Background Exhibition Material

Summary of the development of simultaneous interpreting

The early days of simultaneous interpreting by Sergei Chernov

Filene-Finlay Simultaneous Translator
At the turn of the 20th century, a Boston entrepreneur, Edward Filene, took over his father's downtown clothing store. In 1912 Filene became a founding member of the American Chamber of Commerce, and in 1919 - of the International Chamber of Commerce. In this capacity he began his regular trips to Geneva, where the International Labour Office (ILO) and the League of Nations--founded by the Paris Treaty that marked the end of World War I--held their regular meetings.

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.
Filene firmly believed that “a means of translation simultaneous with the speeches and debates could be found - must be found”, and in April 1925 he sent a letter to the LN Secretariat detailing his proposed system and method of SI. The initial proposal envisaged SI booths manned by stenographers - who would listen to the speaker and take notes – and interpreters, who would decipher the notes and provide a sight translation for the delegates.

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.
Edward Filene employed A. Gordon-Finlay, a translator at the League and an electrical engineer, to implement his designs 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.
Throughout the 1930s, the Filene-Finlay Translator was used at various international events, including meetings of the International Chamber of Commerce, International Management Institute, Pan American Union, the Geneva Disarmament Conference, and annual conferences of Rotary International.
In 1945-46, Leon Dostert championed the use of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg Trials using an improved Filene-Finlay system.

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.
In 1951(?), IBM installed a permanent SI system in the new UN Headquarters building in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, in the USSR…
According to Soviet interpretation scholars, simultaneous interpretation was used for the first time in the world in the USSR. Our research suggests that in fact, Dr. Epshtein of Russia (who collaborated with an engineer Isaac Goron, similar to how E. Filene employed engineer A. Gordon-Finlay to implement his first system) first came up with his invention at the same time with E. Filene – sending his proposal to the Executive Committee of the Comintern in April 1925. Dr. Epshtein was a physician who worked for the Kremlin clinic and became an inventor. The Comintern, which was experiencing the same problems resulting from inefficient consecutive interpretation as the ILO and the League of Nations, accepted Dr. Epshtein’s proposal, and after several iterations of the system were tried in 1925-28, the first full-scale use of the system took place in May 1928, VIth Congress of the Communist International (the Comintern), only two months after the opening of the 11th Labor Conference in Geneva.

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).
The Soviet system also remained in sporadic use throughout the 1930s, and by 1935 there is evidence of using sound-proof SI booths made of tarp or canvass. A well-documented use of SI in the USSR in the 1930s is the XVth International Congress of Physiological Sciences in Leningrad in 1935, where academician Ivan Pavlov's opening speech was interpreted simultaneously into English, French, and German.

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
As Edward Filene was preparing to transfer his invention to IBM, he spent several months in 1930 taking out international patents for his Simultaneous Translator. In May-June 1930, U.S., British, German and Swiss patent applications were filed for the Filene-Finlay Translator. However, complications arose with the German patent. According to the Filene archive, as the patent application was filed in Germany, Filene learned that a German company Siemens & Halske had developed an interpretation system similar to that of Filene-Finlay and was trying to market it all over Europe. Despite Filene's offer work jointly and through IBM--with which Filene was already in an advanced stage of negotiations--Siemens & Halske decided to continue its activities in Europe independently.
In 1930, the 2nd International Power Congress was held in Berlin using a simultaneous interpretation “plant” provided by Siemens & Halske. According an article published in 1931 in Soviet magazine Vestnik Znaniya (“Herald of Knowledge”), the system used in Berlin was similar to the Moscow and Geneva design, and interpreters were
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?

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
  • 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:
  • 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. (
  • 1932 IBM Patent for Speech translating system and method (
Photo credits
  • 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

The interpreting plant at the 1930 World Power Conference

Siemens Review 1930

Selection of photographs covering the last 80 years