One Trial – Four Languages
The Pioneers of Simultaneous Interpreting at Nuremberg
Who were the simultaneous interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial?
The International Military Tribunal in 1945-46 (the first of several Nuremberg Trials) was a ground-breaking event. Four nations came together to charge the leaders of the Nazi regime with crimes against humanity. That event, in itself, has filled history books. But to make these legal proceedings in four languages – English, French, German and Russian – possible, something else ground-breaking had to happen. This was the breakthrough for an embryonic technique called simultaneous interpreting. And until very recently, it had passed almost unnoticed.
So a small band of AIIC members decided to dig out the existing research and try to find out more, and that is how this slowly expanding exhibition was born…
Research from our association
HOW IT ALL BEGANIn 2013 a small band of interpreters in the German Region of the Association Internationale des Interprètes de Conférence (aiic) teamed up with Memorium, the city museum in Nuremberg dedicated to the trials of Nazi war criminals, to organize a series of events.
Themes included the origins and evolution of simultaneous interpreting, interpreting in crisis zones and interpreting for international criminal tribunals. The first event was devoted to the “achievements of the pioneers”, the people who tried out this unknown and demanding method of interpretation under such difficult practical and emotional conditions. Some had volunteered, others had been sent. Why had they come? Where had they learned these languages? What prepared them – if anything – for the harrowing experience? Did it change their lives?
The event was accompanied by a small exhibition. Trying to trace the destinies of those people, most of whom had been victims of the Nazi regime in one form or another, demonstrated how little is actually known about them. In fact, many of those early interpreters have still not been identified or their stories have been buried by the years. The exhibition aroused tremendous interest, and so the research continued, and our material has been expanded and updated.
WHAT DO WE KNOW?Unfortunately not enough yet. Lawyers and historians have analysed the trials from every conceivable angle, but so far nobody has wasted much thought on the amazing feat of facilitating the proceedings in four languages. Simultaneous interpreting was still basically unknown as a technique back then, and the technical conditions were rudimentary.
The first detailed study was Francesca Gaiba's 1996 thesis "The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation" (published 1998, University of Ottawa Press). In her book, she gives personal details of some of the interpreters. Over the years a few articles have been published, not least by aiic members, and occasionally memoirs appear or references crop up in other books. Information is scattered about the globe and hard to trace. We managed to contact the three surviving interpreters and the families of several more, who have provided us with valuable input.
We still have so many clues to follow up, but it all takes a lot of time and money. In 2015 we set up an association in Germany to place the project on a broader footing. We hope to dig deeper and pay our pioneers the tribute they deserve, but for that we need more financial resources and willing helpers.
From 7 to 22 November 2022 the Department of Translation Studies of Innsbruck University organized the exhibition in cooperation with AIIC Austria. The two weeks were accompanied by a very varied programme and it was most impressive to see how intensively the professors and students became involved. Several students prepared thoroughly to provide the guided tours of the exhibition in various languages. Certainly, an exercise out of the ordinary that will tie them closer to their future profession.
The highlights for 2023 were the two exhibitions in Brazil. First, in the Palace of Justice of São Paolo from 10 March to 10 April 2023, then from 15 April to 13 May 2023 at the Pontific Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro. This was an effort by AIIC Brazil and its national sister organization APIC, the members of these organizations were extremely active and creative. Thanks to their excellent PR skills the exhibition and its programme generated a lot of positive PR for the exhibition, AIIC and the profession. And, as always, many non-interpreters learned a lot about the profession and its beginnings that they were not aware of.
Unfortunately, three efforts to co-organize with universities in Paris (ESIT), Brussels (Free University of Brussels) and Washington D.C. (Georgetown) fell through, as the administrations of these institutions were unable to provide the necessary cooperation and support. Hopefully, there will be another chance in the future.
Meanwhile, a little sister is being created for the 1 Trial – 4 Languages exhibition. A very small-scale exhibition on the history of the development of the technology for simultaneous interpretation covering the period from 1928 to the present is in the making and will have its debut at AIIC Germany’s annual meeting in November 2023 in Nuremberg. It will be interesting to see to where it will travel in the future.
WAYS YOU CAN HELPHistory scattered the Nuremberg interpreters to the winds, so we need help in lots of places and in lots of ways:
- Rummaging in archives
- Communicating with people
- Translating stories
- Exploring the equipment
- Donating money