Interpreting is a translational activity in which one produces a first and final translation on the basis of a one-time exposure to an expression in a source language.
The most common two modes of interpreting are simultaneous interpreting, which is done at the time of the exposure to the source language, and consecutive interpreting, which is done at breaks to this exposure.
Interpreting is an ancient human activity which predates the invention of writing. However, the origins of the profession of interpreting date back to less than a century ago.
Research into the various aspects of the history of interpreting is quite new. For as long as most scholarly interest was given to professional conference interpreting, very little academic work was done on the practice of interpreting in history, and until the only a few dozen publications were done on it.
Considering the amount of interpreting activities that is assumed to have occurred for thousands of years, historical records are limited.Moreover, interpreters and their work have usually not found their way into the history books.One of the reasons for that is the dominance of the written text over the spoken word (in the sense that those who have left written texts are more likely to be recorded by historians). Another problem is the tendency to view it as an ordinary support activity which does not require any special attention, and the social status of interpreters, who were sometimes treated unfairly by scribes, chroniclers and historians.
Our knowledge of the past of interpreting tends to come from letters, chronicles, biographies, diaries and memoirs, along with a variety of other documents and literary works, many of which (and with few exceptions) were only incidentally or marginally related to interpreting.
Many Indo-European languages have words for 'interpreting' and 'interpreter'. Expressions in Germanic, Scandinavian and Slavic languages denoting an interpreter can be traced back to Akkadian, around 1900 BCE. The Akkadian root targumânu/turgumânu also gave rise to the term dragoman via an etymological sideline from Arabic.
The English word ‘interpreter’, however, is derived from Latin interpres (meaning ‘expounder’, ‘person explaining what is obscure’), whose semantic roots are not clear. Some scholars take the second part of the word to be derived from partes or pretium (meaning ‘price’, which fits the meaning of a ‘middleman’, ‘intermediary’ or ‘commercial go-between’), but others have suggested a Sanskrit root.
In consecutive interpreting (CI), the interpreter starts to interpret before the speaker pauses. Therefore, the time needed is much lower (possibly half the time needed). Traditionally, the interpreter will sit or stand near the speaker.
Consecutive interpretation can be conducted in a pattern of short or long segments according to the interpreter's preference. In short CI, the interpreter relies mostly on memory whereas, in long CI, most interpreters will rely on note-taking. The notes must be clear and legible in order to not waste time on reading them. Consecutive interpreting of whole thoughts, rather than in small pieces, is desirable so that the interpreter has the whole meaning before rendering it in the target language. This affords a truer, more accurate, and more accessible interpretation than where short CI or simultaneous interpretation is used.
An attempt at consensus about lengths of segments may be reached prior to commencement, depending upon complexity of the subject matter and purpose of the interpretation, though speakers generally face difficulty adjusting to unnatural speech patterns.
On occasion, document sight translation is required of the interpreter during consecutive interpretation work. Sight translation combines interpretation and translation; the interpreter must render the source-language document to the target-language as if it were written in the target language. Sight translation occurs usually, but not exclusively, in judicial and medical work.
Consecutive interpretation may be the chosen mode when bilingual listeners are present who wish to hear both the original and interpreted speech or where, as in a court setting, a record must be kept of both.
When no interpreter is available to interpret directly from source to target, an intermediate interpreter will be inserted in a relay mode, e.g. a Greek source language could be interpreted into English and then from English to another language. This is also commonly known as double-interpretation. Triple-interpretation may even be needed, particularly where rare languages or dialects are involved. Such interpretation can only be effectively conducted using consecutive interpretation.
Simultaneous interpretation (SI) suffers the disadvantage that if a person is performing the service the interpreter must do the best he or she can within the time permitted by the pace of source speech. However they also have the advantages of saving time and not disturbing the natural flow of the speaker. SI can also be accomplished by software where the program can simultaneously listen to incoming speech and speak the associated interpretation. The most common form is extempore SI, where the interpreter does not know the message until he or she hears it.
Simultaneous interpretation using electronic equipment where the interpreter can hear the speaker's voice as well as the interpreter's own voice was introduced at the Nuremberg trials. The equipment facilitated large numbers of listeners, and interpretation was offered in French, Russian, German and English. The technology arose in the and when American businessman Edward Filene and British engineer Alan Gordon Finlay developed simultaneous interpretation equipment with IBM. Yvonne Kapp attended a conference with simultaneous translation in 1935 in the Soviet Union.As it proved successful, IBM was able to sell the equipment to the United Nations, where it is now widely used in the United Nations Interpretation Service.
In the ideal setting for oral language, the interpreter sits in a sound-proof booth and speaks into a microphone, while clearly seeing and hearing the source-language speaker via earphones. The simultaneous interpretation is rendered to the target-language listeners via their earphones.
The progressive shift from consecutive to simultaneous
The Memoir of a Soviet Interpreter gives a short history of modern interpretation and of the transition from its consecutive to simultaneous forms. He explains that during the nineteenth century interpreters were rarely needed during European diplomatic discussions; these were routinely conducted in French, and all government diplomats were required to be fluent in this language. Most European government leaders and heads of state could also speak French. Historian Harold Nicolson attributes the growing need for interpretation after World War I to the fact that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and British Prime Minister "were no linguists". At the time, the concept and special equipment needed for simultaneous interpretation, later patented by Alan Gordon Finlay, had not been developed, so consecutive interpretation was used.