While it is somewhat disputed depending on how exactly you define simultaneous interpretation equipment, the first use of simultaneous interpretation equipment as it is used today is largely thought to be at the Nuremberg trials in 1945 after World War II.
Prior to that date it has been reported that as early as the 1920s an American businessman named Edward Filene, who was a supporter of the League of Nations, proposed to the League the idea of using audio equipment to allow interpreters to provide translated audio to listeners using headsets. His idea, however, was not exactly simultaneous interpretation. His idea was to have the speech translated beforehand and then have the interpreter read the translation as the original speaker is giving his or her speech on stage. The interpreter would be listening to the speech only to make sure that they were delivering the translation at the same pace as the speaker. Prior to this the League had used consecutive interpretation, which Mr. Filene, (like many others still today), found to be a slow and inefficient method for providing interpretation of a speech.
Mr. Filene later teamed up with a British engineer named A. Gordon-Finlay to further develop the idea and then the two of them teamed up with IBM to produce the equipment. Throughout the 20’s and 30’s there are various accounts of the use of the IBM system as well as other informal systems but much of that information is unconfirmed and it is not clear as to whether or not any of them used the equipment in the way that we do today.
Modern interpretation equipment has two main functions. First, to distribute the speaker’s audio to the interpreters and, second, to distribute the interpreter’s interpretation to the listeners that need it (and not to those who do not need it). The first function is provided by an audio feed to the interpreter’s headphones. This allows the interpreter to hear the speech clearly and to separate the sound of the speaker from the sound of their own voice so that it doesn’t interfere with their ability to hear, thereby making it much easier for them to accurately interpret while simultaneously listening to the speech being given. The second function, provided by headphones feeding the interpretation to the listeners, allows the interpretation to be provided to those who need it without having to provide it out loud to the entire room.
While there are accounts of the use of interpretation equipment before the Nuremberg trials, it seems that most of those uses lacked one or another aspect of modern interpretation equipment. Either there was no audio feed for the interpreter or the interpreter wasn’t actually interpreting but reading a translation.
At the Nuremberg trials, however, we have a confirmed example of extempore (impromptu, not pre-translated) simultaneous interpretation provided to a large group using specialized equipment that provided an audio feed to the interpreters and distributed the interpretation to listeners via headphones.
Among customers and some professionals in the simultaneous interpretation industry there is some confusion about the proper terminology for what we do. Many people tend to use simultaneous interpretation and simultaneous translation interchangeably, however, one of them is technically not correct.
Within the language industry the word “translation” is considered to refer to rendering a written text from one language into another while maintaining the same meaning. It is specifically referring to written text. “Interpretation” on the other hand is applied to the rendering of an oral statement from one language into an oral statement in another language while maintaining the same meaning. It is specifically referring to spoken language rather than written language. While you may think that the two terms are close enough together that they should be able to be used interchangeably, the fact is that it can cause some confusion when the terms are not used accurately. For example, when a customer contacts us asking for a quote for translation services, we will assume that they mean written translation of a text rather than oral interpretation of a speech or presentation.
Therefore when someone says simultaneous translation services or simultaneous translation equipment, they should actually be saying simultaneous interpretation services or simultaneous interpretation equipment.
We often have clients contact us asking for highly skilled simultaneous interpreters who are well versed in a specific subject like vaccinology, cosmetics marketing, manufacturing, or agriculture. From the perspective of the customer this makes a lot of sense. However, most often this is not the best strategy for getting high quality interpretation.
The reason for this has to do with the problem of the scarcity of highly skilled simultaneous interpreters and the amount of time that is required for them to acquire that skill level, combined with the client’s desire that the interpreters be local in order to keep costs low. Simultanous interpreters who have the skill level necessary to interpret conferences are quite rare. In many cities it is not possible to find any qualified simultaneous interpreters for most languages. If they were more abundant, it would make sense for us to try to assign interpreters who are experts in the subject of the conference, however, since there are so few of them, this just isn’t possible.
In addition, like everyone, conference interpreters only have so much time to acquire their skills. They have spent their careers mastering simultaneous interpretation. This does not leave them time to also acquire an advanced education in the wide variety of subjects that they will be asked to interpret. Conversely, when you do find an interpreter who is an expert in a specific subject, that usually means that they have spent their education and much of their careers focusing on that subject which hasn’t left them time to focus on mastering simultaneous interpretation and, therefore, while they may know the subject, they are not very good interpreters.
Finally, clients also want the interpreters to be local in order to keep costs down. This is understandable since travel costs for interpreters can often add 20% to 30% to the total cost of simultaneous interpretation services. The problem with this is that, in a situation where skilled simultaneous interpreters are already quite scarce, requiring local interpreters narrows the pool even more.
So, when you combine the scarcity of skilled interpreters with the subject expertise requirement, the time it takes to master a subject, and the local interpreter requirement, you have essentially ruled out every available interpreter. There usually is no one who fulfills all of those requirements. It’s just not possible.
So, how do you get high quality simultaneous interpretation for your conference? The short answer is this: Give the interpreters relevant reference materials to study before the conference. This can include copies of all of the presentations that will be presented, scripts (if the event is scripted), speech texts, speech notes, outlines, etc. If the presentations are not finished yet, draft versions are still quite helpful. Also, similar presentations or articles about the same subject. It all helps. The interpreters are not memorizing speeches or presentations so they don’t have to be in their final versions. They just need to see the terminology that they will encounter so they can make sure they are familiar with the terms before the meeting. This is the most important factor in getting high quality simultaneous interpretation. I cannot stress this enough. Ideally, we like to receive the reference materials as early as possible but at least a few days before the meeting date.
Other factors that are important are hiring a reputable company to provide the interpreters. By this I mean a company that specializes in simultaneous interpretation, has significant experience providing simultaneous interpretation services for conferences, and who will not compromise on quality. The work that most translation companies do is comprised almost entirely of written translation and consecutive interpretation (think doctor appointments, depositions, etc.). Generally they almost never provide simultaneous interpretation for conferences and, therefore, they have very little experience with it. Conference interpretation is quite different and has different challenges and skill requirements than anything else in the language industry. Therefore, you want to work with a company that really specializes in it.
Finally, don’t limit yourself to the company that provides the lowest quote. This is an industry where you truly get what you pay for. If you go with the lowest quote, you are almost guaranteed to get the lowest quality. Skilled simultaneous interpreters are expensive. Unskilled ones are not. If a company is giving you very low interpreter rates, it likely means that they are hiring interpreters who have a very low skill level.