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Until recently, most people who spoke two languages well enough to interpret did so only on the side, working full time in some other occupation. For example, many diplomats and high-level government officials employed people who were able to serve as interpreters, but only as needed. These employees spent the rest of their time assisting in other ways.

Interpreting as a full-time profession has emerged only recently, partly in response to the need for high-speed communication across the globe. The increasing use of complex diplomacy has also increased demand for full-time interpreting professionals. For many years, diplomacy was practiced largely between just two nations. Rarely did conferences involve more than two languages at one time. The League of Nations, established by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, established a new pattern of communication. Although the language of diplomacy was then considered to be French, diplomatic discussions were carried out in many different languages for the first time.

Since the early 1920s, multinational conferences have become commonplace. Trade and educational conferences are now held with participants of many nations in attendance. The United Nations (UN) now employs many full-time interpreters, providing career opportunities for qualified people. In addition, the European Union employs a large number of interpreters.

There is an increasing number of interpreters needed for customer service departments in companies and in the health care and legal fields.

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