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Interesting facts and figures for customers and partners of mt-g.
November 2016
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A brief history of interpreting
The fact that Roman emperors feared treason and murder by usurpers – not without reason in some cases – becomes apparent in the example of a written record dating from the reign of Caracalla: The record reports that, following secret negotiations, the Roman emperor had the interpreters present at these negotiations killed in order to get rid of the last outsiders with knowledge of those meetings. Fortunately however, this excerpt from the long history of interpreting is an exceptional case: From time immemorial, interpreters have been essential for contact with foreign peoples and have won great admiration in some cases. Incidentally, the German word for interpreting – "Dolmetschen" – came into German via the Slavic languages and relates to the Turkish word dilmaç, which means "intermediary between two parties that speak different languages".

Interpreters were mentioned for the first time in Ancient Egypt around 3000 BC and were allocated a relatively low status. They were used primarily in the field of trade to communicate with the Nubian and Libyan peoples, whom the Egyptians considered "barbarians", as well as with the Asian cultures. Unfortunately, there are insufficient sources to gain a detailed insight into the work of interpreters at that time. The situation was similar during the periods of the Roman empire and Ancient Greece, where although they shared with the Egyptians a similarly disparaging opinion of their neighbours, interpreters were viewed somewhat more favourably – with the exception of the aforementioned emperor.

The Late and High Middle Ages shed somewhat more light, as references to interpreters became more frequent. Their services were required primarily within the context of the Crusades once it was no longer possible for the crusaders and the population to understand one another. The help of these interpreters also proved to be indispensable when it came to missionary activities in foreign countries. However, the content of the conversations held in this context could only be interpreted with great difficulty. As you would expect, this provided all kinds of fuel for conflicts and contributed to a lower level of trust being placed in interpreters than had been the case previously.

It was only centuries later, in the modern era, that people became increasingly aware of the importance of interpreters again. As far back as the early 20th century, the first professional, i.e. technologically supported, simultaneous interpreting assignments were carried out, leading to a considerable reduction in the duration of the event. After the end of the Second World War, the Nuremberg Trials added to the global prominence of simultaneous interpreting – the almost simultaneous interpretation resulted in a significant reduction in the speaking time and therefore the duration of the trials.

Nowadays, it is hard to imagine a world without the skills of translators and interpreters, as many participants or audiences expect a direct translation of spoken language. This lack of mutual understanding, which is fortunately only caused by language, is a source of annoyance for most people, an age-old burden that people want to rid themselves of – today more than ever. However, it will be some time until we are able to stick the Babel fish in our ear and until that time, human interpreters will remain indispensable. As has demonstrably been the case for around 5000 years.
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