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The fascinating story of conference interpreting

12-12-2023 11:36

Giorgia De Zen

Interpreting, Conference interpreting, Simultaneous interpreting, Consecutive, History of interpretation, simultaneousinterpreting, conferenceinterpreter, consecutiveinterpreting,

The fascinating story of conference interpreting

Where was conference interpreting born? Who were the first interpreters? How did we get to simulateneous interpreting and why can't we do without it now?


Where was conference interpreting born? Who were the first interpreters? How did we get to simulateneous interpreting and why can't we do without it now?




Assuming that by interpretation we mean oral translation as opposed to written translation, when can we find the first instances of this fascinating profession? In other words, who were the first interpreters?

The answer is not so simple. First of all, we have to distinguish between conference interpreting, which is more modern and institutional, and dialogue interpreting, also known as business or liaison interpreting (and a dozen other names, which we will address later).

When was conference interpreting born and why is it called this way?

Conference interpreting can be carried out mainly in consecutive mode, i.e. when the rendition occurs after the speech based on the interpreter's notes, and in simultaneous mode, i.e. at the same time as the original speech.

Conference interpreting was officially born in 1919 in Versailles when the Paris Peace Conference was held in the aftermath the First World War and the consecutive mode remained the preferred form until the Second World War.

At the time there were no training schools and no one had received specific training courses as we do today. Consecutive interpretation was born with in-the-field improvisation, initially thanks to the multilingual skills of military personnel and diplomats.

From the consecutive interpretation…

The Paris Peace Conference hosted not only delegates from the victorious European countries, who insisted on using their mother tongues, but also from 32 smaller powers, such as Greece, Guatemala and Romania, who did not speak French fluently. This marked the the decline of French as a lingua franca , which was joined and then replaced by English, and the emergence of the interpreter as a solution to multilingualism .

Thanks to the first consecutive interpreters, the first guidelines of conference interpreting were established. For example, Paul Mantoux, a historian, teacher, and former military translator, interpreting for the delegates of the major allied powers present in Paris, contributed to the birth of sequential conference interpretation performed with note-taking, as later written by Jean-François Rozan in his work “ La prize de note en interpretation consécutive ” (1959).


…to simultaneous interpretation

One of the most problematic aspects of the consecutive technique, however, was the timing: in fact, the oral rendition of the translation always occurred after the speech, effectively doubling the time. This is why the Nuremberg trials not only represented a turning point for international criminal law, but also for modern simultaneous interpretation.

From November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946, the highest officials of the German state and representatives of Nazism were summoned to account for war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. In the 218 days of the trial phase, 360 witnesses gave their testimony and 200,000 sworn statements were collected. All this was possible also thanks to the simultaneous interpretation in the four languages of the trial: English, French and Russian, spoken by the victors, and naturally German, in which the defendants defended themselves.  

But where did the technology that allowed all this come from?

Here we need to take a step back of about 25 years.

Alan Gordon-Finlay (1890-1959) was an Australian-born British businessman, engineer and inventor, who, due to health problems, spent his formative years in Geneva, becoming fluent in French and German, too.


After the First World War, and several trips to Europe, he decided to settle in Geneva with his wife, and resumed working as a précis-writer for the ILO (International Labor Organization). However, his scientific and analytical nature led him to identify the various communication problems of that system until he was assigned the task of designing a new communication and simultaneous translation system better suited to the multilingual needs of the ILO.


Thus, in 1927, Gordon-Finlay and the American philanthropist entrepreneur Edward Filene invented the Filene-Finlay Hush-a-Phone: it was a device that used parts of a telephone, such as the handset, a microphone and a communication system between the interpreter and the audience.

Despite initial skepticism, telephone interpretation was tested in 1928 at the International Labor Conference and was a huge success : the delegates "receiving" the translation increased from 100 to 500, and the number of languages also increased from two to six, speeding up the communication process and reducing costs. The patent was then sold by Filene alone together with Thomas Watson, the founder of the IBM, in the United States in 1930.

Flashforward to 1945: from that moment it's official

In 1945, to manage communications at the Nuremberg trials, Léon Dostert , Eisenhower's former interpreter, adapted the Hush-a-Phone Filene-Finlay, also equipping it with an alert system . The interpreter could signal technical difficulties or excessively fast speech using colored lamps: red to stop it and yellow to slow it down.

Interpreters were carefully selected, trained quickly on the use of the device and then divided into three teams of 12 people each. Four booths were set up in the room to allow the interpreters to see the speakers and be able to directly follow the trial, by taking turns working . 



After making its first appearance in Geneva at the International Labor Organization, allowing the largest international criminal trial ever to take place in Nuremberg, simultaneous interpretation was then adopted as an official form of interpretation by the United Nations and major European institutions. 


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