How simultaneous interpreting was reinvented in Nuremberg

How simultaneous interpreting was reinvented in Nuremberg

After the victory over Nazi Germany, the Allies did not only make legal history with the Nuremberg Trials. The international tribunal also marks the birth of a new translation technique, namely simultaneous interpreting.

A Revolution for Criminal Law – and Interpreting

The decision of the victorious powers to bring the main war criminals of Nazi Germany before an international criminal court represents a milestone in the history of justice. The system of international criminal law that exists today, with its flagship court, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, would be unimaginable without the great Nuremberg Trial and its follow-up trials. But “Nuremberg” also stands for a far-reaching turning point in another area: interpreting. This was because, for the first time, the tried and tested method of consecutive interpreting was superseded by a completely new method: simultaneous interpreting. In this form of interpreting, the interpreter does not speak after the speaker, but at the same time as him/her. This means a saving of time that should not be underestimated, but it also places the extreme cognitive demands on the language mediator.

Nuremberg – the Birthplace of Simultaneous Interpreting

It was pragmatic considerations that ultimately lead to the decision to hold the major war crimes trial in Nuremberg. For a start, the city was situated in the American occupation zone. Most of the later defendants were in American captivity; moreover, it was the United States Department of War that was charged with planning the trial. Furthermore, the city had an intact courthouse, the Palace of Justice, with an adjoining prison. Today, the permanent exhibition “Memorium Nuremberg Trials” can be seen at the historic trial site, where information is also provided about the trial as the birth of simultaneous interpreting.

The Trial and the Role of the Simultaneous Interpreter

Since the German defendants had to stand trial before a joint tribunal of the four victorious powers, the trial was de facto conducted in four languages: German, English, French and Russian. It is thanks to the commitment of the interpreters that the trial could be carried out in this way at all. The interpreters had to work with absolute precision – after all, there is hardly any place where the wording of what is being said is as important as in court. They were also aware of the danger that the German defendants could take advantage of any incorrect interpretations of their testimonies.

If consecutive, i.e. time-delayed, interpreting had been used during the proceedings, the trial would have dragged on for several years. To prevent this, the new technique of simultaneous interpreting was used, which takes place almost in real-time. For this purpose, the company IBM specifically developed an innovative booth system equipped with corresponding switchable microphones and headphones. Thus, a new era of language mediation began in Nuremberg.

How Simultaneous Interpreting Works

Simultaneous interpreting, as proven in Nuremberg, is a cognitively highly demanding task. The interpreter listens, must understand what is being said and translate it correctly with minimal delay. He/she has no opportunity to ask questions and must not allow themselves to be distracted in any way. And, of course, he/she themselves must speak clearly and intelligibly at all times. This task of real-time translation is so demanding that simultaneous interpreters always work in a team and alternate after a maximum of 30 minutes.

In booth interpreting, which was developed for the Nuremberg Trials, a team of interpreters sits in a soundproof booth. The interpreter listens to the speaker through headphones and speaks into a microphone, whose signal in turn is transmitted to the listeners’ headphones.

A special form of interpreting is “relay interpreting”: if the source language is “exotic”, an interpreter interprets into a conference language (e.g. English), from which the other interpreters then translate into their respective languages.

At multilingual events with few participants, a method known as “whispered interpreting” is often used. Here, the interpreter is positioned diagonally behind the listener and can, as it were, speak into his ear. This type of interpreting has the advantage that it does not require technical equipment.

From Nuremberg into the Whole World – Simultaneous Interpreting Today

Today, simultaneous interpreting has established itself worldwide. At many multilingual events, real-time translation is the preferred and often the only feasible solution to interpreting.

And in Nuremberg? Here, the “Memorium Nuremberg Trials” commemorates this groundbreaking event that took place 75 years ago in the Palace of Justice.

The interpreting team at AP Fachübersetzungen certainly does credit to the hometown of simultaneous interpreting. Our highly-qualified translators and interpreters are at your side, whether it be at conferences, trade fairs, large and small events or in court – here in Nuremberg, where it all began.