Interpreters have been playing a key role in our society since Ancient Egypt. Discover how interpreting has evolved throughout history.


Interpreting is all about enabling communication between speakers of different languages. Being a bridge across cultures, interpreters have played vital roles throughout history.

Did you know that interpreting is one of mankind’s oldest professions?

In this article, we’ll dig into the concept and types of interpretation, the origin and history of the interpreting profession and what the future holds.

What is language interpretation?

There seems to be some confusion on what interpreting implies. So, here are two official definitions:

  1. Rendering a spoken or signed message into another spoken or signed language, preserving the register and meaning of the source language content (ISO).
  2. The process of first fully understanding, analyzing, and processing a spoken or signed message and then faithfully rendering it into another spoken or signed language (ASTM).

What are the main types of interpretation?

  • Consecutive interpreting

It could be described as a stop-and-go style. Speakers deliver their speeches in complete statements or chunks.

Meanwhile, interpreters take notes meant to trigger their memory. Once the speaker pauses, the interpreter delivers the message in the target language.

  • Simultaneous interpreting

The interpretation happens real-time. The interpreter listens to the speaker, processes the information and conveys the speech in a different language. All at the same time.

  • Liaison or accompanying interpreting

Take a medical visit where the doctor and the patient speak different languages. The interpreter’s job would be to help them understand each other.

In this setting, the interpretation is a two-way process. And it goes beyond the actual language. Non-verbal communication and cultural peculiarities are also taken into account.

  • Whispered interpreting or chuchotage

The interpreter whispers the message in the target language to the customer. So, in essence, it is a variant of simultaneous interpreting.

This mode of interpretation only works for small audiences.

How did interpreting evolve over time?

  • Ancient Egypt

The first records of interpretation go back to 3000 BC. Interpreters (known as “dragomen”) mediated between the local rulers and the state of Nubia in public affairs matters.

  • Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire

Interpreters helped overcome language barriers in trade, administration, the military and religion.

  •  Middle Age and the Age of Discovery

Conquistadores enlisted interpreters who spoke several languages for their expeditions. However, their Hebrew- or Arabic-speaking interpreters couldn’t communicate with the Indians.

Wondering how they solved the issue? By enslaving a few natives and teaching them their language. That way, they could act as interpreters on subsequent voyages.

  • Paris Peace Conference (1919)

Interpreters liaised between allies, prisoners and enemies during World War I. However, it was in 1919 that conference interpreting came into being.

Back then, French was the language of diplomacy. British politicians demanded that English be recognized as an official language for diplomatic matters.

This triggered the creation of an official service for whispered and consecutive interpreting.

  •  Nuremberg Trials (1946)

Picture this scenario:

  • A court whose members spoke 3 different languages, namely English, French and Russian.
  • 21 Nazi officials brought to justice. Needless to say, the language required to communicate with them was German.

In practical terms, this meant interpreting every single statement in three different languages. So, relying on consecutive interpretation would have been very time-consuming.

Colonel Léon Dostert, General Eisenhower’s personal interpreter, was called upon to find a solution. And the answer was simultaneous interpreting.

Which, by the way existed before the Nuremberg Trial. The first patent for simultaneous interpretation equipment was given in 1926 to IBM’s employee Gordon Finley.

One year later, the League of Nations put the system to the test at the International Labor Conference.

  • International organizations

The new technique saved the day in the Nuremberg Trials. It accounted for proper understanding and efficient communication.

It’s hardly surprising that it quickly gained favor in diplomatic circles. Simultaneous interpreting becoming a must for major intergovernmental organizations, such as the UN and the European Commission.

  • COVID-19

In 2020, the pandemic brought face-to-face meetings to a halt. Interpreters had to reinvent themselves. They started to offer their services by means of online and remote communication tools.

Meanwhile, virtual meetings have become part of our work routine. And the demand for over-the-phone interpreting (OPI) and remote simultaneous interpreting (RSI) services is soaring.

What does the future hold?

There’s no denying that international relations are becoming increasingly important. Which calls for professional interpreters who can build bridges between countries and cultures.

In the past few months, we’ve seen progress in AI-powered tools that raises a crucial question. Could the use of technology replace human interpreters altogether?

Truth be told, we doubt it. AI has improved the accuracy of machine translation tools, but there’s something we can’t forget.

Language is subjective. Because of its nature, there are elements such as intent or humor that would get lost in translation if we relied on machines to do our job.

So, here’s another question: How can AI support interpreters? We are keeping up with the latest trends and will make sure to keep you posted.

To be continued.