24 Mar 2021

The origins of language interpretation. Lessons from the past.

The origins of language interpretation.  Lessons from the past.

In a world slowly getting back on track, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss working conditions and fair fees for interpreters and translators given the changes in the work environment that we witnessed (and suffered) during 2020.

In 2016, I was honored to participate as a guest speaker at the VI Latin American Congress of Translation and Interpreting. "The translator after tomorrow", organized by the Colegio de Traductores Públicos de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires. My presentation title was "A Short History of Interpreting"; and the subtitle could have very well been: "2000 languages of a wonderful journey". I organized the presentation around some relevant milestones that formed a common thread, from Ancient Egypt to the present day:

  • Humans have been around for about 4 million years but have been writing for less than 6000 years; is it fair to assume that interpretation is the big brother of written translation?
  • Historians place the Tower of Babel's narrative in 4200 BC, where God "punishes" humankind for its arrogance confusing the language so that they could no longer understand one another.
  • The first record of the work of interpreters dates back to the third millennium BC, during the Sixth Dynasty of Egypt. In the south of the country, in the Province of Elephantine, where there was regular contact with Nubia, translators and interpreters were under the local governor's supervision. The latter bore the title of "overseer of dragomen" (derived from the term "trujaman", "tarjuman", meaning "translator", "interpreter" or "guide").
  • In 57 AD, in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, there is a mention of interpreters. According to the Apostle, not knowing the language implies not being able to pray in body and soul: "What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and God.”
  • With its iconic character, Marco Polo, the Silk Road was also a route that took monks from all countries to India to find original Buddhist manuscripts and texts to translate into vernacular languages. Polyglots found a particular occupation as spies, translators, or diplomatic agents.
  •  In “Conquest”, Hugh Thomas refers to a double translation in Cuba's expeditions to the west of the New World because of the diversity of dialects in the Caribbean islands.
  • Twenty-nine laws concerning interpreters and translators were enacted between 1529 and 1680. These laws, which governed the practice of the translating profession, focused on the translator's loyalty. But one law stands out: the "Recopilación de las Leyes de los Reinos de las Indias, mandada a imprimir y publicar por la Majestad Católica del Rey Don Carlos II", where, in the section referring to interpreters, it states the following:
  1. That the Indies' interpreters have the necessary permits and licenses (i.e., that they are duly licensed).
  2. That Interpreters are paid the right salary (fair fees).
  3. That the interpreters be honoured as they deserve to be honoured.
  4. That the Interpreters should be careful not to be involved in any act of deceit, trickery, concealment, or breach of confidence (confidentiality, professional secrecy).

• The Paris Peace Conference in 1919, when France ceased to be the sole diplomatic language (which it had been since Latin took over in the early 10th century). This happened because the Allied leaders attending the Conference decided that this time, they would not leave decisions to the diplomats (who spoke French), but would meet regularly themselves, and formed the Committee of Four: the US President, Thomas Woodrow Wilson; the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George; the Italian Prime Minister, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando; and the President of France, Georges Clemenceau, who was married to an American and spoke English fluently. The languages of the Conference were then required to be English and French. This was to apply to the other bodies derived from the Conference: The League of Nations and the ILO.

• In 1945, the Nuremberg Trials were held. The leaders, officials, and collaborators of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist regime were held accountable for the various crimes and abuses against humanity committed in the German Third Reich's name. One of the most relevant aspects of this milestone is that simultaneous interpretation was established to avoid trials from dragging on for several years. Instead of using consecutive interpretation in four languages (French, German, English, and Russian), simultaneous interpretation was preferred.

We must ask ourselves and reflect deeply on the steps taken by the collective, the interpreting community as a whole, and the associations that bring them together, to think about the importance of our role throughout history, about the requirements set out in the 1600s as an ideal, conditions to which we should aspire, when, in reality, they were accepted and implemented requirements. Let us never lose sight of the importance of our work and demand commensurate conditions and fees. Remember that it is easy to relax requirements and extremely difficult, if not impossible, to tighten them again.

Let us remember the words pronounced by Dr Pedro Luis Barcia, former President of the Academia Argentina de Letras, on the occasion of the AIIC International Assembly held in Buenos Aires in January 2012: "Translators and interpreters are often like bridges: everyone crosses and uses them, and no one notices them, their indispensable necessity, their communicative function, which is being used by listeners and readers to bridge the gap that separates one language from another."

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