100 Years of Conference Interpreting

AIIC joins the ILO, the FTI and interpreters from across the globe to look back at the last century, and to look forward into the next.


Photo credits: Manuela Motta

The conference interpreter profession and the International Labor Organisation (ILO) share a birthday – no coincidence since the ILO blazed the trail in multilateralism and multilingualism. The University of Geneva’s Faculty of Translation and Interpretation (FTI) and AIIC itself are bound up in this history.

Which is why, one hundred years after our earliest conference interpreting colleagues began speaking to delegates in their own languages in 1919, the ILO and FTI joined forces to host the conference 100 Years of Conference Interpreting: Looking Forward, Looking Back, on 3–4 October.

AIIC was well represented, as a sponsor, in the preparations, on the podium with numerous speakers (including President Uroš Peterc and Honorary President Christopher Thiéry), in the research presented as posters, and in the enthusiastic throng of delegates.

Among these was AIIC Canada member – and recent graduate of FTI’s MAS in interpreter training – Gillian Misener.

She shares below some of her highlights from 100 Years of Conference Interpreting:

  • Keynote speaker Professor Jesús Baigorri Jalón of the University of Salamanca looked back to the summer of 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, thereby ending WWI and giving birth to the League of Nations and the International Labour Office. This new era of multilateral diplomacy created a pressing need for conference interpreters. He draws widespread applause with the following statement: as a profession, we cannot prepare for our future if we do not understand our past. Tellingly, during the subsequent panel discussion, AIIC President Uroš Peterc added: “Our history is our identity.” 

  • Researchers who are NOT interpreters take an interest in us. Who knew? Professor Alexis Hervais-Adelman – the “Brain Guy” – studies neuropsychology at the University of Zurich. His research found that expertise has a role in configuring the brain to adapt to interpretation. He also demonstrates that “being an interpreter is more than being an expert in language, it means being an expert in control”. Interpreting is a task involving all of the brain’s resources. Interpreters’ brains are beautiful!”

  • AIIC Honorary President Christopher Thiéry, 92 years young, was present at so many seminal AIIC moments:
    • AIIC’s creation in 1953 – bringing together both staffers and freelancers, and serving as both a professional body and a union. 
    • Then, in 1968, AIIC embarked on negotiations with the UN –  resulting in agreement sectors with UN and others. 
    • These five-year agreements still exist to this day!In 1956, when tasked with raising the daily rate from $25 to $30, AIIC members were called a bunch of crooks, but they stood their ground during the 1957 UN recruitments… and won.

  • Remote simultaneous interpreting is here to stay. AIIC President Uroš Peterc explained our apprehension as follows: alienation is one of interpreters’ main fears, since proximity to both the speakers and clients is so important.

  • Ian Newton, former ILO Chief Interpreter, drew applause with the statement: “We are very diligent about training interpreters, but our users also need some training. I used to regularly bring delegates together in this very room, read them a speech at top speed, and ask them what they had made of it. Then I would ask them to put themselves in the interpreters’ shoes. Plenty of ‘a-ha’ moments…”

  • Our future colleagues in the booths above us provided FR-ES-EN interpretation of fast and highly technical and theoretical presentations. Hats off to the FTI EMCI students!

A more in-depth account, with many other notable moments, discussions and observations from the 100 Years of Conference Interpreting conference is coming soon, in the form of an article by Gillian Misener on the AIIC Blog. Watch this space!


All photos: Manuela Motta 


Recommended citation format:
Gillian Misener,Communications officer. "100 Years of Conference Interpreting". aiic-usa.com October 11, 2019. Accessed November 15, 2019. <http://aiic-usa.com/p/8878>.