It Didn’t Start Off Glamorous
Friday, September 18th, 2015
One would assume the practice of interpreting has existed for quite a while, but where did it start? How did it begin? The first recorded instance of interpreting as a true profession took place in ancient Egypt approximately around 3000 BC. The Egyptian hieroglyphic used for the position of “Interpreter” looks like a man kneeling and pointing to his mouth.
Interpreter’s services were used for trade, religion, and for military conquests. Men of this profession were used as messengers, interpreting letters to foreign rulers. However, the job was not always so glamorous. Occasionally after delivering the messages, there were cases of interpreters getting beat up by the foreign ruler for being the bearer of bad news.
The history of interpreting continues to the Greek and Roman times where interpreters were often slaves of conquered lands. Being a Roman, it was beneath oneself to study other languages because the Latin language was obviously superior. Rulers made no attempt to learn any other language. Unlike the Egyptians, interpreters during this time were treated with even less respect. In fact, there was an instance where two rulers came together to discuss an assassination attempt and battle plans. Both sides used interpreters to communicate. After the clandestine assembly, all interpreters were promptly killed on the spot, so as not to divulge secrets. Talk about confidentiality! The Medieval Dark Ages was a better time to be an interpreter. Interpreters were occasionally even given places in courts and councils.
As history continued, I’d like to make a shift toward the history of sign language interpreters. In the beginning, sign language interpreters were virtually non-existent. If there was an interpreter they often turned out to be family members: children for parents or parents for children.
There are a few recorded occurrences of sign language interpreters being used. One of the earliest recorded instances of interpreting is from 1684 “where a Deaf husband and other ‘hearing’ family members provided interpreting for a Deaf woman, Sarah Pratt. [They interpreted] her conversion story and [she was] examined on points of doctrine in order to become a full member of the Puritan church in the New England.”
It was not until the 1970’s that American Sign Language interpreters become a professional occupation. An organization was established called the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. “RID established interpreter certification standards and put into place a code of ethics for practitioner members.” Training programs also began to form. In the beginning, classes only ran 6-8 weeks and covered a single topic such as religion, law, or medicine. Today, interpreter training programs (ITPs) are more widely accessible around the country and have been augmented to 2-4 years in length.
Throughout the years, the interpreting profession has evolved and changed. Now with new technology, more people of different languages are able to conduct business and communicate like never before. We may not know when the interpreting field developed, but it is interesting to note that throughout history interpreters have had a key role in facilitating communication.