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Due to the evanescent nature of interpreting and generally subordinate status of interpreters as agents in historical events, interpreting activities have seen much fewer records than translation and even less research on their history. This new book entitled New Insights in the History of Interpreting is a valuable collective effort in locating the few references to interpreting and interpreters in historical archives and personal accounts and in analyzing how interpreting has been practised over time and space as well as issues involved in it.

The book is a themed volume of ten original articles about interpreting and interpreters in inter-lingual and cross-cultural communication through history. Collecting eight papers from the international symposium on interpreting history that was held at Rikkyo University in 2014 and two other select pieces, this volume records and discusses interpreting practices, recruitment of interpreters, and issues and challenges that interpreters have faced in diplomacy, colonization, religion, war, and occupation in different historical periods and in various regions of the world such as East Asia, America, the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union.

One major value of historical study is to discover ‘new’ historical facts hidden in the vast number of archives and to make new interpretations of “old’” historical facts. This book represents a good effort in providing new insights in the history of interpreting across different regions of the world.

Four chapters (Chapter 1, 4, 8 and 9) provide new discoveries about interpreting history in East Asia. Rachel Lung, who is well-known for her research on interpreting history in Early Imperial China (Lung 2011), defines the multiple roles of Sillan interpreters in first-millennium East Asian exchanges. In an attempt to clarify the idiosyncratic title of “Sillan (ancient Korean) interpreters,” she identified the thirty-eight references to Sillan interpreters in Japanese monk Ennin’s (794‒864) travelogue of his China sojourn (838–847). Her chapter outlines finer categories of these interpreters, whose duties were multifarious: including not only language mediation but also liaison; networking; coordination and marine travel consultancy. She argues that such multiplicity in tasks and roles points to a major distinction between official interpreters and civilian interpreters. Torikai Kumiko introduces Oranda Tsūji, a group of Dutch interpreters in Japanese history, as depicted in four historical novels written by Yoshimura Akira, which explore the life of Nagasaki Tsūji in the social context of pre-modern Japan during later years of the Edo period. As a step furthering her research on interpreting activities in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (Takeda 2010), Takeda describes the diverse experiences of Japanese interpreters in the post-World War II occupation period (1945-1952): Some interpreted for the war crime trials; others were persecuted as war criminals; and others served foreign military occupiers. The research reveals issues and risks faced by wartime interpreters and local interpreters serving foreign military occupiers, which points to the vulnerable position of interpreters in conflicts due to the complex nature of their work. Also on wartime interpreters, Shi-chi Mike Lan gives an account of the fate of Taiwanese interpreters who served in the Japanese army and were convicted for crimes committed while working as interpreters, formal or informal, for the Japanese occupation army during the Second World War.

Two chapters (Chapter 2 and 3) deal with the Spanish history of interpreting. Icíar Alonso-Araguás provides an account of the evolution of interpreting practices of explorers and conquerors in Spanish America, which is evident in the comparison between the initial journeys of discovery (1492-1524) and the period of early colonial administration in America. Initially, Spanish explorers and conquerors resorted to Old World traditional strategies to solve their linguistic and cultural challenges, but after the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, new strategies were designed with specific legislation on interpreters. The gradual institutionalization and regulation of interpreting practices can be seen as a pioneering endeavour applied throughout the vast Spanish empire for centuries thereafter. This initiative may also be regarded as a precedent of modern public service interpreting, though it happened then in a context of acutely asymmetrical power relations between the colonial authorities and the colonized. Marcos Sarmiento Pérez chronicles the early history of court interpreting for the Spanish Inquisition, which carried out its activities throughout virtually the whole of the Spanish Empire over three and a half centuries (1478–1834). Spheres of the Inquisition’s activities in which interpreters were required and common situations in which interpreters intervened are presented, and information about status, requisites and appointment categories of interpreters is discovered.

Three chapters (Chapter 5, 6 and 7) cover the early history of the modern interpreting profession, including the start of simultaneous interpreting in the United Nations (UN) and in the USSR, and the initiation of training of student interpreters in the U.S. Department of State. As an expert studying the professionalization history of conference interpreting (Baigorri-Jalón 2014), Baigorri-Jalón traces the introduction of the simultaneous interpreting (SI) mode at the UN through creative use of archival photographs as historical sources. He analyzes eight UN official photographs and presents interesting discoveries about SI equipment, interpreters’ working environment and interpreting users at the early stage of SI. Sergei Chernov provides new evidence on the invention of simultaneous interpreting in the 1920s, using records from Russian archives. According to this new discovery, SI was first implemented in the USSR when Dr. Epshtein’s three-interpreter method was perfected by engineer Goron and implemented at the 6th Comintern Congress in 1928. This coincided with the first full-scale use of SI at the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva. David B. Sawyer uncovers an early chapter of (diplomatic) interpreter training history based on documentation from the U.S. Department of State’s Corps of Student Interpreters (1902–1924), which provided in-country language training in China, Japan and Turkey. Major aspects of the training program including its rationale, models, establishment and implementation are discussed and information on its recruitment challenges, selection criteria, and the career progression of student interpreters are provided.

In Chapter 10, Anthony Pym analyzes an interpreting event in conflict situations – a mediated military encounter in Afghanistan – as an extreme example of proximate alternative action, which shows that an interpreter’s failure to render significant material may be considered rational in terms of his possible distribution of risk priorities. Together with Chapter 8 and 9, this chapter explores not only the issues and risks faced by interpreters in conflict zones but also highlights the complexity and gravity of interpreters’ role in conflict situations.

The book also demonstrates innovative exploration of methodology for the historical study of interpreters and interpreting including both classical approaches of examining historical archives, personal journals/diaries, memoirs and correspondence and alternative ways of using photography and historical fiction as tools in research. In classical historical approaches, Lung’s chapter demonstrates the value of textual analysis of personal diaries in empirically pursuing the definitions of “interpreter” in their historical contexts. Sawyer’s chapter uses the administrative archives and excerpts of correspondence between senior diplomats to provide insights into the genesis of the early training program as well as the memoirs of student interpreters to relate personal impressions of the training experience. In alternative approaches to historiography, Baigorri-Jalón’s chapter shows how photographs can offer different angles of the dynamics involved in a complex observable event or series of events. He also points out that photographs can only be valid historical sources if we are able to interpret them, and that photographs need to be situated in time and space through a detailed exploration of the context in which they were produced. Torikai’s chapter underlines the potential of checking literary narratives against standard historical sources. Pym’s chapter exemplifies the use of risk analysis as a heuristic tool in the historiography of interpreters for the understanding of interpreting practices, in which he argues that risk analysis can enable us to understand multiple cases of what would otherwise appear to be unethical or non-standard practices. This highlights the importance of sound interpretation in historical studies of interpreting events.

The value of this new volume of interpreting history lies first in the identification, construction and preservation of new historical evidence about how interpreting practices have evolved to address various needs and issues in different geographical and geopolitical contexts and how interpreters played different roles in various historical periods and socio-cultural contexts. Such discovery and understanding of the past are actually relevant to the interpreting practices and profession of the present and the future. As Pym pointed out in his chapter,

“[…] the writing of history itself is one way of actually constituting the identity and culture necessary for the profession. In that sense, historiography is a performative act, as we all like to say these days: it does not just describe professional status as its object, it helps to enact it.”

Pym, In Takeda & Baigorri-Jalón, 2016: 263

The book also stimulates new perspectives on research methodology in analyzing how historical narratives about interpreting and interpreters were constructed in different socio-cultural backgrounds, which embodies a shift from earlier historical research into interpreting mainly focused on descriptive accounts of historical events and facts to “research based on the interpretation of these events and facts with the development of a methodology grounded in historiography” (Bastin and Bandia 2006: 2). Some inherent issues and themes in intercultural communication mediated by interpreters through history, such as “personal positioning of interpreters, the power relations with their employer and interlocutors, and the complex array of independent variables that impact on their conduct” as well as roles, norms, habitus, ethics and social identity are analyzed more intensely through interpretation of historical events and facts by the authors of the current volume. With such meaningful efforts, this new volume on interpreters and interpreted events in history can also shed new light on and complement traditional historical studies from a different angle. Although there still remain gaps in knowledge in the field of interpreting history, this book is a significant step in the right direction.