The rise and rise of simultaneous interpretation

Nearly five years ago I did a post, Translation: the other side of the tapestry, which looked at the difficulty of this enterprise. Three years ago In Translation goes to the movies I looked at the fascinating world of dubbing and subtitling in the world of cinema. Today in the final part of this epic trilogy I will be looking at translations smarter younger sibling – simultaneous interpretation.

 I say younger sibling because, unlike written translation, which has been taking place for millennia, simultaneous interpretation is a relatively modern. The League of Nations and other international fora had used simultaneous interpretation before WWII. But it was in 1945 at the Nuremberg Trials that this method really came to the fore. Before this interpretation had generally been consecutive; the interpreter speaks after the source-language speaker has finished his segment. So it’s talk, translate, talk, translate, talk, translate…. This is easier but it can be painstakingly slow. At Nuremberg the goal was to judge 23 of the most prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany fairly and expeditiously. It was imperative to speed up the translation of the four official languages of the trial – English, French, Russian and German. For each of these languages there was a team of six interpreters, twelve translators, and nine stenographers – 108 people in total working under the direction of two Americans, Colonel Leon Dostert and Commander Alfred Steer. Dostert, who was been born in France and was a native French speaker, became an American citizen and was a foreign language expert for the US Army. He believed that multitasking was possible – that these professional would be able to listen and speak at the same time.

There were other auxiliary translators for other languages, such as Polish and Yiddish. Trial proceedings took place at the dictation speed of 60 words per minute — much faster than consecutive translation. There was even a traffic light system; a yellow light flashed to warn speakers that they were going too fast, a red one meant that they should stop and repeat what they had said. Dostert brought IBM in to develop a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the four languages.

Despite all the difficulties Dostert’s system somehow worked and it was subsequently adopted by the United Nations with its six official languages. However, it is the European Union, and not the United Nations, which is the largest employer of interpreters in the world. The United Nations may have more members, but the European Union currently has 24 official languages, which must be a logistical nightmare.

On the surface the difference between translation and interpreting is merely the medium: the former is written, whereas the latter is spoken. But it seems to me a completely different world. The skills you need for the interpreters’ booth are vastly different from those of a traditional translator. As I pointed out in Translation: the other side of the tapestry you have to be constantly making decisions about how you want to render a word, phrase or passage. You tend to agonise over the choice of words which will best allow you to render the idea in the target language. Obviously this is not an option in interpretation. You have to be decisive because any delay and you may lose a few words (and possibly a thought) that the speaker uttered. Once it’s gone there is no way for you to get it back. I am in awe of interpretation. There is a one-second delay between what the speaker says and the interpreter translating it. I just can’t get my head around how anyone could translate at the same time as someone is speaking, I would just freak out. But I guess it’s a skill that somehow people learn. Here we can see Richard Fleming, who used to work for the EU Commission, explaining his craft:

My final question is whether it would be possible for machines to provide automatic simultaneous interpretation. In Star Trek Captain Kirk and the crew the Starship Enterprise were able to converse in fluent English with any of the aliens they encountered when they were boldly going where no men had been before. Apparently wore tiny, computerised Universal Translators that could scan alien brainwaves and simultaneously convert their concepts into appropriate English words. We haven’t quite got that far. What we do have is Skype Translator. From what I could see, it was a bit basic, but who knows what technology will bring us in the future?


One Response to The rise and rise of simultaneous interpretation

  1. Nicholas says:

    Years ago I had to interpret for a Hungarian trade delegation using English with Spanish exporters. So I had to translate from English to Spanish and vice versa. After half-an-hour I desperately needed a break because I found myself translating from English to English or Spanish to Spanish!

    By the way, there’s a story about an interpreter translating from German to English. In the middle of the German delegate’s speech, there was silence for about 5 minutes although he continued speaking. Suddenly there came an anguished cry “For God’s sake, give me a verb!”

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