The aid of interpreters has always been instrumental for allowing people to exchange information with those of another language, but how did we arrive at the modern role of the conference interpreter, working in a soundproof booth equipped with headphones and a microphone? What brought about the evolution of the profession? How have the working conditions changed over the years?

Firstly, a distinction must be made between the two types of conference interpreting; consecutive interpreting that was developed first and simultaneous interpreting that came shortly after.

Consecutive interpreting was the preferred interpreting method during the conferences held between the two World Wars.

Most historical accounts agree that the first official consecutive conference interpreting took place at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. At this time there were no interpreting schools, but people were able to improvise and soon interpreting became a very respectable position, reserved for educated veterans of the First World War. Furthermore, the job was almost exclusively male as due to the absence of microphones, interpreters were required to have a very loud voice to be understood by an audience that could reach hundreds of people.

Another skill required of the interpreters was multilingualism. The conferences united people of many different languages and, given that modern simultaneous interpreting had not yet been ivented, the interpreter was often required to interpret up to three languages consecutively on the spot.

Among the first conference interpreters was Paul Mantoux, a Frenchman who volunteered service as an interpreter during the famous Treaty of Versailles (the peace treaty that brought an end to the First World War) and Jean-François Rozan who wrote, among other things, “La Prise de Notes en Interprétation Consécutive” (Note Taking in Consecutive Interpreting), a guide to consecutive interpreting.

Over the last two centuries, interpretation techniques have undergone a progressive transformation. Indeed, at the start of the 19th Century, French was still the diplomatic language par excellence that all were required to understand (as it was at the 1814 Congress of Vienna). Just one century later, this was no longer the case. Therefore it was then necessary to interpret into and from more languages whilst keeping conferences at short as possible.

Consecutive interpretation developed such that there was no longer just one person translating into many languages, rather there were many interpreters who translated just into their mother tongue. To speed up conferences, some speeches were also read simultaneously in different languages.

However, it was not until the Nuremberg trials that true modern simultaneous interpreting developed. Léon Dostert, the former interpreter of Eisenhower, observed that consecutive interpretation was significantly slowing the trial process. He therefore created the technique we now call simultaneous interpreting. At a time when conferences exclusively employed consecutive interpreters, it was difficult to find interpreters capable of simultaneous interpretation. Many required further training before they could begin interpreting simultaneously in the courtroom.

Dostert soon became aware of the difficulty of simultaneous interpretation and the importance of alternating interpreters. He therefore created 3 teams of 12 interpreters that would rotate every 45 minutes.

How did the equipment work? The machinery for simultaneous interpretation was created in 1927 by an American business man, Gordon Finlay, in collaboration with Thomas Watson. It was named the “Hush-a-Phone Filene-Finlay” and consisted of a telephone receiver, microphone and a system connecting to the listeners. At Nuremberg the system also featured an alert mechanism, activated by the interpreter when a problem was encountered. For example, they were able to activate a yellow lamp if the speaker had spoken too quickly or a red lamp in the case of a mechanical failure.

After the United Nations was formed, many interpreters who had worked at the Nuremberg trials were called to New York as it was now necessary to translate between the five official languages of the UN.

Let us talk about the working conditions of these interpreters. During the post-war conferences, the work of the interpreters did not finish with the end of the conference session, but went on into the evening with the translation of all the written proceedings of the day, such as deliberations, decisions taken, etc.. They were also frequently required to write or edit notes for the meetings between the various representatives of the member states.

This was often too much work for the interpreters, as was the case of W. Keiser who interpreted during the first congress on homeopathic medicine in 1951. He had to interpret consecutively in English, French and German for an entire week from Monday to Saturday and subsequently collapsed on the final day of the conference. These working conditions were not changed until the 1960s with the signing of a petition in 1963 and then the drafting of five-year agreements between the UN and the European Community in 1969.

Today, interpreting has become an established profession, no longer reserved for an élite but open to all people possessing the necessary skills and qualifications, obtained from one of the many interpreting schools that have been created over the years (the first of which was formed in Geneva in 1941). Interpreters can also now join interpreting associations to defend and protect their profession, such as the International Association of Conference Interpreters, created in 1953.

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