French, German, Italian, Romansh, English: How do the Swiss talk to each other?

The art of interpreting in Switzerland’s polyglot parliament

The French and German interpreting booths in the House of Representatives Keystone

Four times a year politicians speaking German, French, Italian and Romansh gather in Bern to debate and vote on a range of issues. Ensuring everyone can understand what’s going on is challenging, stressful but rewarding, says one of parliament’s official interpreters. 

This content was published on September 26, 2019 - 13:35

“I was absolutely nervous the first time I did it!” explains Hans Martin JörimannExternal link 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 sessionExternal link, which ends on Friday. 

Booth with a view: Hans Martin Jörimann (left) in action. The Italian booth is directly opposite

“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. 

Multilingual Day

September 26 is the first “Multilingual Day” in the Swiss parliament. 

The event was organised by the association Helvetia LatinaExternal link, which aims to promote French, Italian and Romansh within parliament and the federal administration. 

The idea for “Multilingual Day” is for politicians to develop a greater understanding for other linguistic regions and for German to become a minority language for a change. To that end, German- and French-speaking politicians are encouraged to speak another national language for the day.

End of insertion

Today, interpreters are in action only in the House of Representatives (and when the 46 members of the Senate join it to form the Federal AssemblyExternal link). Visitors in the public gallery can also put on headphones and the debates can be followed via a live stream in all three official languages on the parliament websiteExternal link

No interpreting is provided in the Senate. A parliamentary communicationExternal link from 2014 notes that “members [of the Senate] have rejected calls for interpreters on several occasions because citizens expect members of the [Senate] to be able to understand the debates in at least one other national language”. 

Similarly, parliamentary committeesExternal link are not translated, with the authorities arguing in 2007 that “Switzerland (was) born of a common will to share the same destiny: each federal parliamentarian has a clear duty to endeavour to understand the language, the culture, the attitudes of others, wherever they may come from. … [This] assumes that the members are able to overcome linguistic barriers in face-to-face discussions”. 

So how many parliamentarians actually make use of the interpreters’ skills? “The number of people sitting down there during a normal debate is not so impressive – maybe a third of members are sitting now and every now and then someone grabs the headphones. But there are people who use them systematically,” Jörimann says. 

“It’s possible there’s an element of pride [in not using headphones], but another element is that votes have been decided and the debates happened in the committees.” 

Be prepared 

All nine parliamentary interpreters are freelancers who have contracts for the 55 days a year that parliament sits. Although each interpreter is in action for “only” five hours a day, a lot of preparation is necessary. 

“It’s not like after 12 or 13 years you stop preparing – every debate’s a new debate, new initiatives are coming up. There’s a certain degree of routine as far as the procedural part is concerned – it’s always the same protocol that’s being followed – but the items on the agenda are always new,” Jörimann says. 

“Personally I like foreign politics, I’m interested in what’s going on between Switzerland and the EU for example. The environment’s a challenge because often it’s about the protection of a specific species and you have to learn lists of insects and stuff like that. I wouldn’t say I’m not interested in that, but you know that your performance depends on your preparation. You have to force yourself to be interested in all those topics.” 

Interpreters – and the public – can get help from online parliamentary database TERMDATExternal link, which contains some 400,000 terms on legal and administrative jargon in Switzerland’s four national languages and English. 


Simultaneous interpreting is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It’s “one of the most exhausting things you can do with a human brain”, writes David BellosExternal link in his book Is That A Fish in Your Ear?. Interpreters’ stress levels have also been compared to those of air-traffic controllers. Does Jörimann immediately lie down in a dark room between shifts? 

“It can certainly be stressful!” he admits. “Usually we go and grab a coffee. When the weather’s nice we might just go and sit in the sun for a while. But sometimes we might stay in the booth because we’re interested in what’s going on or there might be a vote coming up.” 

When it comes to the toughest part of the job, Jörimann says it’s got to be when someone starts telling a joke. 

“Jokes are not funny. They’re usually impossible to translate – you have to paraphrase but obviously they lose their humour,” he says. 

“Or when a quote is used. Yesterday a politician read from a fable by [French poet] La Fontaine. Now, unless you’re a genius or know stuff like that by heart – or can search the internet at lightning speed – you’re forced to say something like ‘Mr X is now quoting from a fable’...” 

A different challenge for interpreters: Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev chats with Swiss President Adolf Ogi during a visit to the Swiss parliament in 2000. The interpreter (second from right) has to focus on small talk and banter rather than technical jargon. Keystone

Asked for a golden rule of interpreting, Jörimann says you always have to take a step back. “You shouldn’t add your personal views and emotions and distort the original version.” 

This is not always possible. Bellos notes that at the Nuremberg Trials “on more than one occasion an interpreter burst into tears on hearing testimony from Rudolf Höss, the ice-cold commandant of Auschwitz”. 

Computer translations 

While one would think that interpreters will always be needed so long as people speak different languages, computer technology is advancing rapidly. Computers can already translate texts a lot better than just a couple of years ago and voice technology is also spookily impressive. Is Jörimann worried? 

“To some extent, yes. Most interpreters follow what’s going on and you think ‘well, it’ll still be another 20 years before that happens’," he says.

"And it might be that way. But honestly I’m not sure what would be first: English as a lingua franca – which would mean we’re superfluous anyway – or computer technology advancing to the point that it could replace us.” 

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