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Conference Interpretation: Definition and History

interpreting servicesConference interpretation (conference interpreting) as we know it today is a child of the XXth century.

After French ceased to be the language of diplomacy (as Latin had done before it), and with a more and more prominent role played by the League of Nations after War I, conferences were more frequently conducted in several languages.

There are two types of conference interpretation: simultaneous and consecutive.

Historically, consecutive interpretation was used first, because specialized equipment for simultaneous interpretation was not yet designed.

In consecutive interpretation the interpreter listens to the speech delivered by the presenter in the source language and – if necessary – takes notes.

paper and pencil note taking The notes do not record the words of the speaker verbatim, it is only an aid for the interpreter to be able to remember and recall the meaning and specific information when interpreting the utterance.

Although there are some general common principles for note-taking, each professional consecutive interpreter develops his or her own system that consists of symbols, connecting lines, abbreviations, etc.

In the early day of consecutive interpretation the attitude was a bit more relaxed.  One famous interpreter was corrected by a speaker: ”This is not what I said!” “This is what you should have said.” responded the unperturbed interpreter.

simultaneous interpretation receiversDuring professional simultaneous interpretation (sometimes incorrectly called “simultaneous translation”, the latter word is used only for written text) in the booth the interpreter wears a headset, listens to the original text from the podium or the “floor” microphone and interprets it into the target language for the target audience who is wearing headsets. 

The first major instance of using simultaneous interpretation was the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-1945.

alan gordon finlay

Alan Gordon Finlay – the inventor of an early simultaneous interpretation system.

However, early attempts to deliver interpreting together with the speech had been happening since 1927, when a first simultaneous interpretation system was used at the International Labour Organization conference in the League of Nations.

At first, interpreters simply read pre-translated text into the microphones. translation services usaAfter World War II simultaneous interpretation became more common and was more and more used in the United Nations, other international organizations, on the private market.

Today, “conference interpreters” is elite cadre of top notch professionals. They support a variety of meetings and topics, travel extensively both domestically and internationally to anywhere, where their skills may be required.

There are professional associations of conference interpreters, for example, AIIC – International Association of Conference Interpreters.

For major international events, simultaneous conference interpretation services are used more often than consecutive. It saves a lot of time, however, is a greater challenge in terms of logistics, because teams of interpreters have to be selected appropriately, and all required audio equipment for simultaneous interpretation has to be correctly set up.

simultaneous interpretatio headsetsSimultaneous interpretation may be used not only for major political events, but also for business meetings, seminars, talks, lectures, etc.

Considering how critical their role is, professional simultaneous conference interpreters must be hired based on their experience, education and working languages. Most professional conference interpreters have post graduate education in interpretation.

They work in a variety of language combinations, usually from their B language (near native foreign language) into their A language (native language) or the other way from A into B. They may also have a C (so called passive) language they work from into their A language.

For conference interpretation organizers it is very important to know the ABC classification of the interpreter they are hiring, because attempting to interpret from C into B, for example, cannot be recommended.

Note that A,B or C are not the same as college or university grades!

yay-2856219 (2)A conference interpreter may  have French as his C language and have a near native command of it. C simply shows that he interprets from French but not into French.

For more information about simultaneous interpretation (and a funny story) read our Simultaneous Interpretation FAQ our Russian conference interpreter wrote for our clients.  

Read more on: two ways to do simultaneous interpretation