Friday, January 4, 2019

The Centenary of Modern Conference Interpreting 1919-2019 (Part 1)


This blog doesn't normally concern itself with professional interpreting. There are plenty of other blogs that do that. However, we're making an exception for a couple of posts to explain a momentous event in the history of conference interpreting.

This new year 2019 IMHO marks 100 years of professional expert conference interpreting. To be more precise, it began on 18 January 1919.

To be sure there were conference interpreters before 1919. Here are a few of them.

*  Prince Metternich himself,  Austrian host of the Vienna Congress of 1814-15, where a European consortium imposed peace on Napoleonic France, is reputed to have helped out. He'd been brought up and educated bilingually in German and French; indeed he spoke better French than German.

*  Later in the nineteenth century, Eleanor 'Tussi' Marx, daughter of Karl Marx, interpreted for her father at early socialist international conferences. She'd grown up in her father's London household bilingual in English and Yiddish (a dialect of German) and had studied French. There's a post about her on this blog; enter eleanor in the 'Search This Blog' box on the right. Perhaps she was the first woman conference interpreter; but since 1945 it's been an equal-opportunity profession, and by the time I joined it in 1970 there were as many women as men.

The Algeciras Conference of January to April 1906. Algeciras is the city on the Spanish side of the Straits of Gibraltar. The conference was convened to ratify European intervention in nearby Morocco. It might have been conducted in French, the standard diplomatic language of the period, had it not been that a key delegate, the Moroccan Vizier Mohammed Ben Abdelsalem El-Mokri, and likewise his companions, only spoke Arabic, so they needed an interpreter. Luckily one was found not far away. He was Elie Cohen from the thriving Jewish community in Tangier. (There were still remnants of the community, mostly old people, when I was teaching in Tangier in the 1980s. Tangier is an Arabic-French-Spanish trilingual city.)  Perhaps Elie was the first modern Arabic conference interpreter. You can still stay at the beautiful Reina Cristina Hotel in Algeciras where the conference took place, an oasis amidst the modern developments. When I visited it in 2000 there was a photo of Elie in the hallway together with his visiting card.

However, none of the above was a trained professional interpreter. (Eleanor Marx was a professional literary translator but not a professional interpreter.)

To be sure too there were interpreters who were professionals in other branches of interpreting, for example court interpreting, business interpreting and military interpreting. The French, for instance, had a well trained and organised corps of commerce interpreters since the eighteenth century in what was then called the Levant. But they weren't conference interpreters.

So what changed in 1919?

That will be told in the next post.

Klemens von Metternich. Wikipedia, 2018.

Algeciras Conference. Wikipedia, 2018.

Isaac J. Assayag. Tanger, un si├Ęcle d'histoire (Tangier, a century of history). In French. Published by the author, Tangier, 1981. There's a photo of Elie Cohen on page 60.


  1. this is a great piece i bet translators and interpreters can look at these situations as they write their thesis

  2. The paragraph about the Congress of Viena ought to have mentioned Friedrich von Gentz, a German from Berlin who worked for both Metternich and the British delegate Lord Castlereagh as interpreter and as translator.

  3. "Viena" in the previous comment should have read "Vienna". Interference from Spanish?