Professional timeline

Multilingual simultaneous interpretation is now taken for granted by delegates of different countries and cultures attending international conferences. Yet the highly skilled profession and technical system that has made it possible for speakers to be understood, whatever the language, is fairly recent.

In the 18th and 19th century, international business and particularly diplomacy was most often conducted in French, the language of the cultured at that time. Between the two World Wars, the League of Nations held its meetings in French and English with consecutive interpretation. The interpreter would take notes of a speech, often very lengthy, then re-deliver it from the rostrum in the other language, thus doubling its time.

After World War II there was an immediate and urgent need for interpretation in English, French, Russian and German at the Nuremberg Trials of German war criminals. To rely on consecutive interpretation would have been lengthy and cumbersome. The job of finding a solution was given to Colonel Leon Dostert, a former interpreter to General Eisenhower and completely bilingual.

Simultaneous interpretation was the answer but Dostert had neither experience nor precedent to go by. Earlier experiments had proved ineffective - Andre Kaminker, a truly great interpreter of that period, invented his own "simultaneous translation system" for French radio and interpreted the first major speech by Hitler at Nuremberg in 1934. Around the same time the International Labour Organisation used a so-called "simultaneous telephone system" but neither had proved to be a great success.

Dostert was convinced that it was possible to listen to a speaker and convey his message in another language at the same time. He also understood the importance for interpreters to see the speakers and to be able to follow the whole proceedings so as to understand what was going on.

At the Trials, presided over by Lord Justice Geoffrey Lawrence, resplendent in wig and clumsy earphones, the interpreters were placed next to the defendants in their "aquarium" to give them a view of the proceedings. Operating in three teams of 12, their work was rigorously timed: While team A worked 45 minutes, team B would be listening to the proceedings in an adjoining room. After a break, the roles would be reversed. Meanwhile team C would be on a half day's rest.

Needless to say, exact, faithful interpretation was of capital importance for the defendants, in the true sense of the word capital. The necessary discipline imposed on the interpretation services at Nuremberg demonstrated the advantages of simultaneous interpretation which has since greatly increased both in use and number of languages.

For example, at the EC in Brussels eleven official languages are currently used simultaneously at meetings. This allows for at least 110 possible language permutations and makes the planning of interpretation services and the recruiting of interpreters a very complex task, now largely done with the aid of computers.

What computers have not yet been able to do is understand and render the subtleties and nuances of spoken language into other languages. A language is the living expression of a culture, a social context, the traditions and history of people, the mood and whims of the speakers, their social class and profession, their personal character and above all, of their intent. Only the human brain of a professional interpreter can grasp and transform the many manifestations of the combination of such features into another language and its appropriate cultural context.

Recommended citation format:
AIIC. "Professional timeline". March 11, 2004. Accessed March 31, 2020. <>.

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