100 Years of Conference Interpreting – Nimdzi Conference Report


This conference report was written by Sarah Hickey.

The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 was a historic moment in many ways. The Treaty of Versailles marked the official end of World War I and if that wasn’t enough, it also established the League of Nations (later the United Nations) and the International Labour Office (ILO). 

Before 1919, French had been the official diplomatic language. However, during the Paris Peace Conference, a number of diplomats from the United States and Great Britain insisted that English be made a diplomatic language as well. This created a demand for English at international conferences and thus gave birth to an entirely new profession: conference interpreting.

One century later

To celebrate this very special birthday, over two hundred conference interpreters, researchers, and representatives of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), as well as international organizations like the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), got together in Geneva, Switzerland. The “100 Years of Conference Interpreting“ event took place in the building of the ILO — the perfect location for the occasion.

On October 3rd and 4th 2019, attendees engaged in the conference’s theme “Looking back and looking forward.” Day one focused on interpreting practice and research. Day two was dedicated to interpreter training and the future of conference interpreting. The conference ended with a lively town hall discussion, moderated by the interpreting podcast trio The Troublesome Terps. The whole event was interpreted into English, French, and Spanish by a few brave students from the University of Geneva who dared to interpret for a room full of conference interpreters.

Here is a brief overview of the main points of discussion.

Interpreting in the age of technology

Remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) was a recurring theme. Many conference interpreters are worried about the new conditions that might come with remote interpreting and questioned whether rates and preparation time will be adversely affected. They also expressed concerns about the reliability of the equipment and who would be responsible if it fails. On the other hand, many speakers encouraged the audience to not be afraid of technology. Some pointed out that it has always been important to be tech-savvy in the interpreting industry, even dating back as far as the Nuremberg Trials when new technology from IBM was used for simultaneous interpreting.

During his keynote speech on the history of conference interpreting, research legend Jesús Baigorri Jalón pointed to the protests by conference interpreters when simultaneous interpreting was first introduced. Back then, interpreters were wary of the new technology and worried that being reduced to a voice in a booth would lead to a loss of importance of their role. Baigorri Jalón compared this to today’s discussions around RSI and the skepticism among conference interpreters. He urged them not to be afraid and to look at the positive side of technology. 

Although machine interpreting was discussed, participants widely considered it a topic for the future. However, Claudio Fantinuoli from the University of Mainz/Germersheim, Germany, urged the audience to inform themselves about machine interpreting because “it will influence our jobs.” He also questioned whether curricula should be changed to accommodate new technological influences.

Chief Interpreter at the United Nations, Marie Diur, put it best when she said, “Interpreters won’t be replaced by technology, but they will be replaced by interpreters who use technology.”

The physical and mental effects of interpreting

Professor Alexis Hervais-Adelman from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, gave the second keynote. As the head of the Neurolinguistics Division, he analyzed interpreters’ brain activities. Among his findings was that there is a difference between the brain activity of a new interpreting student and an experienced interpreter, in that certain parts of the brain are less engaged in the latter. He also discovered that different parts of the brain are active when interpreters work into their A language and when they work into their B language.

His overall conclusion was that rather than being language specialists, interpreters are actually behavior specialists because they are able to control their behavior in an extreme way.

During the third keynote, Professor Jacolyn Harmer from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, USA, mentioned vicarious trauma as an ongoing struggle for interpreters. Particularly because interpreters speak in the first person, they often internalize the experiences of their speakers. Baigorri Jalón pointed out that this has been recorded as an issue since the Nuremberg Trials when one of the interpreters whose family had been killed during the Holocaust, collapsed in the booth. In a recent Nimdzi survey, more than 70 percent of respondents stated that they have experienced vicarious trauma at least once in their career. 

Another health issue that was discussed was acoustic shock. Across the globe, interpreters are suffering from acoustic shock after working with inadequate equipment. In Canada, almost one-quarter of the Translation Bureau’s interpreters were hospitalized after experiencing acoustic shock. Together with AIIC, the Translation Bureau is now working on a new ISO standard for interpreting equipment.

Gaps and opportunities in conference interpreting

There are many gaps and issues to tackle in the interpreting industry, but the following three stood out from the discussions:

  1. Closing the gap between the different types of interpreting:  A number of speakers pointed out that community, conference, and sign language interpreting are often worlds apart and this gap needs to be closed. For example, both sign language and community interpreters receive hourly rates, whereas conference interpreters receive daily rates, which generally leads to a pay gap. Certifications and working conditions are other areas that vastly differ between the different types of interpreting. Speakers and participants alike suggested aiming for an equal approach to help each other defend quality, rates, and working conditions. 
  2. The difference between academia and real-life: Particularly attendees working for the UN and the EU (though not exclusively) pointed out that there is a gap between what is being taught in academia and what is needed for the job. Many markets are struggling with a lack of adequately qualified interpreters and participants questioned whether curricula need to be revised to reflect the new realities of the markets. Chief interpreter at the UN, Marie Diur, for example, asked if consecutive is really needed as a base for simultaneous. She also questioned if two-year interpreter training programs are necessary for certifications or if intense six months programs, like the ones at EU-level, would prepare students better for real-life.
  3. Entering the market: The transition from receiving one’s certification to entering the market can be extremely difficult for young interpreters. Marie Muttilainen, Director of Interpretation at the European Court of Justice, suggested introducing internships for interpreters after they’ve passed their certifications. She believes that such a program would be beneficial for interpreters and employers alike.

Nimdzi Insights’ very own Sarah Hickey, alongside the Troublesome Terps. Image courtesy of the official website of the 100 Years of Conference Interpreting.

Here’s to the next 100 years

In one hundred years of its existence, conference interpreting has come a long way. From a handful of untrained individuals standing next to the most influential politicians of their time, to the “marvel” of simultaneous interpreting, to professionalization and the birth AIIC, to remote interpreting and AI making their mark. As Dr. Florika Fink-Hooijer, the Director-General for Interpretation at the European Commission said, “Change has been the only constant.” And much more is yet to come.

Without conference interpreters, international debate would grind to a halt, and multilateral alliances and international organizations like the UN and the EU would be unthinkable.

This conference report was researched and written by Nimdzi’s Chief Researcher, Sarah Hickey. If you wish to find out more about the 100 Years of Conference Interpreting event held in Geneva, please reach out to Sarah at [email protected].

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