Some memorable moments

The profession, as such, was scarcely known in the 1950s. It is not, after all, so many light years away (the year that AIIC was founded) that I was greeted as a kind of being from outer space, with n

Conditions too were different. Simultaneous was in its infancy and there were no ISO or other standards. I remember a meeting in the leading psychiatric hospital in Paris, l'Hôpital Ste-Anne, to introduce a revolutionary new drug, Largactil (chlorpromazine).

The amphitheatre being overcrowded with delegates, the booths were put in the very noisy hall, where we were constantly watched by voluble, worried and worrying psychiatrists. The booths were therefore moved: after rejecting an offer to put us in the toilets ("mais on ne va pas s'en servir!" exclaimed the matron), we ended up in the patients' washroom, with barred windows and taps removed. To console us, we were given champagne and, as the channels still used good old radio, could listen to radio programmes when it was not our turn to work. In that setting, I thus heard the speech given at the formal reception by a new member of the Académie Française, the very original and picturesque writer Jean Cocteau.

When the conference ended, the then chief interpreter Jean-Jacques (Hans Jacob) and I felt as if we were leaving Dante's Inferno BUT we had contributed to the introduction of one of the leading neuroleptic drugs, still used widely today.

Playing a part in ensuring communication of important achievements between creators in many fields has provided a rationale for not being one of the creators myself.

Participation in some events of world-wide importance led me, then a student at the Sorbonne, to interpretation at the great World Peace Congress held in Paris after the 2nd World War with the involvement of leading political figures, artists such as Picasso with the dove he designed, and world-renowned writers. I well remember the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, delivering a speech in poetry, brilliantly and extemporaneously interpreted in poetry by one of our colleagues, Ogier Preteceille, who was made honorary member of AIIC.

My main feeling of pride in involvement, however, relates to medicine.

Starting with the early conference on Largactil, I went on to many other meetings, with a very personal involvement, in particular, in a symposium held in Louvain, Belgium.

I was the only interpreter (it was in consecutive) for some of the world's leading cancer specialists who were meeting to discuss the possible link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer which was a very new idea at the time. There were also passionate discussions during lunches and dinners as, at that time, interpreters took part in all these activities and were even consulted on various formal or presentation aspects of topics under discussion.

One participant was the very great scientist Sir Ernest Kennaway, who in 1911 had discovered the first carcinogen identified as such, benzpyrene (associated with coal tar). He was very enfeebled and half-paralysed, but shining with intelligence and malicious wit. Another participant was Sir Richard Doll, who has become the world-wide reference on lung cancer.

Thus I was one of the first laymen to be involved in establishing the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer.

There were other positive moments. In the early days, I was often alone in a "one hundred men and a girl" situation but this was gradually replaced by a feeling of accomplishment with a team, extending over many pioneering fields such as:

  • aviation: the development of modern airworthiness standards;
  • telecommunications with the nurture of ISDN from a gleam in someone's eye to its full implementation;
  • the safety of life at sea, with, inter alia, the discovery of one of the commonest causes of shipwrecks, the hitherto unsuspected formation of voids in bulk cereal cargoes or the development of the innovative concept of liability for pollution at sea, etc;
  • maritime satellites: nursing the Inmarsat satellite which saves many lives at sea, from the inception of the idea to its full technical and economic implementation.

I could also mention interpreting one of the pioneers of heart transplants, Dr. Shumway, presenting his then very new work to many young as well as experienced cardiologists with the yearly follow-up meetings on heart surgery.

There are so many experiences that it is difficult to single them out, but the main conclusion must be that conference interpretation has come a long way since the founding of AIIC and that our contribution, whether it was highly personal as in some meetings or as members of a dedicated team, has enabled leading creators and innovators to communicate more easily with each other and to achieve significant results.

December 2001

Recommended citation format:
Ruth HALL. "Some memorable moments". September 30, 2002. Accessed October 17, 2018. <>.