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Linguistic Mediation in the Past and in Future


published on 10 August 2021 | reading time approx. 3 minutes

by Róża Zielnik-Kołodzińska

Linguistic mediation is believed to be the second oldest profession in the world. The rendering of the meaning of words spoken in a different language, i.e. interpreting, is known to have existed even before alphabets were created. The word “interpreter” can be found as early as in the Bible (more exactly, in the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible called Tanakh and of the Christian Old Testament). The earliest historical evidence that people were communicating through linguistic mediation dates back to the time of the Egyptian Pyramids. At that time, linguistic mediation was required in frontier areas and for the purposes of centralized administration. Interpreters were taking part in military campaigns and diplomatic missions, and even Christopher Columbus was accompanied by an interpreter on his journey to the New World.



The role of a linguistic mediator was - and still is – complex since the linguist translates not only between different languages, but also between different cultures, mentalities and ways of expression, global attitudes and perceptions... Some losses are unavoidable from time to time in the process of such mediation, but absolute understanding is hardly probable even where two people are communicating directly in the same language without a go-between. A good example is commentaries to legal texts - if these had been clearly formulated, they would not have needed any additional interpretations.

Ancient interpreters and translators had to acquire their skills themselves, relying on their talents and experience, through trial and error. The first linguistic mediators were people who had grown up multilingual – as well as slaves, prisoners of war, missionaries. It was not until the 17th century that the first school was founded in France to train linguistic mediators. There used to be no translation aids, such as dictionaries, for a long time, and even nowadays good dictionaries are few in number. One could even say that there exist no good dictionaries at all; rather, one can only come across ones that are ‘not too bad’. The reason is that words only acquire their actual meaning in a given context, which can only be taken into account to a limited extent, if at all, in such reference guides.

Linguistic mediation used to be very time-consuming before the emergence of the Internet. In particular, translation was a lengthy process because of the necessity to search the required background information in hardcopy encyclopaedias and limited access to reference works or parallel texts (e.g. the translator had to go to a specialized library). Presently we can access online machine translation tools as well as digitalised traditional dictionaries, glossaries and thesauruses – and even whole fragments of text, which can be used to cross-check not only the meaning of individual words but also the context. Translators and interpreters have access to diverse texts in a broad range of fields, especially on the websites of international and supranational organisations as well as on those of companies internationally active in any conceivable segment of activities, whose homepages are often available in several language versions. Digital information sources have replaced hardcopy ones because they are faster, more user-friendly and also more up-to-date. For example, anyone who wants to look up the genitive form of some word in the Duden dictionary would rather do so on the dictionary’s website than reach for the paper version.

And so the question arises: What will the future of linguistic mediators look like against this background of digitalisation and AI development? It is not uncommon to come across prophesies that one of the oldest professions in the world will soon become extinct in the face of advances in technology. It is true that our working environment is dynamically changing. But linguists have always embraced changes, and interpreters and translators have invariably been able to take advantage of new developments. There is no doubt that machine translation tools are making great progress. Enormous digital databases, language rule-based systems and neural networks ensure that computer-aided translations are currently of much better quality than they used to be some few years ago. The problem, however, is that users of these tools are usually not able to identify errors in terminology, incorrect correlations and wrong contextual attributions (please refer to our article on machine translations: Erfolgreich übersetzen - Mensch oder Maschine (roedl.de)).


However, where absolute correctness really matters – for example, in a legal context, in healthcare, in business decision-making - professionals are indispensable to ensure, based on their training and experience, that an act of correct communication takes place: The recipient of the message must understand correctly what its sender had in mind. This is the only way to avoid serious mistakes that can endanger your business success, damage the image of your company and in some cases even give rise to a threat to human life and health. After all, interpreting and translating does not mean mechanically reproducing the same phrases word-for-word in an appropriate (grammatical) order in the target language. Rather, it is a process where the linguistic mediator analyses and understands the source text and then renders its meaning in the target language with account of the given situation. This element of translating and interpreting has not changed over the millennia; only the working methods have changed. But similar changes can also be observed in other professions. The internet and digitalisation have made their work easier not only for interpreters and translators. Many professions - including lawyers, auditors and accountants - benefit from new possibilities, especially from faster access to information. Nevertheless, hardly anyone would seriously consider the possibility of these professions becoming obsolete.

Similarly, the intrinsic specific aspects of the work performed by translators and interpreters will certainly ensure that the second oldest profession in the world survives and continues to be in demand.


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