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by Barry S. Olsen

Successful conference interpreting is a team effort. Think of those who make the conference interpreter’s job possible—the technicians, the sound engineers and the organizers who orchestrate the complex process that makes simultaneous multilingual communication possible. They are never in the spotlight. In fact, they dress in “show blacks” so as not to be noticed or work entirely behind the scenes to ensure that the multiple languages at a conference combine like the musical voices of a well-rehearsed symphony. Their contributions are all too often overlooked, even by the interpreters they serve.

On Saturday, March 30th, conference interpreting lost one of those behind-the-scenes heroes.

Bill Wood (aged 83) spent more than 40 years in the conference interpreting industry. He got his start by developing and patenting a wireless receiver back in the 1960s that was used for language training labs in high schools and universities throughout the U.S. He turned his attention to the world of interpretation quite by accident when one of his clients, the State of California, asked for his help in figuring out a way to provide technology for simultaneous interpretation for a presentation that was to be given by Governor Ronald Reagan and the President of France.

He was so intrigued by the process, and the fact that, as Bill put it, “it actually worked!” that he never looked back and devoted his life’s work to developing technology for interpreting. He founded his company, Design Specialists (today DS-Interpretation), in 1972. During his career, he patented key switching technology for remote simultaneous interpretation (RSI) and designed several generations of sound isolation booths and dedicated simultaneous interpreting equipment with patented features. Over the decades, Bill Wood developed a reputation for providing some of the best ‘sound’ in the business.

But what made Bill truly special was his belief in what he always called “the Magic of Simultaneous Interpretation.” When it works, it’s magic. People speak to each other as if they were speaking the same language. Bill’s amazement at this process never ceased. His enthusiasm and love of the profession, his awe of the interpreters, his care for the clients... All of this is what made Bill’s contribution to the world of Interpreting something special.  

His reach was both local and global: He designed equipment to help students at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) learn their craft and sent equipment as far away as the Congo and Mongolia. He worked for FIFA, various Olympic Committees, countless big-name corporations and even the British Government.

He was also well known in California for providing special and low-cost services for community involvement groups. He always held the belief that if you provide immigrants access to their communities in their own languages, they will become active community members working together across language borders to become the leaders of tomorrow’s integrated society. This belief led him into the world of medical interpreting, where he collaborated with professors at Stanford University, and to the development of the New York-based company SIMULTEL, which provided simultaneous interpretation to hospitals. One of the studies he was involved with was even published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  

Indeed, Bill was one of the pioneers responsible for putting modern-day simultaneous interpreting on the map. His designs and patents are key building blocks to structures we use every day, even if we don’t realize it. We celebrate his contribution to acknowledge his service to conference interpreting. Bill is now known among interpreters the world over for a quote he uttered in 2011 that has since become a watchword in interpreting: "Interpreters will not be replaced by technology. they will be replaced by interpreters who use technology."

We were honored to have Bill with us at InterpretAmerica 3 in 2012 in Monterey, California. We hope that new generations of simultaneous interpretation technicians, inventors and entrepreneurs will find inspiration in his decades-long effort and passion to make multilingual communication possible.

Bill, it was an honor and a privilege. You will be missed.


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