Background Exhibition Material
Summary of the development of simultaneous interpreting
The early days of simultaneous interpreting by Sergei Chernov
Filene-Finlay Simultaneous Translator
An international organization under the auspices of the League of Nations, the ILO provided interpretation at its meetings into several languages – English, French, and Spanish. As was the norm at the time, interpretation was consecutive, which was quite cumbersome for the participants if more than two languages were involved. In other words, a maximum of two speeches could be delivered during a typical day of plenary meetings–an hour-long speech took as many as three hours, if you factored in the time for consecutive interpretation into two languages, one after another.
Filene quickly grew impatient with the slow pace of conference proceedings and poor acoustics in the back rows of the hall. An idea dawned on him – why not use a device similar to the telephone that would allow to carry the interpreters' voices by telephone wire to all multilingual participants of the meeting simultaneously, each being able to follow in his native tongue?
The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) archives in Madison, Wisconsin, contain a collection of Edward Filene's documents dealing with the history behind the invention of Filene’s simultaneous interpretation system. Here is how Edward Filene recounts the story of his invention in a letter dated August 19, 1932:
I come to Geneva every year to the Assembly meetings, and from my very first visit I was impressed with the amount of time taken and the bad conditions resulting from the translations of the speeches and debates from one language into another and sometimes into two other languages. I saw that when the translations began, many of the delegates who had understood the speech in the language in which it was delivered left the Assembly Hall, and the others, who had also understood it, busied themselves with their secretaries or in talking to their friends or reading newspapers, and the general impression on myself and visitors was that the League and the Assembly were not being taken as seriously as we had been led to expect. More than not, the translations increased the length of the Assembly meetings by at least a third, and the result was that in very many cases the most important delegates, the Foreign Ministers and the Chancellors, who came to the meetings were obliged to go home and to depend on the reports of their assistants or the newspapers for what was happening.
After several iterations of the system (and method) were tried in Geneva in 1925-27 and interpreters were trained, the first full-scale use of the Filene-Finlay Simultaneous Translator system took place in May of 1928 at the 11th Labor Conference in Geneva.
The initial trials led to the simplification of the system: interpreters were placed close to the speaker’s rostrum and listened with their naked ears (no sound amplification was provided for the interpreters); interpreters used microphones equipped with special sound-dampening attachments (the Hush-a-Phones); conference participants used headphones to listen to the language of their choice by using a special dial found next to their desks; interpretation into multiple languages was simultaneous with each other but not necessarily with the original speech (although evidence exists that SI in the modern sense was performed as well).
In 1929, Filene offered his invention for commercialization to various companies, starting with General Electric, Western Electric, AT&T and ITT, and then, failing to obtain support from these corporations, he sent his offer to IBM. After Mr. Filene’s encounter with the founder and president of IBM Thomas Watson Sr. at a meeting of the International Chamber of Commerce, IBM agreed to take over the patent in 1931. The system changed its official name to Filene-Finlay International Translator.
In 1947, the IBM Wireless Translating System Embodying Filene-Finlay Patents (the first wireless interpretation system produced by IBM) was first used on a large scale at the International Radio Conference in Atlantic City. The system's name was approved by the E. Filene Good Will Fund. In 1949, the IBM simultaneous interpretation system was used at the UN Conference at Lake Success, NY.
Meanwhile, in the USSR…
Declassified Comintern Archives in Moscow have largely lifted the veil of mystery surrounding the invention of the Soviet SI system by Dr. Epshtein and its implementation by Engineer Goron. Judging by the very different initial approach to SI outlined in Dr. Epshtein’s 1925 proposal, it was a parallel and completely independent invention. Unlike Filene’s “two-step” method (stenographer – interpreter), Epshtein’s original proposal involved three interpreters, seated in three adjacent booths, to interpret a speech in short chunks in consecutive mode, handing over the mic to the next colleague after each sentence.
By 1928, both methods of SI converged, and both Moscow and Geneva dropped the idea of SI booths and had interpreters listen with their naked ears, transmitting their interpretation to the delegates’ earphones by telephone wire. The method of SI used in Moscow in 1928 was true simultaneous in the modern sense of the word (according to the Comintern archives).
World War II put a stop to international gatherings, and by time of the Nuremberg Trials, the Soviet team of interpreters at Nuremberg had to be trained from scratch to be able to perform SI.
The German Connection
dictating their translations into a microphone whose funnel was shielded from external sound waves. The sound waves from the microphone were channeled into an amplifier, and then on to switchboxes to which the participants connected their earphone devices. Switchboxes were placed in front of each listener and were equipped with a knob, allowing to adjust the volume. The speaker, likewise, talked into a microphone, while the participants were able to listen to the speeches in any of the six languages through the listening devices. [...] Five to six kilometers of double-wire were used in its manufacturing.
Recent investigation into the Siemens corporate archives in Germany revealed a correspondence between Mr. Carl Friedrich von Siemens and Mr. Filene, indicating that Siemens&Halske presented a precursor of what was to become their system as early as 1919. Further investigation is needed to obtain more details of this developing story.
This begs the question: should the global interpreting community start thinking about celebrating the centennial anniversary of SI next year?
Sergei ChernovSergei Chernov graduated from the Moscow Linguistics University (formerly known as the Maurice Thorez Institute) in 1989 with an MA equivalent diploma in Translation/Interpretation and Language Teaching, and holds a UN Diploma in Simultaneous Interpretation and Translation from the United Nations Interpreting School (UNLTC) in Moscow, Russia (1990).
Sergei Chernov started his career in 1990 as a freelance interpreter in Russia and the United States, working for high-level meetings and international functions, including media outlets, international organizations, government officials, and business executives.
In 1994-1999 he worked as Interpreter/Translator at the World Bank in Washington, DC., and since 1999 has been working at the International Monetary Fund, where he presently holds the position of Head of Language Services.
Since 2012, Sergei Chernov has been conducting research into the history of simultaneous interpreting in the West and in the USSR and has published articles on the subject in the MOSTY Interpreters’ Journal (3(39)-3(40)/2013, Moscow, Russia), and contributed a chapter entitled “At the Dawn of Simultaneous Interpreting in the USSR” in "New Insights in the History of Interpreting (Benjamins Publishers, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 2016). He was invited to speak on the subject at the ATA Annual Conference in Miami (2015), the Nuremberg Trials History Expo at UN HQ in New York (2017), and the Moscow State Linguistics University (2018).
References and further reading
- Baigorri Jalón, Jesús. (University of Salamanca, Spain). La interpretación de conferencias, el nacimiento de una profesión: de París a Nuremberg. Comares, 2000.
- Berkley, George E. The Filenes. Boston MA: Brandon Publishing, 1998.
- Chernov, Sergei. At the dawn of simultaneous interpreting in the USSR: filling some gaps in history. In: New Insights in the History of Interpreting, Kayoko Takeda and Jesús Baigorri Jalón, eds. John Benjamins B.V., 2016, p.135-166
- Delisle, Jean and Woodsworth, Judith. Translators Through History. John Benjamins Publishing, 1995.
- Gaiba, Francesca. The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation: The Nuremberg Trial. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1998.
- Roland, Ruth. Interpreters as Diplomats. University of Ottawa Press, 1999.
- Filene, Edward A. Edward A. Filene Collection, Projects, Filene-Finlay Translator, 1925-1951, bulk 1932-1935. Madison, WI: Credit Union National Association, Inc., Archives. ID:402299.
- Gofman, E. K Istorii Sinkhronnogo Perevoda (On the History of Simultaneous Interpreting), Tetradi Perevodchika - 1963. – p. 20 - 26.
- American Museum of Radio and Electricity. The Hush-A-Phone. YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Eh1FM67wiww
- American Radio Digest, Vol. X, October 4, 1924
- "The Interpreting Plant at the World Power Conference", Siemens Review, 1930 No.8
- European Commission Website: Jesús Baigorri Jalón. Back to the Future.
- IBM Website: http://www03.ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/icons/translation/
- The Rotarian magazine (March 1937, June 1938)
- ILO Archives, Geneva, Switzerland.
- Novoye Primeneniye Telefona (New Use of the Telephone), Vestnik Znaniya, No.5-6, 1931 (in Russian)
- Tekhnika na Strazhe Kommunisticheskoi Revolutzii (Technology at the Service of the Communist Revolution), Kranaya Niva magazine, No. 32, August 5, 1928 (in Russian)
- MacDonald, R. Ross. Leon Dostert. (http://mt-archive.info/Macdonald-1967.pdf)
- 1932 IBM Patent for Speech translating system and method (https://patents.google.com/patent/US1874480A/)
- Image 3: ILO 1928. From ILO Archives
- Image 4: Rotary International Assembly, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. 1932. Rotary International (permission to use in research).
- Image 5: Headset: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., The views or opinions expressed in this article, and the context in which the images are used, do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of, nor imply approval or endorsement by, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Image 7: 493-1-677-096. From RGASPI - Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History.
- Image 9: New Use of the Telephone drawing - from "Vestnik Znaniya" (The Herald of Knowledge), No. 5-6, 1931, Siemens equipment used at the Berlin Power Congress.
- Otherwise public domain
1932 IBM Patent
E. A. Filene Speech Translating System and Method
Selection of photographs covering the last 80 years
1 – Possibly late 30s (AIIC Geneva)
2 – 1945, Nuremberg Trial engineers (National Archives, College Park, MD)
3 – 1948, UN at Lake Success, NY (United Nations, Kari Berggrav, # 189117)
4 – Late 50s (by AIIC Geneva)
5 – 1963, Sound engineer training equipment, Mainz University (Siemens Historical Institute)
6 – 1965, ML Araujo (United Nations)
7 – 70s (AIIC Geneva)
8 – 80s (AIIC Geneva)
9 – 1980, Nato Philips (NATO Conference and Interpretation Service)
10 – 1995, Nato Televic (NATO Conference and Interpretation Service)
11 – 2000, Bosch (NATO Conference and Interpretation Service)
12 – 2015, Mobile booth in Room 600 (Elke Limberger–Katsumi)
13 – 2018, Mobile booth in exhibition hall (Elke Limberger–Katsumi)