Quick history of simultaneous interpretation

(Last Updated On: April 25, 2018)

When talking about the history of simultaneous interpretation and how it was developed, it is essential to make a clear difference about its general backgrounds, how it started and how it reached the modern way we know and use in present times, with all its technical equipment and the interpreter into a booth.

History of simultaneous interpretation


International trade and relations between people and countries with different languages have existed forever. It is possible that simultaneous interpretation has been used at some points in history but in rudimentary ways. One of the first historical records about its use was found from a meeting between a European citizen and the Dalai Lama several centuries ago. When the European wrote about it, he described how the interpreter was able to translate between him and the Dalai Lama without pauses.

First attempts

First attempts for modern simultaneous interpretation were made in 1920´s by the American businessmen Edward Filene and the British engineer A. Gordon-Finlay. Their proposal included the use of a booth for the interpreter that would receive the voice of the speaker through a microphone, and his voice would be sent to the public through headphones. It was used in the intergovernmental organization “League of Nations” after the First World War. It was called the “Filene-Finlay simultaneous translator”.

At some point, IBM invested in the system and called it “International Translator System”. It also included parts of a “Hushaphone”, a non-electrical device attached to a phone. By this time, the Soviet Union also claimed they first invented the system and used it at the VI Congress of the Comintern in 1928 without the microphone. Since then, the system had several variations and has been used in several international speeches and conferences around the world.

Modern times

The first public use of simultaneous interpretation with a perfected system was made between 1945 and 1946 for “Nuremberg Trials” after World War II. As it was the first public use at large scale, it is commonly known as the "birth date" of simultaneous interpretation.

As the technology advanced, the equipment for simultaneous interpretation also improved. For instance, booths must fulfill technical requirements to guarantee accuracy in the interpretation, such as specific dimensions, soundproof features and proper seating and lighting, microphones, receivers, amplifiers and control panels. International organizations also include video cameras into the Booth to obtain a closer signal of the speaker.

Interpreters have been a critical factor to develop this method, and the special ability interpreters must have in order to carry out their work has been recognized. Substantial efforts have been aimed to help interpreters improve their performance and universities around the world offer excellent programs to promote them.

The future

Looking back, the history of simultaneous interpretation is quite interesting and it is well worth it to be mentioned, just like the early telephone facts. Looking at its future and considering how fast face-to-face interpretation is being replaced by telephone interpreting, it is clear that at some point in the future, the history of simultaneous interpretation will have to be adapted to include the new way of getting fast interpretation services, by phone.

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