The History of Interpreting

Without wishing to deprive the rightful owners of the epithet of ‘the oldest profession in the world’, the roots of interpreting date back, no doubt, to the primitive times of mankind. Ever since languages started to diversify and, more so, ever since people with different languages began to interact, there would have been the need for some intermediary to assist in communication, hence our first interpreters.

The oldest known reference to interpreters can be found on a hieroglyph dating back to 3000 BC, where a ‘headman interpreter’ is mentioned on the tomb of a Prince of Elephantine. Other sources reveal that interpreting was an important part of public administration in old Egypt and Syria, and interpreters constituted one of the existing corporations.

There are records of interpreters in ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire where Cicero had already established what would remain the golden rule of the profession: “only the ignorant one translates literally”. In the Bible, Apostle Paul exhorts in his Epistle to the Corinthians: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret.” (I Corinthians 14:28).

In the Ancient World, although interpreters was indispensable, they were frequently despised and the object of mistrust, for they were generally slaves, prisoners of war or inhabitants of borderline areas (i.e. of doubtful loyalty); because they spoke in the tongue of the enemy and no one knew what they were saying; and, finally, because the knowledge of incomprehensible languages gave them a peculiar aura, that of a sorcerer... Therefore, it is not surprising that Emperor Caracalla, facing an imminent invasion, decided to kill all the interpreters...

However, interpreters gained status in the Middle Ages, and their performance was documented in councils and synods, in pilgrimages to faraway lands, in the Crusades, in diplomatic meetings, etc.

The present meaning of the term ‘interpreting’ derives from Latin and was used for the first time in the 14th century, although it was only in the 20th century that the term became commonplace. Nevertheless, in the 13th century the term ‘dragoman’ was linked to interpreters working in the Far East, an activity which saw a boom during the Portuguese Discoveries and the subsequent flourishing of the trade relationships between the East and the West. One of the most famous interpreters of that time was the Portuguese Jesuit João Rodrigues, who later became the interpreter to the Imperial Japanese court in receptions held for western missionaries and traders’ delegations.

It is known that Columbus took interpreters on his expedition to the New World, although they spoke the wrong languages: Hebrew, Chaldean and Arabic… The Spanish eventually captured some Indians, and taught them Castilian and later used them on their voyages. One of the best-known and best-documented cases is that of Doña Marina, the famous interpreter for Cortés during his conquest of Mexico. On the other hand, the Indians’ Spanish prisoners who had learnt their language and customs, prior to being liberated by other expeditions, also served as interpreters. In Canada, the situation was not much different, but with a novelty: the concept of the ‘resident interpreter’. The French went to live amongst the local tribes to learn the language and customs (a stronger loyalty was expected from the French who spoke the Indians’ language rather than vice-versa). These ‘resident interpreters’ would indeed perform an essential role in the trading contacts between the French and the indigenous peoples.

Conference interpreting, much as we know it nowadays, dates back to the First World War. Until then, international negotiations were carried out in French, the common language of diplomats in those days. When the United States entered the Great War, it became compulsory to have interpreting between English and French, as both some of the American and British representatives did not speak French as fluently as was required for the negotiations. It is believed that the first modern-day interpreter was Paul Mantoux. Born and raised in France he was a Professor at the University College of London and was the prime interpreter in the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, in 1918.

Almost three decades later, at the end of the Second World War, the Nuremberg Trials ordered the simultaneous use of four languages: English, French, Russian and German. It would be unthinkable to resort to consecutive interpreting, as it would hugely increase the length of the Court sessions. So, IBM provided the simultaneous interpreting equipment that had been developed some years prior but had never been used. Colonel Leon Dostert, General Eisenhower’s interpreter, summoned some young consecutive interpreters and some other people who had no experience in interpreting but who had excellent knowledge of languages and, after a few months of experimentation and intensive training, the embryo emerged of what later would become simultaneous interpreting, as we know it today.

Since then, simultaneous interpreting has been in great demand, not only at large international institutions such as the UN and the European Union (presently with 23 official languages!), but also in the business and cultural world where this type of language service is frequently used. At the same time, the consecutive interpreting technique is still essential in many cases when it is impossible to resort to simultaneous interpreting equipment.


Michael Cooper S.J.
Catarina de Moura
Reynaldo Pagura
E. Weiser