Skip to content

Exhibition closed

We're open Monday – Thursday 10am – 4pm & Sundays 11am – 3.30pm

Unsung Heroes of Justice: The Translators and Interpreters of the Nuremberg Trials

Over the course of November, we will commemorate and explore the legacy of the Nuremberg Trials through a series of blogs. These trials – which persecuted 22 high ranking Nazis for war crimes – had an enormous impact on the universal concept of human rights and, what’s more, it led to a permanent international court to seek justice for crimes against humanity.

But many do not realise how important the Nuremberg Trials were to the professions of translation and interpretation. Before the trials began, the Allied nations agreed that any war crimes trials needed to be carried out fairly and expeditiously. To achieve this, the proceedings needed to be simultaneously accessible in English, French and Russian for the judges (representing USA, Britain, France and Russia) and also in German for the defendants and the defence counsel. Not an easy task!

But translators and interpreters have different roles. Translation is performed on written works, changing a source text into another language. Translation usually allows for edits and time for consideration and reference. Because the witness testimonies, empirical evidence and court proceedings (taking place over 10 months or 210 days) all had to be translated in four languages, this resulted in 42 volumes of published transcripts. This eye-watering amount of information gave the Nuremberg Trials the nickname “the trial of six million words”.

View from the gallery of packed courtroom. Note the interpreters in the top left corner. This gave them the best position to witness the proceedings and hear all those who spoke. Photo courtesy of USHMM.

Meanwhile, interpretation is performed on the spoken word, and although there are different types of interpretation, it is often performed without any time to consult sources. In order for the trials to take place as quickly as possible, simultaneous translation – meaning that an interpreter waits for a unit of meaning and then delivers that unit of meaning into another language – is what was required. (Although there was an understandable lag of about 6 to 8 seconds between what was said and what was translated).

After some impressive recruitment by the Americans, teams of 12 interpreters were assigned to each day of the trial. One additional team was kept in reserve while another team had the day off; thus, interpreters worked two days on and one day off.  Some interpreters who spoke Yiddish or Polish were called in occasionally to translate victims’ testimonies.

Meanwhile, IBM’s “International Translator System” which had been in operation since the 1920s in Geneva was installed within the courthouse in Nuremberg just three weeks before the trials began. Over 600 headphones were hooked up to an elaborate system of electronics so that everyone – from judges, to defendants, to journalists – could hear the proceedings in one of the four languages (Channel 1 was the verbatim proceeding; Channel 2 was English; 3 Russian; 4 French; and 5 German). The Nuremberg Trials’ goals for fairness and rapidity would not have been possible without this technology.

Interpreters were positioned in the courtroom close to the defendants, the legal teams and the judges. This allowed them to see the faces of those who spoke which, in turn, gave them better access to the nuance and emotions of the trials.

The job required a calm demeanour, good hearing/speaking, the ability to focus, and the awareness of linguistic nuance. Often interpreters needed more than just one term to describe something, but secondary or tertiary words to convey meaning.  Interpreters were generally between the ages of 25 and 45 years old. Younger individuals often lacked vocabulary and older individuals lacked the sustained focus needed for important interpretation. Some objected to women interpreting for male speakers, while men were considered to have better voices than women. Astonishingly, interpreters worked in 85 minute shifts on the microphone (today, UN interpreters do not work longer than 20-30 minutes without a break!)

Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations.

Auxiliary interpreters also assisted the proceedings. To ensure consistent translation, all lawyers, defendants and witnesses who spoke were asked to slow their pace to 60-80 words per minute. This was monitored by an auxiliary interpreter (or ‘monitor’) who operated a signal system of yellow and red lights. The monitor would flash a yellow light if a speaker needed to slow down, while a red light would indicate that s/he needed to interrupt the proceedings for coughing spells, interpreter replacement, or if a phrase or passage was inaudible and needed to be repeated. This signal light system, first used at Nuremberg, is still in place today in international contexts, such as the UN.

Headset used by Hermann Göring during the Nuremberg war crimes trials, USHMM.

There were a few problems with this elaborate system of interpreting and translating. The Nazis used certain German words as euphemisms or to hide meanings (‘expulsion’ in place of ‘extermination’ is a popular English equivalent). These meanings were often not clear to the interpreters until more context was provided, which resulted in confusing or inconsistent vocabularies. The content of the trial was also highly distressing and often interpreters struggled to repeat the words or phrases describing murderous acts. Finally, speaking for 85 minutes straight often resulted in coughing fits and interruptions.

The work of such interpreters and translators was not solely limited to the famous Nuremberg Trials. Because Holocaust survivors often spoke multiple languages (but were not Nazis themselves), their multilingualism was invaluable to the military governments who urgently needed to re-establish legal courts and other civil systems in the chaos of post-war Germany. For example, our survivors Iby Knill and Eugene Black both worked as interpreters for the British military. Both met their future spouses through this important work and migrated to Britain after the war.

In light of the mass atrocities and tremendous violations of human rights that occurred throughout wartime Europe, the Nuremberg Trials sought to administer justice to the Nazi politicians, administrators and bureaucrats that allowed such murderous policies to flourish.

But its legacy also affected the practicalities of how to administer that justice. Even today, the hundreds of translators and interpreters who work for the United Nations follow many of the same rules and procedures that were first created at Nuremberg. The remarkable contributions of countless translators and interpreters ensured that these trials were fair and expeditious, so that justice was promptly administered for all the world to see.

Dr Chelsea Sambells – 03/11/21

Can you help us?

We hope that this blog post was useful to you. We are ambitious, creative and committed to continue writing articles like this, but our work relies on donations from generous and dedicated people like you.