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The origin of interpretation

Interpreting, with its origin in the ancient past, is the oldest form of mediated language communication. It became relevant at the beginning of the development of society, mostly in connection with religious, business, military, and diplomatic matters. Whenever groups who spoke different languages wanted to connect, they needed a mediator – an interpreter, thanks to whom they could communicate despite their differences. Although the name and background information about the first interpreter are unknown, records date back to antiquity and the first writings. One of the oldest depictions of an interpreter at work is part of a fresco found in a tomb dated approximately 1330 BCE.

In the past, the status of interpreters was far from what it is today. In Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the languages of slaves from conquered areas were viewed as undignified. Therefore, slaves and captives were forced to learn several languages and to interpret. However, problems arose because the authorities could not control or trust these interpreters

Latin was the language of diplomacy in Christianity until the 17th century, although, interpreting was also needed in other areas. Therefore, people who could communicate and subsequently interpret were needed. In churches and synagogues, the Bible and Torah had to be interpreted into the languages of worshippers. Due to the advent of religious missions as well as travel to the four corners of the globe, the demand arose for interpreters of various languages. When Christopher Columbus mistakenly sailed to the wrong part of the world, he was surprised that his Arabic and Hebrew interpreters were not able to communicate with the natives; therefore, he used captives as interpreters. Later, during the European colonization of North and South America, more interpreters between the colonies and Native American settlements were needed. One of the most famous Native Indian interpreters was Sacagawea, who, thanks to her knowledge of the languages of various tribes, was an important member of the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Ocean. This expedition was multilingual because Sacagawea herself could not communicate directly with the explorers; therefore, they needed a mediator. This approach is also used nowadays when an interpreter of the target language is not available and two interpreters are needed. One of the interpreters interprets from language A into language B and the second interpreter then interprets from language B into language C, the target language.

A breakthrough in interpreting occurred after the Second World War during the Nuremberg trials where the interpreting of English, German, French, and Russian without any unnecessary prolongation of the process was required. Therefore, consecutive interpreting, which is the interpreting of short parts of speech where the speaker talks and then waits for an interpreter to interpret, was rejected.

Instead, the idea to use simultaneous interpreting, until then, a rarely used form, was chosen. The requirements for interpreters were immense; no one knew what to expect from the testimonies which made simultaneous listening and speaking difficult. There was very little time for training, and due to the lack of skilled interpreters, translators, linguists, and fresh graduates were also used. Each interpreting booth held three interpreters; for example, interpreters from French, German, and Russian sat in the English booth. Consecutive interpreting was only used when a witness did not speak any of the four languages.

It needs to be stressed that it was not necessary to consider replacements when an interpreter could not continue. The work in itself was difficult, but the content of the trials made it even more demanding. Interpreters had to speak very quickly, approximately 200 words per minute, whilst the average at that time was only 60 words. After evaluating their impressions, many interpreters could not remember the content of the testimonies. The more skilled ones, who were able to perceive their interpreting, often could not remain neutral, and long after the trials they had nightmares based on what they heard and saw.
The technical setups of the booths was helpful. They were equipped with screens which provided the interpreters with feedback. When the light on the screen turned yellow, it was a sign that the quality of the interpreting was falling, and that the interpreter should slow down and articulate better. The red light indicated that the interpreter needed to be replaced. Those screens also measured the interpreter’s pace and breathing; when they slowed down, a signal was sent indicating that the interpreter was getting tired and would soon need a replacement.

The Nuremberg trials were ground breaking not only for their international and legal impacts; they also ushered in the creation of modern simultaneous interpreting. Nowadays, the world of international economics and political relations without simultaneous interpreting is unimaginable. Simultaneous interpretation has found its use despite the difficulties, and today it is the standard type of interpreting in conferences, seminars, training sessions and presentations. Of course, today’s interpreters are well trained and the equipment is on a high technical level, for which the interpreters are thankful, for it is the equipment that helped with the official birth of their profession.

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