January 15, 1959 was a historic day for
Parliament. On that date, simultaneous interpretation was introduced in the
House of Commons. During the 1958 election campaign, John Diefenbaker had
promised Francophone Canadians bilingual cheques and "instantaneous translation"
of Commons debates. On election day, March 31, 1958, his party received the
largest majority in the country’s history, winning 208 out of 265 seats,
including 50 of Quebec’s 75 seats. Since January 15, 1959, every word spoken in
the House of Commons is interpreted simultaneously, whatever the political
adherence of the person speaking. Unilingual Members can speak freely in their
own language, safe in the knowledge that they will be understood by everyone,
including visitors and journalists in the galleries. This new service was
considered a constitutional necessity that would give tangible rather than
merely symbolic support to bilingualism in Parliament, the cornerstone of
Canadian institutions. This article highlights the development of simultaneous
interpretation in Canada.
The introduction of
simultaneous interpretation did not unleash the same uproar as the bill to
centralize translation services within the federal government, which had been
introduced 25 years earlier and led to the creation of the Translation Bureau in
1934. While Secretary of State Charles H. Cahan’s bill raised a great hue and
cry among translators and journalists, the proposal to introduce interpretation
services in the House of Commons promptly rallied everyone involved. Only a few
Members were critical, and their comments focused mainly on the slow pace of
In 1936, Belgium was the first country to
introduce parliamentary interpretation, following repeated demands by Léon
Degrelle’s Rexist Party. Switzerland launched a service in 1946. In the late
1940s, several Canadian organizations began experimenting with mobile facilities
for simultaneous interpretation. The University of Montréal was a pioneer in
"microphone interpretation," which it introduced on a trial basis in 1949. The
course was integrated into a master’s program in translation and interpretation
two years later.
The Origins of Parliamentary Interpretation
The history of parliamentary interpretation in
Canada can be traced back to December 11, 1952, when J.-Eugène Lefrançois, MP
for Laurier, rose to speak in the House of Commons for the first time since his
election. He ended with this statement:
In closing my remarks, I should like to
express the hope that the government, after having gratified us with such a
perfect loudspeaker system, will favour us with a system of simultaneous
translation which would allow everyone to hear all the speeches in his own
language, regardless of the one used by the speaker.
This was the first time
that the possibility of providing parliamentarians with interpretation services
had been raised in the Commons.
Four months earlier, a journalist at the
Montréal daily Le Canada
had suggested the idea in an editorial. He felt that the innovative service
offered definite advantages and could lead to another marvel:
simultaneous and mechanical translation,"
which was being used to great effect at the United Nations and had been a
huge success when tested the previous year in Ottawa at the North Atlantic
Alliance conference. The journalist remarked that Anglophone and Francophone
Members would hear and understand each other better, and the whole country
Pierre Vigeant, a reporter at Le Devoir,
hurried to support the proposal the next day.
He supported the installation of such a
system, stating that it was virtually impossible to be a Minister if you
could not speak English well. No matter how skilled and eloquent
French-speaking Members might be, a parliamentary career in Ottawa demanded
a knowledge of English. And no matter how well Francophone Members spoke
English, he continued, they could rarely impart the same clarity and nuance
as in their mother tongue. Consequently, they could not participate fully in
The two journalists made
a convincing argument: Simultaneous interpretation would strengthen
Lefrançois’s wish did not go unnoticed by
Aldéric-Hermas Beaubien, Superintendent of the Translation Bureau. He realized
that no one on his staff was truly competent in simultaneous interpretation. He
feared that the Bureau would be caught flat-footed if the government decided to
introduce the service in the House of Commons. He asked his deputy minister,
Charles Stein, for permission to travel to New York to see how translation and
interpretation services were set up at the United Nations. One of the ideas he
brought back from his research trip was to give dictating machines to some of
the translators in Debates to increase their productivity. These machines would
play an important role in preparing the first interpreters.
At the time, opinion was divided on the
usefulness of an interpretation service. Charles Cannon, MP for
Îles-de-la-Madeleine, was among the supporters: "If simultaneous translation has
proved satisfactory to the great majority of delegates at the United Nations, I
believe it would be easier to introduce this system here, where we only have two
official languages." Alexis Caron, MP for Hull, took the opposite view, fearing
that parliamentarians would stop trying to learn the other official language.
Lester B. Pearson, Leader of the Official Opposition, agreed with Caron.
Speaking off the record at the UN, he said that he was against the new service
as it would give Anglophone MPs an excuse not to learn French. Other MPs pointed
out the educational value of simultaneous interpretation and felt that the
service would help parliamentarians learn English or French. It is worth
remembering that only about 15 of the 265 MPs were truly bilingual at the time.
Consequently, Commons debates were usually in English, and Francophone Members
rarely spoke. J.-Eugène Lefrançois was a case in point: elected in the general
election of 1949, he made his maiden speech in the chamber over three years
later! Nevertheless, some Members felt that it would be too expensive to equip
the 275 seats on the chamber floor and the 625 seats in the galleries with
individual earpieces. The estimated $6,300 for the equipment plus the four
interpreters’ salaries ($6,000 to $7,000 each) was deemed prohibitive.
Simultaneous interpretation is surely the most exuberantly, bewilderingly surrealist
In 1956, Georges
Villeneuve, MP for Roberval, reiterated the desire expressed by Lefrançois four
years earlier. His motion regarding interpretation was printed in the Notice Paper
but never debated. In the meantime, several Members spoke on the benefits of
simultaneous interpretation at the UN, where it had been in use since 1946, and
in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
National associations that advocated
simultaneous interpretation in Parliament showed their support by making
submissions to Cabinet and to the Commons Speaker in 1956. One of these groups
was the 25,000-member Canadian Junior Chamber of Commerce, which had been using
simultaneous interpretation to hold its meetings in English and French since
1953. It also loaned the system to various national organizations. The
Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, or CCF as it was better known, prepared a
Cabinet submission asking the government to make an interpretation service
available to national associations for their conferences. It was suggested that
the Department of Citizenship and Immigration be given responsibility for the
service. Associations wishing to use it would simply pay a modest fee since the
purpose of the service would be to bring the country’s two major linguistic
groups closer together and strengthen Canadian unity. Simultaneous
interpretation was seen as being in the national interest. It would be nothing
less than a "Canadian institution" according to Pierre Vigeant. This new
communications technique began to take hold and win the support of organizers of
national and international meetings.
In the summer of 1957, before Parliament
was summoned, the Post Office Department installed a temporary interpretation
system in the Commons chamber for a meeting of the Universal Postal Union, an
organization that operated solely in French. During the conference,
delegates from 96 countries communicated through interpreters. This international forum played a
decisive role in the events that followed.
After the conference, Francophone
journalists launched a systematic campaign to introduce simultaneous
interpretation in Parliament and called for the temporary facilities to be made
permanent. Pierre Vigeant alone published some 10 articles on the subject in Le Devoir.
Cabinet took note and referred the matter for study to the House’s internal economy committee on
November 22, 1957.
But before the committee could even table its
report, Maurice Breton, Liberal MP for Joliette–L’Assomption–Montcalm and a
strong supporter of simultaneous interpretation, surprised the Commons by moving
on November 25 that "the government should take into consideration the
advisability of setting up a special committee of Parliament for the purpose of
considering the establishment of a system of simultaneous translation." The
motion met with widespread approval during the long debate that followed, and
Members on both sides of the House expressed their enthusiastic support.
Another significant event helped to speed up
the process. In January 1958, the CBC asked Andrée Francœur, André d’Allemagne
and Blake T. Hanna, three graduates in interpretation from the University of
Montréal, to provide simultaneous interpretation in English and French of the
speeches given at the Liberal Party convention in Ottawa. The national
experiment was a huge success and a first in the short history of interpretation
and television broadcasting in Canada. In the spirit of democracy, the CCF
offered simultaneous interpretation at its national convention in Montréal at
about the same time, so that all participants could express their point of view.
Meanwhile, things were moving along quietly in
Cabinet. At a meeting held February 5, Ministers decided to renew the contract
for sound amplification in the Commons chamber and install the necessary wiring
for interpretation in anticipation of the system being approved. Ministers also
raised the issue of training for interpreters and asked that it begin as soon as
possible. On June 24, Cabinet decided to have a simultaneous interpretation
system installed, but did not make the decision public since a major
announcement like this was Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s prerogative.
Diefenbaker was keen to keep his election
promise and, buoyed by the many conclusive experiments and repeated calls by
MPs, journalists and national organizations, he tabled the following motion on
August 11, 1958:
That this House do approve the
installation of a simultaneous translation system in this Chamber and that
Mr. Speaker be authorized to make arrangements necessary to install and
Members passed the motion unanimously.
Parliamentary interpretation was seen as a way to bring together Canadians from
the country’s two major language groups. Through its interpreters, the
Translation Bureau would participate even more actively in the business of
government and help to convey the image of institutional bilingualism to the
public. Pearson had since been convinced of the benefits of simultaneous
interpretation and was singularly optimistic that bilingualism would one day be
so common among Canadians and parliamentarians that "simultaneous translation
will not be needed and the facilities for that purpose can be taken out of the
House as not needed and moved over to the museum or the public archives."
Admittedly, that day has not arrived. Pearson, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in
1957, was idealistic about the future of bilingualism in Canada, to say the
least. All signs point to a heavy workload for interpreters for many years to
The First Interpreters
But who in the country could practise the
mysterious art of interpretation, a job some people considered impossible?
Raymond Robichaud wrote that simultaneous interpretation had an aura of mystery
if not outright sorcery. You could almost smell the sulphur! Robichaud called it
astounding that people could sit in front of a microphone, put on a headset and
repeat in one language what they heard in another. The bilingual or trilingual
people who could perform such a feat were rare birds. In 1958, there were only
250 recognized professional interpreters in the world, most of them in Europe.
But interpretation had nothing to do with magic or the occult. Two major events
in the profession’s development—the Nuremberg trials and the creation of the
United Nations—had occurred just a few years previously, and the International
Association of Conference Interpreters (IACI) had been established in Paris in
1953. The 1950s was a decade of organization for the profession.
Henriot Mayer, Head of Debates and future
Superintendent of the Translation Bureau, organized a competition that led to
the hiring of seven people. These pioneers of Canadian parliamentary
interpretation quickly became known as the "Pleiades," a name given at different
times in history to groups of seven poets considered "stars" in their field.
This first group of interpreters consisted of Marguerite Ouimet, Valérie Sylt
and Anthony Martin, and four translators from Debates—Raymond Aupy, Ernest
Plante, Maurice Roy and Raymond Robichaud. This last member of the group was a
graduate of the University of Ottawa and spoke German as well as English and
French. He had been the generals’ official interpreter during the Normandy
invasion, and a liaison officer and French interpreter during the trial of SS
General Kurt Meyer by a Canadian military court in Aurich, in December 1945.
Robichaud had done consecutive and whispered interpretation, but not
simultaneous. Originally from Luxembourg, Valérie Sylt had been interned in a
concentration camp and was the only person in the group who had worked as a
simultaneous interpreter. Marguerite Ouimet, one of the younger members of the
group, had graduated from the University of Montréal in 1956. Anthony Martin,
originally from Britain, had worked as a court reporter in Montréal. Andrée
Francœur, a graduate of Geneva’s School of Interpretation in 1955 and the
University of Montréal in 1956, was also offered a position following the
competition, but turned it down to pursue a freelance career in Montréal, as did
Thérèse Romer. They were the first freelance interpreters in the country.
The four translators from Debates were said to
be doing "mechanical" translation and were nicknamed "the dictators" because
they used dictating machines rather than typewriters when translating. This oral
translation method was good preparation for simultaneous interpretation. The
experienced translators were also well acquainted with parliamentary practices
and traditions in Ottawa, which was a valuable asset for the line of work they
were about to enter.
During the five months between adoption of the
Prime Minister’s motion and introduction of interpretation in the Commons,
Henriot Mayer coordinated the group’s training and organized the interpretation
service. He also participated in "retraining" activities with the translators
and was able to help the team out by interpreting occasionally. That is why the
newspapers of the day spoke of eight rather than seven pioneer interpreters.
Mayer had a makeshift booth built and placed in one of the two small rooms on
the main floor of the West Block that were made available to the future
interpreters. Since it was strictly prohibited to make live recordings of House
of Commons debates at the time, the novice interpreters took turns reading
excerpts from the parliamentary debates, which they recorded using tape
recorders. The team used the tapes to practise simultaneous interpretation.
The interpreters were the object of some
curiosity when they began working in the Commons chamber. Each desk was equipped
with an earpiece and two buttons: one to select the language and the other to
adjust the volume. Members were very pleased with their new system, even if they
had to learn to insert their earpiece at the right time, plug it in properly and
find the appropriate volume. They called their little earpiece "my translator."
Some would have liked to take it with them at the end of the day to use outside
the chamber. The day after the service was introduced, the newspaper headlines
proclaimed: "Traduction excellente en Chambre" (La Presse), "Translation System.
A Howling Success!" (The Ottawa Citizen),
"Les interprètes ont fait hier leurs premières armes" (Le
Droit). Like the MPs, the journalists confused
translation and interpretation, two very different professions in terms of
techniques and skills. Two months after the service’s introduction, The Star Weekly of Toronto ran
a lengthy article on the new service, "Now-Instant Translation. M.P.’s Can Crash
Language Barrier with Flick of Button," complete with photos. Le Droit
reported that the interpreters performed their duties magnificently.
There was only one slightly sour note: some
Anglophone listeners laughed at the strong British accent of one of the
interpreters. The day after the service was introduced, Prime Minister
Diefenbaker interrupted a discussion between a Minister and an MP to
congratulate the interpreters publicly. He said he was delighted with the new
Mr. Speaker, may I be allowed to say that
I have listened to the translations passing back and forth as a result of
the introduction of this simultaneous translation system, and I must say it
is operating exceptionally well … I thought I should say it, in view of the
fact that this is the first opportunity I have had to listen to the
translation. The degree to which the translation follows the uttered word is
Not long afterward, it
was necessary to "put a human face" on interpretation and remind MPs that it was
a real person they heard when they turned the dial. To assist in the process,
employee Monique Michaud made the rounds of MPs’ and Ministers’ offices to
collect the speeches and translated questions that they intended to deliver in
the House of Commons. The quality of interpretation improved as a result.
Interpreters: At the Heart of Parliamentary Life
For half a century, simultaneous
interpretation has been a part of House of Commons proceedings. We cannot
imagine Canadian parliamentary life without interpreters, who showed that
interpretation is both feasible and useful. As Alfonso Gagliano, former Minister
of Public Works and Government Services, said at a reception marking the 40th
anniversary of interpretation in the House of Commons, "These highly trained
professionals may be out of sight in the House of Commons as they work behind
the scenes, but they are always within earshot!"
Parliamentary interpreters are noted for their
high degree of professionalism. Simultaneous interpretation is no place for half
measures: you either communicate the information or you do not. You cannot stop
the continuous flow of words and go back to something said earlier.
Interpreters are not allowed to make mistakes. They are like trapeze artists who
perform spectacular feats without a net. It takes nerves of steel as well as
reliable, modern equipment and skilled technicians.
The quality of interpretation depends on the efforts and talent of an entire
team—just like in the movies. In the medium of relayed communications, the
interpreter plays a starring role and cannot afford to step out of character.
Given the success of interpretation in the
Lower House, the members of the Upper House quickly called for a similar
service. But interpretation did not make its debut in the Senate until September
14, 1961, as delivery of the equipment from Great Britain was delayed by several
Parliamentary interpretation was originally
part of Debates, but in the early 1960s it became a separate service under the
leadership of Raymond Robichaud, who was known as the "Prince of Interpreters"
or "Mr. Interpretation." Ernest Plante was his assistant. The reorganization was
necessary following the service’s rapid expansion. Interpreters were in great
demand by parliamentary committees, federal departments, Canadian delegations
overseas, extraparliamentary conferences, national and international meetings,
and other similar organizations and events. Interpretation is a good barometer
of government activity. In the 1960s, a decade that interpreter Ronald Després
called the "golden age of simultaneous interpretation," it was not unusual for
interpreters to put in 80-hour weeks. Marguerite Ouimet said that she spent more
time in a booth than at home, as did many of her colleagues. From the mid-1970s
onward, technician Jean-Pierre Dulude, whose outstanding skill was widely
recognized in interpretation circles, supervised the installation of some 60
interpreters’ booths on Parliament Hill, and in federal departments and
buildings across the country. He took great care to ensure that the booths met
John Diefenbaker, the man who set
everything in motion, said in 1965, "I cannot visualize Canada without French
Canada. I cannot visualize French Canada without Canada.
National unity based on equality must be the goal." This equality cannot exist without
linguistic parity inside Parliament itself. It is such a fundamental principle
that it is enshrined in section 17 of The Constitution Act, 1982,
which states that "Everyone has the right to use English or French in any
debates and other proceedings of Parliament." The House cannot sit without
interpreters and it has adjourned when the interpretation system experienced
technical difficulties. Alfonso Gagliano was right when he said in 1999 that
"simultaneous interpretation empowers the Members of Canada’s House of Commons.
It makes it possible for MPs to express themselves in the official language of
Today, interpreters barely raise an eyebrow in the House of
Commons. They likely pass unnoticed because the interpretation process involves
identifying with the person speaking. Raymond Robichaud liked to say that
interpreters identify with the person they are interpreting in the same way that
actors identify with their character. If all the world is a stage, as
Shakespeare said, then interpreters have become an integral part of the scenery
on the parliamentary stage, as they work behind the booth’s darkened glass. What
more fitting tribute could there be to interpreters’ discretion, skill and
artistry in the world of communication?