A Tale of Two Professions pt. 1

The Great Interpreting Divide

It’s 1945 and a world at peace at last begins dealing with the transgressions and horrors of war. At the centre of this international process lies the trial of several high profile German war leaders in the town of Nuremberg and at the heart of this trial lies a new technology: simultaneous interpreting.

Oh the equipment had been tried before but this was the first time this new practice, which, with the creation of a raft of international bodies in the 1950s would lead to a new profession: conference interpreting. At the heart of this new profession lay fledgling professionals with personal links to major politicians. This small group of polyglots would soon form AIIC and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except that, outside of the conference hall, far away from high level politics, interpreting of a very different kind was going on. In domestic courts, hospitals, police stations, hearings and schools, a growing cadre of interpreters, were working tirelessly and receive little of the recognition bestowed on their conference interpreting colleagues. In fact, the two kinds of interpreters probably wouldn’t even have recognised each other as “colleagues.”

And that is exactly the point. While both sets of interpreters would look to formalised training programs as necessary steps towards guaranteeing the future of their respective professions, achievements in this area would come at different speeds for each profession. More importantly, when it came time to think about pay and conditions, a great chasm would open up.

Conference interpreters could build on their links with the political hierarchy. They could quite easily lean on the growing class of diplomats and eurocrats and define their work as a skilled profession. “Court” and “public service” interpreters, had no such links. As the present crisis in the UK has demonstrated, deprived of personal links with their political paymasters, they would lean on the established power of trades unions and define their work as an essential service.

The negotiating positions for the two (or even three!) professions could not have been more different and neither could the results. Conference interpreters, staff and freelance alike, are, for the most part, well-paid and well looked after. More than 50 years of lobbying and campaigning have cemented the place of the conference interpreter as someone who is not easily replaced by a cheaper alternative. For court and Public Service interpreters, the road has been much harder. While most jurisdictions, at least in the “West,” state a commitment to using only professional interpreters in court hearings, the definition of “professional” varies wildly and is subject to reinterpretation. Outside of the courtroom, there is a long and painful history of family members, bilingual admin staff and even cleaners being brought in to do a bit of interpreting. It’s just words, after all!

So where does this all lead? It all leads to one of two places, either interpreting will continue to fragment, to the detriment of all areas of the profession, or interpreters of all stripes will realise their need for each other. It is, after all, in everyone’s interests that all forms of interpreting are well regarded and, dare I say it, well paid. Well, we can dream, can’t we?
Author: Jonathan Downie

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