Most of us seem to quite inaccurately interpret the meaning of today’s word – interpreter. Either considering it synonymous to the word translator or a professional solely employed by a translation company.
And while both interpreters and translators convert expressions from one language into another, the latter do it in a written language, while the former in an oral or sign one.
An interpreter’s objective is to communicate back and forth among people who do not share a common language while precisely conveying the speaker’s message along with all intonation and cultural nuances.
And furthermore, there are three main modes of interpreting, where simultaneous interpreters render the speaker’s words into the target language as he or she is speaking, consecutive interpreters do so only after the speaker finishes a sentence or an idea, and whisper interpreters basically do the same as simultaneous ones, but instead at large venues and from sound-proof booths and packed with technical interpreting equipment, they simply whisper into the ear of one or maximum two people.
In addition to translation companies, there are numerous and diverse organisations that employ interpreters – from multi-national businesses, through civil services, to international bodies.
The first and most famous interpreter in the New World was, so to say, employed by a conquer, by the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés himself.
Doña Marina or La Malinche was a slave given to the Spaniards by the natives of Tabasco in 1519, to become an advisor, lover and interpreter for Cortés and to play a significant role in the Spanish conquest in Mexico.
The word interpreter, itself, entered the English language a century earlier, through the 13th century Old French interpreteur and a meaning of ‘explain; translate’, which originates from the Latin interpretari ‘explain, expound, understand.’
The word was firstly recorded – in its meaning of one who translates the communications of persons speaking different languages – in the first English translation of the Bible, The Wycliffite Bible, circa 1384.
Where the passage in questions carries the following meaning: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two, or at most three, should speak in turn, and someone must interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God”
In the following centuries, the word interpreter kept its place in Bible translations and was used to name people who translate both oral and written language. For example, the latter meaning appears in the next Bible translation, referred to as the first complete translation of the whole Bible into English, The Coverdale’s Bible from 1535: “The other prayer and song..have I not found among any of the interpreters, but only in the old Latin text, which reported it to be of Theodotios translation.”
The first mention of sworn interpreters used in civil services comes from 1725, from John Louthian’s The form of process before the Court of Justiciary in Scotland: “In Cases where the Prisoner and Witnesses, do not understand the British Language, Interpreters must be procured and sworn, as follows.”
And while the first proof of the role of interpreters dates back to 3000 BC, when the Ancient Egyptians had a hieroglyphic signifying ‘interpreter,’ it was only in the 1920s when a professional simultaneous interpreter started to be a career option. The 1930s saw the development of simultaneous interpretation equipment and the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-1946 – the first employment of simultaneous interpreters, working on four official languages, using electronic equipment.
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