguist, French-born Col. Leon Dostert, who worked together with IBM to make it a reality. Then, with a group of carefully selected interpreters, he worked out a way to routinely do something that seemed nearly impossible: interpret from one language to another practically without pause. His work ultimately changed the face of conference interpreting forever.
Image credits: National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain]
So we are, in many ways, the successors to the Nuremberg interpreters. They invented large-scale simultaneous interpreting, and it has been expanded and improved on ever since then. The techniques have advanced, the technology has advanced, the teaching methods have advanced — all in a relatively short time frame. If you think about it, the whole industry has been in a near-constant state of change from the very beginning!
And the changes continue. Language technology and artificial intelligence will likely play an important role in the future of interpreting — something that experts are calling the 3rd revolution, after the invention of writing and the printing press. And that has many linguists worried. But I think that, if technology is used appropriately, it can be a boon to our industry. After all, aren’t we all thrilled that we no longer need to lug around paper dictionaries when travelling to our assignments? I know I am!
There is no doubt that the coming decades will bring new challenges and innovations, but that is nothing new for us. I’m confident that interpreters will do what we’ve always done: find creative solutions and continue to thrive.
Is your industry new, or more established? How has it changed in the last few decades?
#ConferenceInterpreting #SimultaneousInterpreting #Interpreting #History