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Interpreters A History Of Interpreting

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The world of languages

Wunderbare Welt der Sprachen

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“True art selects and paraphrases, but seldom gives a verbatim translation.” Thomas Bailey Aldrich (US writer, 1836 – 1907)
A history of interpreting
We don’t know the exact date by which language as such was first invented, but it is safe to assume that shortly after signs and gestures no longer sufficed for decent communication the first interpreters came along to facilitate understanding between the speakers of already different tongues. It is from Ancient Egypt that the oldest references to interpreters have survived. Several reliefs show interpreters at work. An epitaph for one Prince of Elephantine from the 3rd century BC refers to a „headman interpreter“. As is also documented by other sources at that time interpreters already were a regular element of public service and are listed by Herodot as one of the professional associations in Egypt. Interpreters provided their services in the administration, in trade, in religious life, and in the armed forces.

The ancient Greeks and Romans likewise regularly availed themselves of the services of interpreters who at that time naturally only provided chuchotage and escort interpreting (with no booths for simultaneous interpreting as yet in sight). Caesar, for instance, in “The Gallic Wars” referred to the provision of “habitual interpreters” and Cicero established the eternal rule that only silly interpreters provide literal translations. Interpreters were needed primarily because only very few Romans and Greeks stooped to learn the languages of the peoples they had conquered, something they regarded as beneath their dignity. Thus the use of interpreters also carried a political dimension with Roman reasons of state requiring them even where not necessarily needed in order to demonstrate Roman superiority, a fact repeatedly stressed by Valerius Maximus in his writings. At the time, however, interpreters were seldom highly respected. Most of them were slaves, prisoners of war, or hailed from border areas, i.e. people whose loyalty could not always be taken for granted. The fact that they spoke foreign tongues in ancient thinking placed them in the proximity of those who communicated with the gods while in trance or of healers discussing illnesses with demons. The Roman Emperor Caracalla, for instance, is reported to have allied himself with the rulers of the peoples he conquered and tried to get them to march against Rome in the event of his assassination. As these negotiations were witnessed only by the interpreters they were slaughtered right after negotiations were completed.

In medieval times, however, the interpreting profession was highly valued. Interpreters greatly highly admired and even ended up as members of the courts. In addition to the important part they played at international negotiations in times of war as well as peace, on trade expeditions, and the crusades interpreters were also vital for the spread of Christianity. They were employed in monasteries staffed by monks of a multitude of different nationalities and origins, at councils and synods, and accompanied missionaries and preachers to far-away lands. Attempts were made to come up with universal languages – often based on the kabala -, but by the end of the day the use of interpreters remained the only effective method of communication between peoples of different tongues. The era of the great discoveries overseas and the expansions into Africa were other heydays for the interpreting profession. The Arabic and Hebrew interpreters originally on board, however, proved little useful on the occasion and soon Columbus & Co began to employ the services of captured natives who were taught the conquerors’ languages to be used as interpreters on later expeditions or, alternatively, the services of fellow conquerors who had been taken prisoners and later released by the natives whose languages they had learnt during their imprisonment. Canada had „resident interpreters“, French natives who had settled with the Hurons and Iroqueans and were deemed more trustworthy than the Red Indians. These interpreters were essential for developing trade relations between the French and the natives.

Things took a similar course upon the exploration and prozelytisation of the Asian continent. To facilitate communication with Chinese officials and intellectuals the missionaries translated both the works of Western scientists and Christian texts. And the 17th century saw one interpreter embark on an astonishing career – Constantin Phaulcon, a Greek, who after having started off as a ship’s boy, learnt English, French, Portuguese, and Siamese, joined the East-Indian Company where he quickly advanced to the highest ranks, and ended up as Prime Minister at the court of the King of Siam.

Meanwhile in Europe French was becoming the lingua franca of the diplomatic world thanks to France’s predominant political power and as a result demand for interpreters suffered a decline. This development, however, in many countries was less than popular. Due to long-standing hostilities with France the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I preferred Italian over French as the language generally spoken at his court. The Ottoman rulers likewise refused to use French and Latin in their contacts with European countries. Either court therefore trained its own interpreters. Constantinople for this purpose set up the Dragoman School and in Vienna Empress Maria Theresia founded the Oriental Academy, later rebaptised  „Diplomatic Academy“ and still in existence today. Interpreters continued to be heavily used by missionaries and tradesmen, generals and revolutionaries, emperors and conquerors, while diplomats up to WW I mainly relied on French. At the Paris Peace Conference which followed the First World War, however, negotiators requested the possibility to also use other languages and ended up employing the services of consecutive interpreters. The time between the two World Wars saw the speedy evolvement of a considerable number of large international institutions including the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation ILO. This naturally translated into a larger number of high-level international meetings thus multiplying the need for interpreters and their services. At first consecutive interpreting was chosen, i.e. interpreters made notes in a specifically developed type of shorthand while the speaker was still going on and rendered the statements in the target language from a rostrum after the speaker had finished. Needless to say that in doing so they took almost as long, which extended meetings unbearably and ridded them of all spontaneity. Soon efforts were made to develop a new interpreting method that would be less time-consuming and more advantageous for everyone involved – simultaneous interpreting. Simultaneous interpreting was developed almost at the same time both in the US and in the Soviet Union providing a direct connection between speakers and interpreters who in turn render the translation simultaneously for the audience. This to start with involved a hugely complicated system of cables, microphones, and headsets. At first it was not overtly popular with interpreters who feared being condemned to perform a demeaning task, repeating word by word what they were hearing without the time to reflect about what they had heard and rendering it in elegant style. The Americans commissioned Colonel Leon Dostert, a former interpreter of General Eisenhower’s, with the development of a simultaneous interpreting system. There was little Dostert could fall back on to in the process except for the experiments by the interpreter Andrea Kaminker who had developed his own system for French radio using it to translate Hitler’s first major speech in 1934. Roughly at the same time the IAO also used a so-called „simultaneous telephony system“, which, however, also fell short of proving a great success.The new interpreting method proved indispensable at the Nuremberg Trials which were translated into English, French, Russian, and German. The interpreters were sitting right next to the accused working in three teams of 12 each according to a strict schedule: while Team A would do a 45 minute stint, Team B was listening in in the room next door. After a break roles were reversed. Team C meanwhile had half a day off. Simultaneous interpreting not only made it possible to considerably cut the time required in the process, but also greatly improved the quality and exactness of the information delivered. That was the beginning of the triumph of simultaneous interpreting over consecutive which it has almost completely replaced. By now consecutive interpreting is limited to very special occasions only, such as dinner speeches or special events where no interpreting systems are available or can be installed. In 1947, for instance, the United Nations adopted  Resolution 152 making simultaneous interpreting a permanent service. Today the United Nations provides simultaneous interpreting to and from English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Arabic. The European Union offers simultaneous interpreting in all of its 23 official languages, which translates to a couple of hundred possible language combinations and makes conference planning a highly tricky affair, often to be managed only by computers. As for interpreting itself, efficient though they may be, computers can never really understand language in all its nuances and subtle variations. Languages are the living expressions of cultures, of social settings, traditions and the history of the peoples who speak them, a reflection of the characters and moods of the speakers, their social backgrounds, and their intentions. Only the brain of a human interpreter is fit enough to fully grasp the multi-faceted manifestations of the combinations of these characteristics in a foreign tongue in the respective context and render them correctly.