Hundred Years of Conference Interpreting


In any field, witnessing a centenary celebration is usually a once in a lifetime experience. On 3-4 October 2019, the interpreting community celebrated a hundred years since the birth of conference interpreting. This took place in Geneva at the International Labour Organization (ILO), which hosted a landmark conference called '100 Years of Conference Interpreting: looking back and looking forward'. It was an event not to be missed, but before telling you more about the content of those two days,

I wanted to go behind the scenes to learn how this event was organised. I talked to Monica Varela Garcia, the chief interpreter at the ILO and 50% of the organising committee.

The background work

'The conference had a very small organising committee: Professor Kilian Seeber, the vice-dean of the Faculty of Translation and Interpreting at the University of Geneva; Roxane Saint-Anne, an assistant who devoted 20% of her time to the organisation; and me. The planning started in October 2018,' she told me. 'This early start was key to our success, especially with the keynote speakers, who needed to be booked well ahead of time. I also coordinated with the Protocol Department of the ILO to ensure there was a slot booked in the agendas of the director-general and his deputy for the opening and closing sessions. Then there was also a scientific committee that reviewed all proposals. It consisted of practitioners, researchers and academics, rating each proposal against set criteria.

'The contribution of the ILO was in kind, while the University of Geneva handled the finances including the items that the participants' fees didn't cover. Around 20 students helped with setting up the room and equipment, and they also worked in the live English, French and Spanish booths during the conference. In return, they had access to the conference.

'The conference was seamless also because it had a scenario. It was not scripted but it had a clear order,' she concluded - and as a participant, I can confirm that. However, it was no mean feat making sure all sessions started and ended on time. Sometimes Professor Seeber resorted to innovative technology to achieve that - a Swiss cowbell!

Six minutes and 40 seconds: conversation!

The conference programme was divided into three main themes: a hundred years of conference interpreting practice; research; and interpreter training. A final session focused on the future of conference interpreting. Each theme had a keynote speech, a panel discussion and a PechaKucha session. PechaKucha is a storytelling format, and the name means 'the sound of conversation' in Japanese. This format allowed presenters exactly six minutes and 40 seconds to present their research. It seemed somehow in keeping with the tradition of Swiss precision, and it certainly kept the messages succinct and to the point. I imagine though that it posed quite a challenge to the students and recent graduates who were staffing the interpreting booths. Nevertheless, they did a splendid job.

There were also poster presentations on a plethora of topics. However, the programme was so packed that I didn't have enough time to give each poster the attention it deserved. My solution was to take pictures of the posters I didn't get a chance to read. I was pleased to learn that not only all the posters but also the presentations and panel discussions had been put online after

the conference. If you did not get the chance to attend the conference and if the Twitter feed has whetted your appetite to learn more, you can find the conference recordings, posters and more on the University of Geneva website.

One remarkable by-product of the conference is the Legacy Project, a publication which records this centenary event. In a letter that was recently sent to all participants, the organisers explained that the aim is to continue the idea of giving a platform to the many voices who have been shaping the interpreting profession. The publication will allow not only keynote speakers and presenters but also panellists, moderators and members of the audience to participate and go on record. The desired outcome is a comprehensive and reader-friendly volume that represents many diverse stakeholders.

I went to Geneva full of anticipation, and I came back loaded with enough information, ideas and exchanges to last me for weeks to come.