A Look at the History of Language Interpretation

Several camels roaming in front of Egyptian pyramids. Ancient Egyptian interpreters were regarded as public servants.

Even though interpreters have made significant contributions to countries, cultures, and individuals all over the world, there haven’t been many comprehensive studies about the history of language interpretation. While we don’t have a lengthy telling of its past, we can trace interpreting’s evolution through some notable events over the ages.

Let’s look at a few of the major milestones that helped shape language interpretation into the essential, specialized profession it is today.

Ancient civilizations and the beginning of language interpretation

Interpreting is as old as language itself. There has always been a need for different civilizations to communicate with each other, whether to conduct business or trade, or during expansion.

The first references to interpreters date all the way back to ancient Egypt. Egyptian interpreters, known as “dragomen,” were regarded as public servants and provided language interpretation between the rulers of Egypt and the neighboring state of Nubia. Dragomen were bilingual because they lived near the border region of the two states, and often interpreted during trade and other public affairs.

Centuries later during the Greek and Roman empires, interpreters were revered for their multilingualism and often held diplomatic positions. When they worked closely with rulers, they were often considered not just interpreters, but consultants as well.

Interpreter Gaius Valerius Troucillus was a key figure in Julius Caesar’s entourage. Troucillus was a Celt born around the first century BC, and he spoke Latin, Greek, and Gaul. Caesar held his interpreter in such high regard that when he once rescued Troucillus from a foe on the battlefield, Caesar felt “no less pleasure than the victory itself.”

Not many stories of individual interpreters made it into the history books, but we can see from some historical accounts that interpreters were involved in important events and have made an impact on history.

Related: From Past to Present: Women Interpreters Continue to Lead the Way

The United Nations and the rise of simultaneous interpreting

Flags from different countries line the walkway to the United Nations building.

Now let’s jump to the 20th century when the world saw a notable rise in the language interpretation profession. As WWII came to an end in 1945, the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China came together to establish the United Nations. Skilled conference interpreters became essential to the UN, as countries met to share political ideas, propose policies, and have debates.  

In The Interpreters: A Historical Perspective, late former ambassador of Mexico to the U.S. Manuel Tello said, “The interpreter is not only indispensable for dialogue … he is an ally of the delegate who has a very specific idea to get across.” This is when interpreters began to play a major role in international diplomacy.

The UN used consecutive interpreting during conferences at first, which was very time-consuming because the interpreter had to wait for a delegate to finish their speech and then give a complete rendition in the target language.

Later in 1945, simultaneous interpretation was used for the first time on a large scale during the Nuremberg trials. Employing newly developed audio technology and see-through sound booths, the trial proceedings were interpreted into English, French, Russian, and German in real-time.

When UN officials saw that simultaneous interpreting could be successful on a large scale, they adopted it for a majority of their meetings. Simultaneous interpreting proved far more efficient for UN gatherings, especially because they had to interpret into multiple languages.

In the decades after the UN was established, interpreters continued to help make the organization more universal and further diplomacy. They would also help facilitate important international meetings about science, technology, the environment, and peacekeeping operations.

Healthcare and the rise of qualified medical interpreting

Healthcare is one of the largest industries in the U.S. Millions of patients who seek care each year are limited English proficient (LEP) and depend on skilled medical interpreters to get accurate information during their appointments.

Decades ago in the U.S., it was often extremely difficult for LEP patients to receive healthcare in their language. Hospitals and providers reportedly sought help from friends or relatives unfamiliar with medical terminology to interpret for patients, or they provided no language service at all.

Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. began requiring healthcare organizations to provide language assistance to any patient who needed it. This can include either providing a medical interpreter for a routine procedure or discharge instructions translated into the patient’s language. It was a major step towards providing better healthcare for LEP patients, but more needed to be done.

The development of national standards for medical interpreters

In 1994, the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC) formed to address the lack of uniform national standards for medical interpreters. A group of languages professionals, providers, administrators, and others working in the industry all met in Seattle to discuss the urgent need for quality language access in the U.S. Among the many topics discussed was creating a code of ethics.

Today, the NCIHC’s Code of Ethics for Interpreters in Health Care is widely used by medical interpreters. It includes guidelines on patient confidentiality, maintaining neutrality, professionalism, and other important requirements.

NCIHC’s goal is to “promote and enhance language access in health care in the US.” The U.S. needs more trained medical interpreters as we become a more diverse country. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) had projected healthcare spending in the U.S. to reach $4 trillion this year.

From Egyptian public servant interpreters to today’s trained medical interpreters, we can see that interpreters have made a huge impact throughout history. A 2017 UC San Diego report even named translators and interpreters as one of the top emerging careers for college graduates in the U.S., so we know interpreters will continue to make a difference now and in the future.

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