I realize that when most people think about interpreters, they either confuse them with translators or just imagine them as boring people who sit in a box all day and repeat the boring speeches politicians give at conferences. Somehow I doubt that most people have ever thought about how important interpreters have been for the way we communicate and how the world today would not be the same without them. And I also doubt that people have ever viewed interpreters as badass or as heroes. Therefore, I’d like to tell you about:
The Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trials
I guess most of you already know what the Nuremberg Trials were, but here’s a short explanation for those who don’t: The Nuremberg Trials were a series of military tribunals, held by the Allied forces after the Second World War. They took place in the city of Nuremberg and they were most notable for the prosecution of prominent members of the Nazi leadership. As the people involved with the trial were American, British, French, German and Russian, it had to be conducted in four different languages. Which is why they needed interpreters.
I recently went
to an exhibition about those interpreters and even though it was a really small
one, it was super impressive-
because of what I learned about them.
Here are some of the most interesting and impressive facts:
Before the Nuremberg Trials,
simultaneous interpreting did not exist. Before the trials, people believed that the human brain was not
capable of something like that. The simultaneous interpreting equipment used
for the trials was the very first of its kind.
In this video you can see a demonstration of the simultaneous interpreting system. Later you can also hear some of the interpreters’ interpretations:
· None of the interpreters had ever worked as a simultaneous interpreter before. (The reason was, of course, that this profession had not existed before the trials.) Some were translators, consecutive interpreters or linguists, and others were ordinary people who had grown up bilingually, or people who had fled from Germany before the war and lived abroad for a while. The bar was set very high and they had to pass difficult and complex tests, including mock trials, before they were allowed to interpret at the tribunals. Since none of them had any kind of experience with simultaneous interpreting, they had to train themselves in a very short time.
· Without simultaneous interpreting, the Nuremberg Trials would have taken much longer or might not even have been possible at all. Before the trials, only consecutive interpretation was used. (With consecutive interpretation, the speaker stops every few minutes and the interpreter repeats what he said in the target language.) Since there were four court languages (English, German, French and Russian), using this interpreting technique would have prolonged the trials significantly. As the Cold War started soon after the end of the tribunals, it is unclear whether they could have been finished, had they taken any longer.
· Simultaneous interpreters were not the only language professionals working at the trials. If a witness spoke neither of the four court languages, consecutive interpreters were brought in to interpret their testimony- which was then interpreted again by the simultaneous interpreters. There were also interpreters sitting behind the judges to help them communicate. The American and the British judge were seated next to each other, so they could exchange their thoughts, but if they wanted to talk to the French and Russian judge, they needed the help of their interpreters. Translators also worked at the trials. They translated the notes taken by the court reporters in shorthand. These translations were then compared to recordings of the simultaneous interpreters’ interpretations, to make sure that they hadn’t made any mistakes which could influence the outcome of the trials.
· In total, the team consisted of approximately 50 interpreters, 200 translators and 100 people who compared the interpretations with the court reporters’ shorthand. Of course, this generated a lot of paperwork. One photo taken by the American military photographer Ray D’Addario shows employees in the court’s document room standing literally ankle-deep in translation paperwork.
Interpreters at the trials worked 85
minute shifts on their own. (In contrast, simultaneous interpreters today work in teams of two and
take turns in shifts of up to 30 minutes.)
interpreters were not able to finish their shift- not because of exhaustion,
but because they could no longer handle the psychological strain and could no
longer force themselves to listen to what was being said. The trials dealt
with the worst atrocities committed by the Nazis- war crimes, genocide, mass
murder and crimes against humanity. Many interpreters had to be replaced
-either because they left or because they returned to the translation department-
and later many said that they had nightmares because of those trials. One interpreter, however, also said that he didn’t really catch all the details of what was being said, because he was always way too focused on getting the grammar and the vocabulary right. (And yes, that happens. A lot.)
· One of the most famous photos of an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials does not actually depict an interpreter. The photo in question shows a young woman in a red suit wearing headphones and explaining the simultaneous interpreting system to the press. However, she was not actually an interpreter, but a lawyer’s secretary. The reason she was chosen as a model for this photo was that she always had the most fashionable suits, because her mother was a tailor.
Interpretations and Translations
could influence the outcome of the trials. The fact that recordings of simultaneous interpretations were checked
against the translations of the court reporters’ shorthand limited the risk of communication mistakes, but could
not eliminate it completely. Many Nazis, like Göring for instance, tried to use
this to their advantage- which, of course, put the interpreters under immense pressure to get everything exactly right. Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, the lead interpreter for the
prosecution, remembered Göring asking him: “Could you find me a good lawyer?
Although I might need a good interpreter even more than a lawyer.” After the
trials, some defendants claimed that they had only been found guilty because of
translation or interpretation mistakes. Interpretation or translation
mishaps could also negatively affect the prosecution, though. A mistranslation
of the word “Freimachung” (translated with “liberation” instead of “clearing”)
caused a big problem for chief prosecutor Robert H. Jackson during his
first confrontation with Göring in court. Of course, some words also have more than one meaning. And sometimes, one meaning was more incriminating than the other. Those words quickly became bones of contention.
More about the equipment
· Unlike interpreters today, the interpreters at the Nuremberg Trials did not have soundproof booths. Therefore, they had to be careful to not be distracted by ambient noise all the time. Their booths were nicknamed “the aquarium” because they were made of glass. However, those booths were not even closed glass boxes. There was one big glass panel in front of them, and smaller glass panels were used to separate the booths. The headphones were not soundproof either, and probably also not very comfortable.
· Everyone had to wear headphones, except for the guards. There were more than 300 headphones in the court room at all times.
· Each interpreter had a sign which said “slow”. They would hold it up if they wanted the speaker to talk more slowly. If a speaker did not see this (or ignored it), either the interpreters or a technician could push buttons which would light up differently coloured lights on the speaker’s table. The orange light told the speaker to slow down and the red light was a signal that there was a technical problem and the session had to be suspended until this problem was fixed.
What influence did those interpreters have on the future?
· Together with other interpreters who worked at the trials, Colonel Léon Dostert, the head of the interpreters at the tribunals, founded the United Nations Interpretation Service. The technology used in Nuremberg became the basis of modern interpreting technology and ever since the Nuremberg Trials, simultaneous interpreting has become an integral part of international politics and diplomacy. Without simultaneous interpreting, international institutions like the UN, NATO, the EU or the WTO would look completely different today.
These interpreters did something that was
considered to be impossible before the Nuremberg Trials. People believed that
the human brain was not capable of simultaneous interpretation and yet those
interpreters did it. In a short time, they taught themselves how to do it. They
worked with newly developed equipment that was far from perfect: Uncomfortable
headphones, people tripping over cables and no soundproof booths. They worked
shifts which were nearly three times as long as shifts today, and all the time
they had to listen to descriptions of the horrific atrocities committed by the
Nazis. But even though they were constantly faced with these horrors, even
though they were under immense pressure- the interpreters, translators, and
other language professionals involved with the trials still did their job. They
all put themselves through immense stress, psychological strain and possibly
trauma, to make the trials happen and to make sure that Nazi war criminals received
the punishment they deserved. Without those interpreters and translators, it would not have been possible. The simultaneous interpreters in
particular were pioneers of their profession. Without them, simultaneous
interpreting might not even exist. And without simultaneous interpreting,
international institutions like the UN or the EU would look completely
different today. The world might look completely different, too. After all, during the Cold War, fast communication with people who spoke different languages was essential. Who knows what might have happened without interpreters?
So, yeah, I don’t want to hear people calling interpreters boring ever again.
Just in case you’re interested in hearing more about this topic from someone who has actually lived through all this; here’s a speech by Siegfried Ramler, one of the interpreters who worked at the Nuremberg Trials:
[Finally, I’m not a historian or anything like that; I’m just telling you what I learned at the exhibition and from a few articles about it, because i found it interesting and super impressive. So if there’s anything that’s not correct, I apologize. Please let me know and I’ll correct it at once!]