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History of Simultaneous Interpretation
Though modern simultaneous interpretation with its use of sophisticated sound equipment is a relatively new method of providing for communication, it clearly has historical antecedents. At various times interpreters have doubled as missionaries, diplomats, military envoys, business and trade negotiators and mediators.
Since French was the universal language of diplomacy and educated discourse, there was little need for high-level interpretation in the nineteenth-century Europe. The situation changed dramatically in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference, when English was pronounced the second official language of the League of Nations and consecutive interpretation was first used. Simultaneous interpretation was introduced in 1928 at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in the former Soviet Union. The first patent for simultaneous interpretation equipment was given in 1926 to Gordon Finley at IBM for his device based on an idea of Edward Filene’s (founder of Boston’s Filene’s department store). (Visson, 51) The Filene-Finley IBM Hushaphone interpretation system was first used at the International Labour Conference in 1927; that system reportedly saved the International Labour Office ?32,700. (Gaiba, 31)
In the 1920s the use of simultaneous interpretation expanded rapidly. At the Twentieth Communist Party Congress interpretation was provided into six languages, and at the Twenty-first Party Congress into eighteen. In 1933 booths were used at the plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. At the Fifteenth International Physiology Congress held in Leningrad in 1935, Academician Pavlov’s introductory speech was simultaneously interpreted from Russian into French, English, and German. (Visson, 51)
As the League of Nations curtailed its activities during the years leading up to World War II, however, simultaneous interpretation vanished from the sphere of diplomacy.
It surfaced again at a 1944 conference in Philadelphia, and subsequently at the postwar Nuremberg Trials in 1945, when Colonel Leon Dostert, General Eisenhower’s personal interpreter, was called upon to find a practical solution to the language barrier because the traditional consecutive interpretation into four languages – English, French, German and Russian – would have unreasonably lengthened the hearings. Simultaneous interpretation seemed to be the answer, for this allowed speakers to be interpreted while they were speaking. Allegedly, simultaneous interpretation worked so well that Hermann Goering complained that it had cut his lifespan by three-quarters. (Moggio-Ortiz)
Many of the interpreters who had worked at Nuremberg, primarily emigres and refugees with a knowledge of Russian, French, German, and English, later went on to become staff members at the United Nations. (Visson, 51) In 1946 they began working at Lake Success, New York, the provisional Headquarters of the United Nations, where their “rapid-fire linguistic skills” guaranteed the success of the new mode of interpretation. The first United Nations team of simultaneous interpreters was put into operation in 1947 at a Tariffs and Trade Conference held in London. (Delisle and Woodsworth, 251)
The group included three of the most highly qualified interpreters, George Vassiltchikov, Eugenia Rosoff and George Klebnikov. A student in post-war Paris, Klebnikov was still engaged in his graduate studies when he was recruited by the Americans as an interpreter at the war crimes trials, and following a decade as the Chief of the Interpretation Service of the United Nations in New York he continued with enthusiasm to accept free-lance assignments after his mandatory retirement in 1983. (Moggio-Ortiz and Thomas)
The profession of conference interpreter developed at the United Nations and at other international organizations in tandem with the policy of multilingualism and the introduction of new technologies.
While adopting the first rules of procedure concerning language use, The General Assembly recommended that a thorough inquiry be conducted on the question of the installation of “telephonic” systems of interpretation and the arrangements for the establishment of such a system. For that reason – and with a certain degree of cynicism – simultaneous interpreters were at first called telephonistes by their colleagues from consecutive interpretation.
Simultaneous interpretation prospered. Once up and running, it provided a continual source of amazement as to how a person could sit at a microphone and seemingly effortlessly go back and forth from one language into another. The first official mention of this mode of communication was in December 1946, in an Assembly recommendation on the simultaneous interpretation system (GA resolution 75 (I) on “Simultaneous interpretation system”) which suggested that the practice be continued and requested that two conference rooms be equipped with a simultaneous interpretation system. The Assembly also recommended a study concerning the advisability of installing a wireless system of simultaneous interpretation to replace the system of stationary equipment. More rooms were equipped with the system, and eventually the simultaneous mode won the day, making multilingual debate easier and faster, and allowing for interpretation into and from a greater number of languages. (Moggio-Ortiz)
Today, however, it is the institutions of the European Union rather than the United Nations which are the most significant employers of simultaneous interpreters. Following the most recent enlargement of the EU many meeting of its bodies are simultaneously interpreted into the organization's 23 official languages.