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Anyone who enjoys a night at the opera will have noticed that English plays a minor role in the art form compared with the language’s ubiquity in the world of popular music.

There are operas in English – Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for instance – but the dominant language of the genre is unmistakeably Italian. The big three languages of opera are Italian, German and French, and professional opera singers need to master at least one to a high level. To be able to sing in all three, they need to develop a working knowledge of each language without necessarily being fluent.

From the Renaissance to the Baroque, at a time when words to describe how music should be played were being developed, many of the most important early composers were Italian. That’s why in sheet music, you’ll find words such as adagio, legato, staccato, piano, forte, crescendo, and diminuendo.

Traditional folk music remained in local languages but with the rise of the mass media, things began to change.

The 20th Century saw a huge shift in the language of popular music and, today, Europe and much of the world is dominated by songs performed in English, either by performers from the UK or US or by local singers eschewing their native tongue to achieve maximum appeal. In this way, English is seen as the lingua franca of not just business and politics but also of first love, heartbreak and teenage rebellion.

English language popular music, largely from Britain, has been an intimate part of the soundtrack of young people’s lives on the Continent for 50 years. In Germany, seven out of 10 of the top-selling albums of all time are in English by acts who include Phil Collins, Genesis and Queen.

Although the UK has only won the Eurovision song contest five times, and Ireland seven, nearly half of the winning songs in the contest’s 60-year history have been performed in English. Successful artists singing in English have represented Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Turkey, Ukraine, Greece, Finland, Russia, Norway, Germany, Azerbaijan and Austria.

The most enduring Eurovision winners are, of course, the Swedish quartet ABBA, who dominated the pop charts with English language renditions of their songs (although they were versatile enough to record some in Swedish, German, French and Spanish too).

Popular music sung in English is one of the strongest and most enduring exports of British culture across the world. And it is one-way traffic with acts performing in a language other than English an extreme rarity in the British charts.

Sir Mick Jagger has tried to redress the balance in a small way by saying a few words of the local language between songs when the Rolling Stones play in a non English speaking country. He learned some Spanish for the 2016 tour of South America and Cuba, delighting the crowds by speaking to them in their own language.

But sometimes you wonder if comprehension is very important at all compared with the universal appeal of an urgent rhythm and a catchy melody.

If understanding the words was such a big deal, we’d never have been treated to such classic pop lyrics as “A Wop-Boppa Loo-Bop a Wop-Bam Boom”, “Obla-Di-Obla Dah” and “Da Doo Ron Ron Ron, Ra Doo Ron Ron”.

And wouldn’t the world be a poorer place for that.
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Today, the sight of diplomats at the UN or other international conferences all plugged into earphones, listening to speeches that are instantaneously translated into several languages is a familiar sight.

But simultaneous interpretation is actually only 70 years old, developed specifically for the most famous court proceedings in history, the Nuremberg Trials, when the leaders of the recently-defeated Nazi regime were held to account for their crimes.

Before Nuremberg, any kind of interpretation was done consecutively, with the lawyer, judge or defendant speaking first and then waiting for the interpreter to translate.

The International Military Tribunal was charged with delivering “fair and expeditious trials” of accused Nazi war criminals and so organisers sought a way of speeding up a process which would need to be clearly understood in German, English, French and Russian.

Colonel Leon Dostert, who worked as a foreign language expert for the US Army, pioneered the method of listening and speaking at the same time. He worked with IBM to develop a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the cacophony of languages and hired exceptionally talented interpreters and trained them in this new form of interpreting.

Nowadays, although we rarely see them behind the shaded glass of their courtroom booths, interpreters still play a key role in the delivery of international justice.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague (ICJ) is composed of 15 judges, who are elected for terms of office of nine years by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council. Its official languages are English and French but, of course, the court is also able to provide simultaneous interpretation in any language necessary.

Most recently, the lengthy trials of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic required large numbers of interpreters who could interprete and translate Serbo-Croat, French and English.
The lexicon of the law in English reveals a thousand years of tradition and change.
Although we are still using Anglo Saxon words such as writ, moot, witness, deem and oath, many of the older Celtic and Anglo Saxon expressions, were superseded by those in power after the Norman conquest.

Thus our legal system has many words derived from French, including judge, court, marriage, payment, possession, property, beneficiary, escrow and force majeure.

Lots of these words had Latin roots themselves and ran alongside “pure” Latin expressions which we still use today such as:
sine die –without a fixed date
bona fide – in good faith
caveat – warning
ex gratia – done as a favour
habeas corpus – writ applying for a person’s release from unlawful custody
post mortem – examination of a body to find cause of death
prima facie – on the face of it
pro bono – for the public good

Along the way, lawyers found themselves using both, presumably so they would be understood by everyone.

So today we have the familiar tautological expressions goods and chattels (an Anglo Saxon word and a Norman French word) and last will and testament (Anglo Saxon and Latin).

So, in a sense, simultaneous interpretation has been around a lot longer than you might think.

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