Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Whispering and the Origin of Simultaneous Interpreting (cont.)


This is the continuation of the November 24 post.

Simultaneous interpreting (SI) as we know it today was invented in the 1920s. The idea came from an American department store magnate turned philanthropist, Edward Filene (1860-1937), part-owner of Filene's in Boston, Mass. He was a supporter of the then newly established League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations. How did he come to be involved in international affairs at time when the USA was tending to isolationism and had refused to join the League? It helps perhaps to understand his interest if we know that, although he was American, his parents were immigrants from Germany and he eventually died in Paris.
"Edward Filene drew inspiration from the scientific management ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor... Taylor is best known for the use of scientific methods to increase workplace efficiency."
His penchant for scientific workplace methods was to prove significant for interpreting.

The League's working languages at its headquarters in Geneva were English and French, and consecutive interpreting (CI) was being used between them at its meetings along with other languages when needed. Filene observed that the CI was inefficient, because it roughly doubled the time needed to deliver each speech. In 1925 he made a proposal to the League secretariat. We know about it in some detail, thanks to the clever research done by Jesús Baigorri Jalón in the archives of the League and its offshoot the International Labour Office, which are still conserved in Geneva (see References):
"The interpreter's booth will be provided with an ordinary telephone desk stand on which is mounted a high quality close talking microphone which will be connected through another amplifier to a number of head sets located at a designated section of the auditorium. The translated speech of each interpreter would follow simultaneously with the delivery of the original speech."
Filene had a brilliant idea but he wasn't an engineer. So he enlisted the collaboration of a British electrical engineer, A. Gordon-Finlay (often wrongly written Gordon Finlay or Findlay) who was working in Geneva. Gordon-Finlay put together a system from telephone equipment of the period; for which reason SI was for many years called telephone interpreting. The original Filene-Finlay system was taken up and further developed by IBM's legendary founder, Thomas Watson Sr. Like Filene, Watson had an eye to the favourable publicity that a contribution to international understanding might generate (see the Berkley reference below).

In fact the technical side of SI was not completed by the IBM Filene-Finlay system. There was another element that's often overlooked. This was the soundproof cabin (or booth as the Professionals call it) with its large glass window facing the speakers' platform. There are photos of early booths at Geneva for the IBM system, but later at Nuremberg (see below) there were only glass side partitions between the interpreters' desks; the latter were open at the front and therefore far from soundproof. They can be seen in the photos of the Nuremberg courtroom. Not until fully soundproof booths were installed for the United Nations in New York, two decades after Filene-Finlay, did they become universal and the interpreters could speak at normal volume without fear of disturbing the people around them.

Meanwhile they either had to speak very quietly into their microphones or else use another sound-dampening device that had just recently come on the market in the USA in 1921: the Hush-A-Phone (often wrongly written Hushaphone). For a description, see the YouTube Reference below.

SI was used at Geneva and in the Soviet Union through the 1930s, but only sporadically before it emerged supreme at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II – thanks to the vision of another American with a European background and a bent for technology, Léon Dostert. But that's another story.

Let's go back to the beginning.

Something that long puzzled me was how Filene and others came to think of SI and believe that the formidable triple mental process of listening, translating and speaking was possible. (In fact, there were staff at the League who did not think it possible, and Filene's initial proposal was for the interpreting to be done from shorthand notes.) I have a suggestion. It harks back to the definition of whispering at the start of the previous post. It's that some people thought it could be done and were willing to try it because they were aware it already existed without equipment in the primitive, natural form of whispering and murmuring.

  • There's a Wikipedia biography of Edward Filene here. Filene's Department Store was merged with Macy's in 2006.
  • Jesús Baigorri Jalón (University of Salamanca, Spain). La interpretación de conferencias, el nacimiento de una profesión: de París a Nuremberg [Conference interpreting, the birth of a profession: from Paris to Nuremberg]. Preface by Jean Delisle. Albolote (Granada): Comares, 2000. 344 p. This is the standard history. There's a French translation by Clara Foz: see here.
  • Jesús Baigorri Jalón. Back to the Future. PowerPoint presentation to the Brussels 15th DG-Universities Conference. This gives the essence of the story in English. Read it here.
  • Francesca Gaiba. The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation: The Nuremberg Trial. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1998. 190 p. Based on extensive archival research and on interviews with surviving interpreters. Available on paper or as a PDF ebook: see here. There's a review of it by Baigorri Jalón here.
  • American Museum of Radio and Electricity. The Hush-A-Phone. A brief YouTube video, viewable here.
  • George E. Berkley. The Filenes. Boston MA: Brandon Publishing, 1998. This book has an interesting page or two (p. 203f.) on the IBM patent and the relationship between Edward Filene and Thomas Watson. It’s available here.


  1. Great history in technical way…but some are yet to be discussed on the web. The post simply remembered me of the ‘Valkyrie’ where such interpretations seem to have been used. SI sounds simultaneous start for the conversions.

  2. Thank you for your comment but I have trouble understanding it. What's the reference to Valkyrie? To the opera?

    Anyway, HAPPY NEW YEAR!


  3. I didn't realize that simultaneous translation had such a history. I knew that translators had been around for years. I didn't realize that it was in the 20s that they started using headsets and microphones for it.
    -Seamus |