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Knowledge Centre on Interpretation

The art of interpreting in Switzerland’s polyglot parliament

Four times a year politicians speaking German, French, Italian and Romansh gather in Bern to debate and vote on a range of issues -

“I was absolutely nervous the first time I did it!” explains Hans Martin Jörimann in his booth overlooking the House of Representatives. 

“I was overwhelmed not so much by the speeches that were delivered but by the context and all the specific jargon. It took me quite a while to get through that jungle of terms. But once you’ve done that, you can focus on what’s being said by whom. Once you understand the way it works, it’s a lot easier.” visited Jörimann, who has been interpreting in parliament from French and Italian into German for 14 years, during the autumn session, which ends on Friday. 

“It’s hugely helpful to have visual contact,” he says in faultless English. “Being in a booth without a screen or anything you’d still be able to interpret what’s being said, but here you get lots of gestures. There are hecklers down there, and you can see who’s getting ready to ask a question.” 

Are interpreters also expected to translate heckles? “Usually we can’t hear them because the microphones are only on the rostrum, but when we hear them, we translate them!” 

There are three interpreting booths with prime views over the House’s debating chamber: one interpreting into German, one into French and one into Italian. Each booth is home to three interpreters who take it in turns to work shifts of 45 minutes. However, since most speeches are given in German or French (fewer than ten of the House’s 200 members have Italian as a mother tongue), pretty much everything has to be interpreted into Italian. The Italian booth deals with this added workload with shorter shifts of 30 minutes. 

Switzerland’s fourth national language, Romansh, is provided only if requested in advance. 

“In 2017 one of the members of parliament asked if they could say a few words in Romansh. We said we could do it if we got the text and could prepare it, and that’s what we did,” said Jörimann, who comes from Romansh-speaking canton Graubünden and whose mother is one of the country's 50,000 or so Romansh speakers. 

Early adopter 

Although the Belgian parliament introduced simultaneous interpreting (listening and translating at the same time) in 1936, the real birth of the art was November 20, 1945: the start of the Nuremberg Trials. Without cutting-edge technology (donated by IBM) that enabled simultaneous translation into German, English, French and Russian, it’s estimated the trials of prominent Nazis would have taken years instead of 11 months. 

The first attempt at simultaneous interpreting in the Swiss parliament in October 1946 was actually in all four national languages, but a year later it was decided there would be three target languages (a language into which a text or speech is translated). 

As it turned out, simultaneous interpreting was introduced in the House of Representatives at the beginning of 1948 in German and French. For cost reasons Italian didn’t become a target language until 2004. 

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