Disruption in interpreting: it's history repeating

Disruption in interpreting: it's history repeating

In the early twentieth century, multilingual communication exploded and so did the number of languages involved. International organizations such as the League of Nations or the Communist International brought together people from all over the world to work towards common goals. At the same time, audio technology had advanced sufficiently to be considered for use in interpretation. It was an American businessman who played a key role: Edward Filene, founder of the eponymous department store and pioneer of the credit union movement. Filene was a supporter of the League of Nations and participated in meetings of the International Labour Organisation, but he grew tired of the consecutive interpretation that was used in those days. So tired in fact, that in 1925 he submitted a proposal to speed up the proceedings. Filene envisioned a simple interpreter's booth in which a telephone equipped with a high-quality microphone was to be installed. That microphone would transmit the audio through an amplifier to the headphones of the participants in the room. The speech, Filene suggested, would be translated beforehand and then read out by the interpreter along with the original. Filene brought in British electrical engineer Gordon Finlay, who used telephone parts to build a first prototype. The "Filene-Finlay system" was later acquired by IBM, further developed under the Hushaphone brand and used in an increasing number of places.

When the time came to organise the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War, the Allies soon realised that time-consuming consecutive interpretation was not really an option. Léon Dostert (PDF), a French-born interpreter by happenstance and foreign language expert with the US Army, took it upon himself to make "fair and expeditious" proceedings possible. And he did just that. Granted, the technology was a far cry from today's standards: Interpreters would not sit in sound-proof booths, but rather behind a simple pane of glass. The headphones provided only poor sound, there was only one microphone per language, which had to be handed back and forth between interpreters. Sometimes, the whole system would just break down. Many of the interpreters were absolute newcomers who just happened to speak foreign languages for biographical reasons, but were not necessarily trained experts. Some had lost friends or family members during the war and had to face the people behind the crimes in the courtroom. On top of that, many experienced and more conservative interpreters observed the developments with skepticism or even hostility, going as far as ridiculing simultaneous interpreters as "telephonists".

Looking back, one thing strikes me: Filene, Finlay, Dostert and many of the interpreters working at the Nuremberg Trials were, in today's terms, "disruptors". The term "disruptive innovation" was established by the American economist Clayton Christensen in his book "The Innovator's Dilemma". So what does he mean by "disruption"? Simply, it's when a new idea, technology or approach causes a revolution, instead of evolution. A few examples:

  • Dick Fosbury was the first high jumper who did not clear the bar forwards, but backwards. The technique is still known as the Fosbury Flop and has made many records possible.
  • Google upended - or "disrupted - internet search engines with its Pagerank technology and is the dominant search engine almost everywhere.
  • Apple redefined the mobile phone with its iPhone and disrupted the whole market segment.

These examples illustrate precisely what "disruption" is. The revolutionary changes it brings about often cannot be predicted - especially by the incumbents, from "within". A new technology, a new idea creates a completely new market and may sooner or later completely change the existing market. The people behind these changes are often outsiders who have a very different view on the status quo.

So what does this mean in the context of interpreting? The Nuremberg Trials would have been practically impossible with consecutive interpretation. Simultaneous interpretation may still have been in its infancy, but it was the only way to enable fair and expeditious proceedings that could be followed not only by the participants in the court room, but also by the entire international community. It was the break-through moment for simultaneous interpretation, which would become the default for international communication at conferences, a part of interpreter training, the subject of research and the favorite mode of all those interpreters who never really liked "consec" in the first place. Today, we can look at Nuremberg from two angles. (1) We agree with Clayton Christensen and conclude that what does not go forward must go down: Simultaneous replaced Consecutive and in a few years time simultaneaous will itself be replaced by technology. (2) We conclude that reality is more complex than this and that "disruption" is not inevitable. Not all Nuremberg interpreters were complete novices, some had received prior training and were able to apply their consecutive skills to simultaneous. This, by the way, is the default pedagogical progression in interpreter training until today.

Understand the wave, and you can ride it. Refuse to adjust, and you will be swallowed. (Michael Saylor)

We are in the middle of omnipresent change - or "disruption", if you will. Digital technologies, especially the Internet, have been upending industries left and right. The music industry went from record numbers (pun intended) to doom and gloom within a decade and still struggles to find a sustainable business model in the digital age. Think about what services like AirBnB, Expedia or Uber have done with and to the tourism and transport industries. More industries will follow. Is this reason for doom and gloom? No!

In an insightful talk at Google in 2012, language-industry expert Nataly Kelly draws very interesting parallels between the professions of the blacksmith and the translator.

Now let's try to apply that to interpreters:

  • From craft to science. It took humanity 3000 years to learn how to find ore and then turn it into metal and, eventually, tools of consistent quality. As mentioned above, translation and interpretation have been around for a long, long time, but only by the middle of the twentieth century did the professions start to consolidate and professionalize. Technology has been - and will continue to be - a major driving force.
  • Interpreters and globalization. From the Middle Ages up to the age of industrialization, blacksmiths were found in every village. Not only did they make horseshoes, tools and weapons, they also let other villagers use their fire to bake bread or cook food. Globalisation puts language professionals in a similar position. We are much more than just "walking dictionaries" - what exactly that will mean is up to us.
  • Interpreters for change and progress. The work of blacksmiths was a key enabler for the machine age, they were the ones who built the machines that would revolutionize production and transportation. In a similar vein, interpreters made an important contribution to more understanding and cooperation after two devastating world wars. In hospitals and court rooms, interpretation can make the difference between life and death. Too much, you say? Maybe. But interpreters should play their part in shaping the world's linguistic and cultural future.
  • Development and diversification. Did you know that John Deere (the tractor guy) and Henry Ford (the car guy) were blacksmiths by trade? They eventually did much more than transform lumps into tools. And in order for the information age to progress, Kelly points out, we cannot simply transfer information between languages, but also adapt it to different audiences and for different purposes. As interpretation leaves the traditional conference rooms, interpreters will increasingly carry out related tasks. It behooves us to become involved and shape these developments. Compared to our fellow translators, I think we have some catching up to do.
  • The tools of the future require our input. As stated above, Google Translate depends on texts that were previously translated by humans. Similarly, interpreters can only have an impact on the future if they play an active role. Take the "smartpen", for example, an electronic pen that digitizes handwritten notes and captures audio as you write and makes all of that permanently available. Interpreters like Michele Ferrari and Esther Navarro-Hall have taken this device and made it their own, even developping a new hybrid mode along the way, called "simultaneous consecutive".
  • Human interpreters will always be in demand. While blacksmiths may have disappeared from the day-to-day life of most of us, they are far from extinct. Diversification is the name of the game. The many skills we have worked so hard to acquire will not become obsolete in the future. Especially when our work is not just "good enough", but outstanding.

The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man's ability to invent which has made human society what it is. (Dennis Gabor)

App profile: Interpreters' Help

App profile: Interpreters' Help

Sometimes simpler. Always more interesting.