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A war crime in any language

The interpreters' booth with the four languages of the Nuremberg Trials (Photo: Bettmann Archive)
The interpreters' booth with the four languages of the Nuremberg Trials (Photo: Bettmann Archive)

The four Allied powers (the USA, the UK, the Soviet Union and France) agreed on the Charter of the International Military Tribunal in the summer of 1945. Among many other stipulations, the charter declared that the defendants were to be given "fair and expeditious trials." It also stated that documents related to the trials had to be given to the defendants in a language they understood, and that their examinations must also be conducted in such a language. Additionally, the fact that the trials were held jointly by four powers speaking three languages meant that the judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers also needed extensive translation and interpretation services.

The Nuremberg Palace of Justice with the Bavarian flag (Photo: author's own)
The Nuremberg Palace of Justice with the Bavarian flag (Photo: author's own)

The city of Nuremberg was chosen as the site of the trials after careful consideration, and there were several arguments going for it. For one, the Palace of Justice, the local court complex, remained almost entirely intact even after the Allied bombings in the late stages of the war. Secondly, it had a large prison attached to it, so there defendants would not need to be housed at a separate site. Thirdly, Hitler's regime considered Nuremberg as the ceremonial birthplace of the Nazi Party. The city hosted the annual Nuremberg Rallies celebrating National Socialism, and the infamous Nuremberg Laws, regulating racial relations in the country, were also passed here. It seemed appropriate to the Western Allies that the symbolic birthplace of the Nazi movement should also be its grave.
 
The Soviet Union, however, disagreed. The Russians wanted the trials to be held in Berlin, the capital city, which was captured by the Red Army after heavy fighting. Holding the trials there would have emphasized the Soviet Union's role in defeating the Nazis. As a compromise, the Allied agreed to hold the trials in Nuremberg, but to designate Berlin as the official home of the Tribunal authorities. As a gesture toward France, it was also decided that France would become the permanent seat of the Tribunal.

The American prosecution's table in the courtroom (Photo: University of Connecticut Libraries)
The American prosecution's table in the courtroom (Photo: University of Connecticut Libraries)

Interpretation was quickly recognized as a massive problem. The standard interpretation technique at the time was consecutive interpretation. The speaker would speak for a while, maybe a few minutes, then pause and wait for the interpreter to repeat his words in the other language. This would not have worked at Nuremberg. With four languages in use (including German), every single utterance would have had to be repeated three times in other languages, always one after the other, dragging out the proceedings to an impossible length.

U.S. Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson delivering the opening speech of the American prosecution at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
U.S. Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson delivering the opening speech of the American prosecution at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

There also existed another interpretation technique, very quick and used since ancient times: whispered interpretation, or chuchotage to use its French technical name. The interpreter would sit or stand close to the listener and whisper the speaker's words in his or her ears with minimal delay. This method was also unsuitable at Nuremberg, since every person involved in the trials would have needed a separate interpreter – for each language.
 
Now, the idea of a simultaneous translation assisted by modern technology had already been in the air since the 1920s. British engineer Alan Gordon-Finlay and American businessman Edward Filene developed some of the early technology necessary for the practice, including the "Hush-a-phone", a microphone that would only transmit the interpreter's speech while screening out background noises.

Gordon-Finlay demonstrating the Hush-a-phone (Photo: ILO Historical Archives)
Gordon-Finlay demonstrating the Hush-a-phone (Photo: ILO Historical Archives)
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A League of Nations conference in 1927 already used a telephone-based system. This, however, wasn't really simultaneous: all speeches were submitted in writing and translated beforehand, and the "interpreter" just read out the speech at the same time as the speaker was delivering it. This was not going to work at Nuremberg, where examination of the defendants was not going to follow a pre-written script. The Soviet Union was also experimenting with simultaneous translation. The VI. Communist International used some sort of system, but its exact details are lost, other than the fact that it did not involve headphones. In 1935, a medical conference in Leningrad also used some form of simultaneous interpretation, but, again, its technical details are unknown.

Congress session of the VI. Communist International, where a simultaneous interpretation system might have been in use (Photo: unknown photographer)
Congress session of the VI. Communist International, where a simultaneous interpretation system might have been in use (Photo: unknown photographer)

A new system had to be built from the ground up, and the job fell to Léon Dostert, a French-born American colonel who spoke perfect English, French and German. Dostert was orphaned as a young child before World War I. Blessed with a talent for languages, he was only 14 years old when he started working as a interpreter for German troops occupying the part of France he was living in. He later fell in with American Doughboys, who treated him as a sort of "unit mascot", and one of them helped him move to the States and start a new life after the war. Dostert grew up to be a noted linguist and Eisenhower's personal interpreter during World War II.

Dostert (leaning in) with Eisenhower (Photo: oxy.edu)
Dostert (leaning in) with Eisenhower (Photo: oxy.edu)

Public opinion at the time held that it's impossible for the human brain to hear speech in one language and speak the same sentences at the same time in another. Dostert was convinced that this was incorrect, and found an ally to help him prove his point: the IBM Corporation. IBM was willing to develop and supply an elaborate system of microphones and headsets for the Nuremberg trials, and they only asked the U.S. government to pay the cost of shipping and installation. This was far from a purely altruistic offer: once the system was proven to work, IBM made a killing selling it to the newly formed United Nations.
 
Dostert started hiring people for the job on October 1, 1945. He reached out to a wide range of prospects: not just established consecutive interpreters, but also military personnel, teachers, lawyers, even high school graduates who grew up in a multilingual environment. Initial tests involved naming 10 car parts, 10 trees, 10 garden tools and the like in two languages to show that the candidate had a good general competence in both. Additional tests checked the candidates' knowledge of legal and military terminology.

Léon Dostert (Photo: interstartranslations.com)
Léon Dostert (Photo: interstartranslations.com)

A second round of tests was conducted in early November 1945, this time in Nuremberg. Mock trials were held for practice and to see if the candidates could really translate simultaneously – only about 5% of the 700 applicants proved good enough to proceed. The rest were "sent to Siberia": reassigned to other branches of the Translation Division. People aged 35 to 45 proved to be the best-suited for the job. Younger people didn't have a wide enough vocabulary, while older ones couldn't focus well enough for simultaneous translation.
 
Meanwhile, France and the Soviet Union were charged with finding French and Russian interpreters. They also gathered colorful groups of people, including a prince and a princess who came from White Russian émigré families. The responsibility of finding German interpreters was borne by the Americans and the British.

The interpreters' booth, with the monitor on the right (Photo: nationalww2museum.org)
The interpreters' booth, with the monitor on the right (Photo: nationalww2museum.org)

The layout of Room 600, the room inside the Nuremberg Palace of Justice where the trials were held, was also arranged with an eye to interpretation. The interpreters' area was in a corner of the room at right angles with the defendants' benches – this was also part of Dostert's system, as he realized the importance of seeing the man you're translating. The area comprised of four desks, one for each language: English, Russian, French and German, separated by glass panes on all sides except at the top (earning the booths the nickname "the aquarium"), and lacking any sort of soundproofing. The desks were organized by the target language of the translation. The English desk, for example, would stay silent while someone was speaking in English; and the English-to-German interpreter at the German table, the English-to Russian interpreter at the Russian table, and the English-to-French one at the French table would be listening to the speech on headphones and speaking the translation into their microphones for German, Russian and French listeners, respectively.

The defendants' benches, with the "aquarium" partially visible in the bottom right corner (Photo: National Archives)
The defendants' benches, with the "aquarium" partially visible in the bottom right corner (Photo: National Archives)

Each table seated three people, one for each of the three other languages they needed to translate from, and each group of three shared a single microphone, since no two interpreters at a single table ever needed to speak simultaneously. An additional desk to the left of the aquarium seated the monitor, who could listen into any of the ongoing feeds to check for the speed, accuracy and energy of the interpreter. The monitor could also operate a yellow and a red light. The yellow light meant that the speaker was too quick for the interpreters and should slow down, or should repeat what he had just said. The red light notified the judge of a more serious stoppage – a technical error or the need to replace an interpreter with a coughing fit or a mental lock-up.

The warning lights (Photo: National Archives)
The warning lights (Photo: National Archives)

The sound of the proceedings was transmitted on five lines simultaneously: one dedicated to each language (including translations in that language), and one line carrying the unmodified voice of whoever was speaking at the time.

The switchboard through which the translations were routed (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
The switchboard through which the translations were routed (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Two auxiliary interpreters sat behind the judges, ready to help them if they had to communicate with each other. An additional dozen interpreters stood by to translate witnesses who spoke some other language, such as Polish, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Hungarian or Czech.  Meanwhile, stenographers made shorthand records of everything that was said in the room. These were edited and made available to every involved party the next day or the day after.

A small fraction of the paperwork produced during the trials (Photo: holocaustonline.org)
A small fraction of the paperwork produced during the trials (Photo: holocaustonline.org)

The main interpreters numbered 36, working in three teams of 12, with three people at each table as mentioned before. Each team worked in 85-minute shifts: one team in the booths, one in the adjacent room on standby, listening to the proceedings and updating their glossaries to make sure that all teams translated the same technical terms the same way. The two teams would swap places several times each day, while the third team had a day off – though the resting team also spent quite some time checking reports, helping with documents  and translating at closed sessions of the Tribunal.

Interpreters listening to proceedings and taking notes while waiting for their shift. The man at the table is Wolfe Frank, who would translate the sentences for the defendants. (Photo: Pen&Sword/BNPS)
Interpreters listening to proceedings and taking notes while waiting for their shift. The man at the table is Wolfe Frank, who would translate the sentences for the defendants. (Photo: Pen&Sword/BNPS)

One interesting facet of the interpreters' work was the defendants' attitude toward them. Luftwaffe chief Herman Göring, who spoke English pretty well, tried to use the interpretation service as a tool for his own defense. He often glared at the interpreters in the booths, or claimed incorrect translation whenever a nastier piece of truth was spoken out loud. Nazi documents, originally written in German, were a great source of such nitpicking for the defendants. These documents were translated into the Allies' languages for the trial, and when they came up during the sessions, the prosecutors would quote not from the originals (which they didn't understand), but from these translations. The interpreters had to translate these quotes back into German on the spot, which inevitably created discrepancies for the defendants to fuss about.

Part of the IBM machinery in operation during a court session (Photo: photographer unknown)
Part of the IBM machinery in operation during a court session (Photo: photographer unknown)

Some defendants were much more cooperative. Chief Nazi architect Albert Speer and economist Hjalmar Schacht both spoke excellent English and often gave the interpreters suggestions on how certain foreign words would be best translated into German. Propaganda broadcaster Hans Fritzsche even composed a set of "Suggestions for Speakers," advising his fellow defendants on how to speak in order to get better translation. He urged them to speak in short sentences and use the verb as early as possible. This was actually a pretty good advice, as the German language puts the verb at the end of the sentence when talking in the past tense, which makes it difficult to translate it into languages which don't have a similar word order.

The defendants (and even some of the guards) sharing an unplanned moment of laughter during the otherwise very serious proceedings. (Photo: unknown photographer)
The defendants (and even some of the guards) sharing an unplanned moment of laughter during the otherwise very serious proceedings. (Photo: unknown photographer)

Of course, the interpreters had a tough job even with help from such unlikely quarters. The technology was still in its infancy, and the four tons' worth of equipment installed in the room failed with some regularity. The mental stress of constantly listening to and repeating the terrible crimes perpetrated by the Nazis took a toll on several interpreters, and some of them had to be taken off the job. It must be noted that some interpreters were concentration camp survivors or the children of victims. Fairly and accurately translating the words of the men who orchestrated the atrocities must have been emotionally taxing beyond belief.
 
One such man was Howard Triest, a German Jew whose family tried to escape from Nazi persecution, but his parents were captured and killed in Auschwitz. He left his home at the age of 16 and returned as a soldier in the U.S. Army. He became an interpreter at Nuremberg, coming face-to-face with the architects of the genocide that claimed his parents. His story is recounted in the 2006 documentary Journey to Justice.

Howard Triest (Photo: BBC)
Howard Triest (Photo: BBC)

Additionally, the very nature of Nazi language, deliberately full of obfuscation and euphemism (just think of "The Final Solution", the planned extermination of Jews), made accurate translation difficult. And despite all these difficulties, the interpreters and translators at Nuremberg rose to the challenge. Without their hard work over ten months, the monumental task of bringing Nazi leaders to justice in a timely and orderly way would have been impossible.
 
The reels that recorded the complete work of the Nuremberg interpreters are lost, but their work (and the work of all interpreters and translators) are celebrated every year on September 30, the International Translation Day. The date falls very close to October 1, the end of the Nuremberg Trials, but this is actually merely a coincidence. The day is the traditional feast of St. Jerome, a famous 5th century translator of the Bible and the patron saint of translators.

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