Staff interpreters and the founding of AIIC
A look back at the role staff interpreters played in the creation and development of the first worldwide association of conference interpreters.
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Editor’s note: Christopher Thiery is an Honorary President of AIIC. He sent this letter to the Staff Interpreters Committee in October 2015 when they met in Paris to celebrate their 40th anniversary. Communicate!/The AIIC Webzine thanks Christopher for giving us permission to publish it in this issue.
I am very grateful to David Sawyer for his invitation to attend this event, even though I was never a member of the committee, let alone its chair! Unfortunately, at this particular time I cannot leave my home on the Ile d’Yeu.
I would especially have enjoyed coming here, where I started my life as an interpreter in 1949. It was then the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), set up in 1948 under the Marshall Plan. The idea was to impose some sort of cooperation among the Europeans by channelling half of Marshall aid through the organisation. At the end of the Marshall Plan in 1952, the UK wanted OEEC to be disbanded, but luckily the others did not, so a compromise was reached: a third of the staff was dismissed (the “axe”), and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was born.
After three weeks as a free-lance, I was taken on as a staff interpreter by the chief interpreter, Constantin Andronikof, who later was to be the driving force behind the creation of AIIC. (Incidentally, I strongly recommend Naissance d’une profession - les 60 premières années de l’AIIC, which the AIIC Secretariat will be happy to send you for the sum of 18€; an English version is planned.)
In those days, interpreting at OEEC was entirely in consecutive. We were all new (very few had been through a school), but the delegates were also new, and consequently tolerant. As for simultaneous, many of us started when we were lent to the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, founded in 1949. The first time I sat in a booth, George Gerard, who had had experience of simultaneous in Geneva, said to me “It’s like consecutive, but you just have to speak at the same time, that’s all”. I may say that interpreting standards have improved considerably since then...
After three years at OEEC I resigned (as a protest against the “axe”) and was recruited by NATO, when it came to Paris in 1952. After a year I resigned (they insisted on our being there even when there were no meetings; after a time one gets bored with playing Canasta with the other two colleagues), and I was a free-lance until 1979, when I was asked to set up, with Brigitte Stoffaës, an interpretation unit at the Quai d’Orsay.
I am telling you all this simply to emphasise the fact that the free-lance interpreter and the staff interpreter are basically the same animal - the one being paid on a daily basis, the other once a month. It was the recognition of this simple truth that was one of the keys to the success of AIIC. There had been several attempts to organise the profession, limited to either staff or free-lance interpreters. Then one day in 1951 Constantin Andronikof, OEEC chief interpreter, organised a lunch, here in the Chateau de la Muette, with André Kaminker, Council of Europe chief interpreter, and Hans Jacob, UNESCO chief interpreter, and talked them into founding AIIC. The basic ideas were that it should be an association for all professional interpreters, staff and free-lance, that it should be worldwide (which at the time sounded to many completely illusory), and that membership should be individual, i.e. that it should not be a federation of national associations. The three of them signed a circular that went out on December 21,1951 which specified, inter alia:
“Si notre profession comporte des fonctionnaires et des free- lances, leurs interêts sont similaires, quand ils ne sont pas identiques, et un même esprit de corps les anime. Ils ont aussi un souci commun, celui de garder intact le ‘standing’ de la profession, de veiller au maintien de son intégrité technique et morale et d’en servir le prestige...”.
The outcome was the founding of AIIC on November 11, 1953 at UNESCO - you will find the whole (fascinating) story in the book I mentioned.
On the face of it, of course, there is one big difference between a free-lance and a staff interpreter: the former only owes allegiance to the people she or he is interpreting for, while the latter has a permanent employer, to whom she or he owes allegiance. But only up to a point: if at a European Council meeting, during a coffee break, a member of the simultaneous team is asked to help two delegates have a private conversation, if the “employer”, the President of the EU Commission, later asks the interpreter what they talked about, the answer will be the same : a polite refusal, whether the interpreter is a free-lance or on the permanent SCIC staff: both are ruled by the same code of ethics regarding confidentiality. In fact, they both belong to a “profession”. And that is the great contribution of AIIC: to turn a craft, a job, a function, into a profession. Hence the title of the book on the history of AIIC: Birth of a Profession.
Although you are celebrating the 40th anniversary of your committee in its present form, already at the 5th Assembly in Geneva in 1958 the Council was instructed to set up a Comité des Permanents. For without in any way undermining the essential unity of the profession, it was felt that staff interpreters needed a forum to discuss matters that were not necessarily of immediate interest to the rest of the profession. In the same way, at the 23rd Assembly in New York in 1979 it was found necessary, with the expansion of AIIC, to set up regional assemblies for dealing with local matters. There again, with the principle of individual membership the unity of AIIC was preserved.
Lastly, I have a plea. That there should be more staff interpreters in AIIC. Too many fail to see the point of joining AIIC ... until they approach retirement. Better late than never, but it is vital that staff interpreters should play a very active role in the association. After all, they founded AIIC. In the early days there were proposals for reduced dues, but they were always rejected, mainly by the staff interpreters themselves. More recently the idea was mooted that admission should be automatic, but it was thrown out by the Assembly, for understandable reasons. The time has perhaps come, nevertheless, for innovative thinking - and your committee is the right place for this to happen.
We must always remember, however, that AIIC is our only home, and in a changing world - and not only the climate - we must make sure that the necessary improvements and embellishments do not weaken the structure of the edifice, the load-bearing walls. The basic principles that we owe to the foresight of the founders.
I wish you a fruitful meeting, and enjoyable celebrations. I will do my utmost to be present at the 80th anniversary.
Articles published in this section reflect the views of the author(s) and should not be taken to represent the official position of AIIC.