Interpreting for the Community
A Brief History of Interpreting

Interpreting has been in existence ever since man has used the spoken word. It has therefore always played a vital role in the relationships between people of different origins since the beginning of mankind. However, there is a lack of hard evidence pinpointing the time of the creation of interpreting due to the fact that interpreting, unlike written translations, leaves behind no written proof. The first written proof of interpreting dates back to 3000 BC, at which time the Ancient Egyptians had a hieroglyphic signifying "interpreter".

The next widely known use of interpreting occurred in Ancient Greece and Rome. For both the Ancient Greeks and Romans, learning the language of the people that they conquered was considered very undignified. Therefore, slaves, prisoners and ethnic hybrids were forced to learn multiple languages and interpret for the nobility. Furthermore, during this era and up until the 17th century, Latin was the lingua franca, or the language of diplomacy, in Europe, and therefore all nations had to have some citizens who spoke Latin in order to carry on diplomatic relations.

Throughout the centuries, interpreting became more and more widely spread due to a number of factors. One such factor is religion. The people of many different religions throughout history have journeyed into international territories in order to share and teach their beliefs. For example, in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, many Arabs were in West Africa in order to trade. Along with commerce, however, the Arabs introduced Islam to the Africans, and Arabic, the language of the Koran, became ever more important. Interpreters assisted in spreading the word of the Koran to the local villages. Another religion that has always yearned to expand its borders is Christianity. In 1253, William of Rubruck was sent by Louis IX on an expedition into Asia accompanied by interpreters. This was one of the very first large-scale pure mission trips; William's sole purpose was to spread the word of God.

Another factor that played a large role in the advancement of interpreting was the Age of Exploration. With so many expeditions to explore new lands, people were bound to come across others who spoke a different language. One of the most famous interpreters in history came out of the Age of Exploration, specifically the early 16th century. This interpreter was of Mexican descent, and served Cortés on his crusades. Her name was Doña Marina, also known as "la Malinche." La Malinche serves as good example of the feelings held toward interpreters in the Age of Exploration. Because the interpreters that helped the conquerors were often of native descent, their own people often felt that they were traitors, regardless of the circumstance and whether or not they were interpreting voluntarily. On the other hand, however, these people served as a connection between the native population and the explorers. The explorers therefore treasured these go-betweens. Furthermore, interpreters enabled many pacts and treaties to occur that otherwise would not have been possible; they have played a large role in the formation of the world that we know today.

The next main advances in interpreting came more recently, in the 20th century. In particular, at the International Labour Conference in Geneva, Switzerland in 1927, simultaneous interpreting was used for the very first time. However, following the conference (with a few exceptions) the method of simultaneous interpreting was too costly and complicated to use during WWII, so it was not put into use on a large scale until 1945, in the Nuremberg war crimes trial. This event marked the introduction of simultaneous interpreting into nearly every meeting, conference and trial from then on. In fact, shortly after the trial ended, in 1947, the United Nations' Resolution 152 established simultaneous interpreting as a permanent service for the UN.

The term community interpreting was coined in the 1970s in Australia, from which it spread to Europe and eventually the US. Community interpreting was created to describe interpreting in institutional settings of a given society in which public service providers and individual clients do not speak the same language. Although the term is more recent, community interpreting traces back to the beginning of interpreting. In many of the aforementioned events, such as the missionary trips, the interpreters used would nowadays be considered community interpreters.

For years, Australia remained the prime active country in the development of community interpreting as we currently know it. After WWII, due to the influx of immigrants, the government shifted towards multilingualism to accommodate the 'new Australians.' Most of the community interpreting was ad hoc until 1973 when a telephone interpreter service was created, at which point the need for interpreting schools and training arose. As interest in interpreting rose, it spread overseas, and in 1978 the US Court Interpreters Act boosted the professional development in the field of court interpreting by requiring that interpreters take further education as offered by professional bodies or universities. Since the 1970s, the need for community interpreters has skyrocketed, causing steps towards more thorough and uniform education and certification. For example, in 1995 the first international conference on "Interpreters in the Community" was held at Geneva Park near Toronto. Also, in 1997 the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters Ltd (NAATI) was created in Australia in order to set and maintain high national standards in the fields of translation and interpreting.

Sweden is another country that has aided the development and growth of community interpreting. As in Australia, the growth of community interpreting in Sweden was inspired by the increased immigration after WWII. In Sweden, interpreter service in court is an immigrant's right according to the Code of Judicial Procedure. The State Officials Act furthered these rights, extending the interpreter obligation to immigrant interaction with all public officials. Furthermore, interpreting training in Sweden has been in existence since 1968. In the last five years, 103 languages have been present in interpreter training courses. The nation has also created a set of standards for "authorized" interpreters; this authorization process involves examinations given by a sector of the National Agency for Lands and Funds.

Based on the progress and developments that have been made in the last forty years, community interpreting is a rapidly growing field that only has room to develop in a world in which countries, cities and towns are becoming increasingly multilingual.


Delisle, Jean. (1995). Translators Through History. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing

Fawcett, P. D. (2003). Translation and language : linguistic theories explained. Manchester, UK; Northhampton, MA: St. Jerome Publishing.

Gaiba, F. (1998). Origins of simultaneous interpretation : the Nuremberg Trial. Ottawa: Ottawa University Press.

Iser, W. (2000). The Range of Interpretation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kelly, L. G. (1979). True interpreter : a history of translation theory and practice in the West. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Niska, Helge. Community Interpreting in Sweden. Stockholm: Stockholm University, 1998. available:

Wilss, W. (1999). Translation and Interpreting in the 20th Century : Focus on German. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.

| Certificates | Careers in Languages | WFU | Contact

© 2004 Olgierda Furmanek, Heidi Achenbach