Hitler and the Birth of Modern Interpreting

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Hitler and the Birth of Modern Interpreting

The Interpreters

The Interpreters

In the summer of 1945, the technology and application of translation and interpretation needed a great push forward. The Nuremberg trials were to begin on November 20th. Twenty-one Nazi officials faced the consequences of their atrocities, and it was in the best interests of the assembled judges and counselors to conduct the trial in as fair and expeditious a manner as reasonable.

U.S. Chief Prosecutor and Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson understood that the longer the trial, the more likely the Germans could use it as a platform for justification and sympathy. To allow for traditional, consecutive interpreting, in which speakers and interpreters take turns, would at least double the length of the trial, if not create “such a confusion of tongues that it will be ridiculous.” Some new methodology would have to be employed. An efficient and accurate method for the English, French and Russian speaking jurists and prosecutors to communicate simultaneously with the German speaking defendants.

Fortunately, a famous French interpreter had developed the necessary technique eleven years earlier. In keeping with the surreality of the times, Andre Kaminker had broadcast the first simultaneous interpretation of a speech in 1934, one given by Adolf Hitler at a congress of the Nazi Party, in Nuremberg. It had been done, but in the ensuing decade, there had been hardly any advancement of technology or protocol for the technique.

It fell to General Eisenhower’s personal interpreter, Colonel Leon Dostert, to design and implement a simultaneous interpretation system that would make the trials possible. After some experimentation with an IBM multi-channel switch, headphones and microphones, Dostert held a demonstration at the Pentagon and received favorable reports. While delegations from France and the Soviet Union resisted, Justice Jackson was committed. He insisted that it would work, otherwise the trial would never end.

The system as implemented involved three teams of twelve interpreters each, with two teams rotated on any given day, while the third team rested from the grim efforts of translating testimony of wartime atrocities; one day off for every two days of work. Patricia Vander Elst was recruited from the Geneva School of Interpreters and worked the last four months of the trial. “I was twenty-one when I started at the trial and I was ten years older when I left.”

The twelve interpreters on duty were divided into four “desks” of three interpreters, each responsible for one-way translation from one of the other languages into the language of their desk. When a German defendant was speaking, for example, the German desk was silent, and the German interpreters at the English, French, and Russian desks translated from German into the appropriate language. Anyone in the courtroom with a headset could listen to the language of his or her choosing.

Whitney Harris, a member of the American prosecution staff, describing the new “instantaneous translation” system:

Whatever was said on an incoming line was instantaneously translated into the other languages by wonderfully skilled interpreters. The interpretations then went into every chair in the courtroom by other telephonic wires, to be picked up through headphones for which a switch was provided to enable the listener to select the preferred language. It was the first time in history that such a system had been used in a judicial proceeding or, for that matter, in any hearing of such length and complexity.

After the trial began, Reich Marshal Hermann Göring—who spoke English as well as German—exclaimed, “This system is very ­efficient, but it will also shorten my life!”



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