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The 1919 International Labour Office marked the essential role of interpreters

The summer of 1919 marked a historic event in many ways. The Treaty of Versailles was signed, ending World War I, establishing the League of Nations (UN) and the International Labour Office (ILO). In the same year, the first International Labour Conference (ILC) was held from October 29 to November 29 in Washington with 39 government delegations, as well as numerous workers representatives worldwide. The conference agenda included draft reports on the eight-hour day, unemployment, the employment of women and children, etc, thoroughly discussed. 

1919 also witnessed the admission of both French and English to become official languages of the UN ( Article 11 of the draft Standing Orders of the Conference), and hence of the 1919 ILC. However, the Washington Conference was attended not only by those with excellent linguistic skills such as diplomats and government representatives but also by employers’ delegates.  The language used for formal meetings is totally different and much more difficult than that to be used in conventional situations. Therefore,  “the fundamental difficulty with the Labor Conference as far as languages are concerned is that the workers’ group, for the most part, is not bi-lingual” (Wilson 1934).

Assumably, the working conditions of interpreters were rather strenuous as the number of them was a lot fewer compared to overwhelmed amounts of participants. They must have carried out such a heavy workload, apart from highly-targeted concentration. Even, what the chief interpreter dealt with was much more than that,  taking charge of the secretariat interpreters’ assignments.  For preparation, interpreters arrived in Washington a few days before the meetings, and the written translation tasks assigned to them were certainly a part of their training there. Before the conference, flawless preparation had to be finished not only for interpreters themselves but also for the delegates they were going to work for. During the translation process, they were expected to convey the general sense and not a verbatim rendition of conference interpreting. 

However, the actual conditions were another issue for interpreters to solve at the time the Conference started. Conference Interpreting in the First International Labor Conference (Jesús Baigorri-Jalón, 2005) stated 2 difficulties of the acoustics and accents varying among speakers country by country. Interpreters were specifically trained to understand the language spoken with a foreign accent, so they basically could handle it well. The overall feedback of the interpreters’ performance was generally positive as it was supposed to be, stressing the virtual role of conference interpreting: 

“Mr. CARLIER (Belgium). And I wish […] not to forget the interpreters, of whom we have been the often extremely hard and exacting taskmasters. […] 

Mr. OUDEGEEST (Netherlands –remarks in Dutch) […] and we also owe it [the result of the Conference] to the faithful work done by the numerous secretarial staff […]”

(extracted from Conference Interpreting in the First International Labor Conference (Jesús Baigorri-Jalón, 2005)

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