The Origins of Interpreting
By Audrey Maffre
Communication and universal language services have always been a key element throughout the ages to convey messages to others. Eventually, the interaction between different tribes, peoples, cultures, or entities, would define the need for universal language services as essential.
The urge for conquering lands made men feel powerful and, as a way to impose themselves in the defeated region, the dominant people would spread their language. However, it is interesting to note that during the period of great expansion of the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires, the slaves were expected to know a broad array of languages and interpret for the nobility, as it was considered undignified at the time.
The Tower of Babel or People Divided by the Language
Everyone has heard the story about King Nimrod willing to build a tower “with its top in the heavens”. To punish his desire for power and greatness, God confused the speech of the workers who initially all spoke the same language. After the incident, they could no longer understand each other and, with no universal language services, were forced to stop work.
This narrative not only shows that one must be very careful not to be too prideful, but also that communication is a key element in relationships with others. And this is exactly when interpreting, or universal language services, come into play. It is already difficult for two people who speak the same language to understand and accept each other’s points of view. Miscommunication is all too common. So let’s just imagine two people from two different cultures trying to communicate…
There are thousands of well-known examples throughout history that illustrate the interaction between two – and sometimes more – civilizations. But there always is a common connection, a link that unites both worlds: the interpreter. He or she is the messenger, and as such, cannot be blamed for delivering the message. However, the Manichean ways of thinking do not often leave much room for impartial judgment and understanding.
La Malinche or Bringing Civilizations Together
Here is the story of the encounter between two peoples and how it changed history. Some will call her a traitor and others will think of her as a heroine. In either case, however, no one can deny that Doña Marina was important in early Mexican history.
In the beginning of the 16th century, during the era of the Latin American conquests by the Spanish, the Conquistador Hernan Cortés was entering the then future Mexico. Winning battles against the natives enabled him to gain territories, and it is by defeating the Tabascans that he first met La Malinche. She was offered to him as a slave, along with 19 other young women. She stood out by her ability to master languages. . Indeed, she knew both Nahualt and Mayan. Before meeting her, Cortés relied on a Spanish priest, Jeronimo de Aguilar, who could “only” interpret in Mayan and who revealed himself to be vain when communicating with the natives. Thus, La Malinche became the official interpreter, counselor – and later on, mistress – of Cortés, due to her ability to communicate with the native people and her knowledge of her own culture. Through her help, Cortés came to know all the treasures of the Aztec Empire. In the beginning she would translate what the Aztecs said into the Mayan dialect to Aguilar, and he would translate it into Spanish for Cortés. The whole process was then reversed, Spanish to Mayan and Mayan to Nahualt. Eventually, however, she was able to work alone thanks to her rapid mastery of the Spanish language.
Despite her strong linguistic abilities and intelligence, she was never recognized as a heroine because she rallied to the enemy (since she stayed loyal to Cortés after being freed). Yet, some might forget that she contributed to save thousands of Indian lives by promoting negotiation rather than slaughter. In addition, the natives were converted to Christianity by the Spaniards, which, despite differing opinions regarding the motives of the Spaniards, also helped to put an end to the practice of human sacrifice and cannibalism.
The Nuremberg Trials or the Premises of Simultaneous Interpretation
Let’s jump forward in time now: the end of World War II is a key period that witnessed the rise of interpreting and universal language services. Though we know scores of formal and informal examples highlighting this discipline, the Nuremberg war crime trials marked the introduction of simultaneous interpreting for nearly every conference or other important events that occurred from then on. Indeed, right after the trial ended in 1947, the United Nations established simultaneous interpreting as a permanent service.
Without simultaneous interpretation, the Nuremberg trial wouldn’t have been possible. Moreover, it would have taken twice as much time because there were speakers of four languages at the trial – English, French, Russian, and German. The main objective in having this world event interpreted in four languages was “that all men may understand”. “All men” in this case referred to those involved directly or indirectly in the trial: defendants, judges, lawyers, witnesses, guards, and of course, the media.
The courtroom included the “aquarium”: four desks separated by glass panels where 12 interpreters could sit. Everyone wore headphones to follow the proceedings, although it was not unusual for certain defendants to take them off when too many details were given about the concentration camps. Of course, the interpreting equipment for universal language services back then was not as efficient as it is today, and people often tripped over the wires which would then be disconnected.
The selection of the individuals responsible for interpreting at the trials was taken very seriously, and they were only recruited if they were able to pass certain criteria. There was no “model interpreter”, they all came from a great variety of social, cultural and professional backgrounds – one was an 18-year-old student, there were teachers, army personnel, lawyers, as well as professional interpreters. After Nuremberg, some of these interpreters were even recruited by the UN due to the skills that they exhibited at the trial. There have been some criticisms expressed concerning the quality of the interpreting, but let’s not forget that the whole world was behind the screens watching the trials, and that the interpreters were not provided with the best material.
The interpreters worked in teams due to the high level of concentration required (and whenever one of the interpreters would show signs of fatigue, the proceedings would be interrupted to let the substitute take over). Every trial day, two teams would be present and interpret alternatively four sections of 85 minutes each. Three interpreters represented one language team. When not interpreting, the other team would listen to the recordings in a separate room to ensure consistency and continuity in terminology.
Despite the despicable theme of the trial, people still bonded together. An example that demonstrates this is the cooperation that occurred between the defendants and the interpreters. Whenever the interpreters had difficulty interpreting a particular word, the defendants would pass along notes with the English or German equivalent.
And this is how the linguistic obstacles were overcome, and how simultaneous interpreting became an official profession.
- La Malinche http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/224-la-malinche-harlot-or-heroine The Tower of Babel
- http://users.skynet.be/maevrard/esperanto.htm Brief History of Interpreting
- http://lrc.wfu.edu/community_interpreting/pages/history.htm Nuremberg trials