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Nuremberg Trials, 75 years of Simultaneous Interpretation

Interpretation

75 years after its first use at the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, simultaneous interpretation is still modeled largely after the process implemented by the Allies during the trial of Nazi war criminals.

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Nuremberg Trials, in which Nazi leaders were tried for their crimes against humanity. During the international military tribunals, the world witnessed an unprecedented due process; never before had a coalition of nations come together to form an international court to try the leaders of an aggressor, albeit dissolved, nation. Furthermore, the tribunals were the first time on record a court used simultaneous interpretation in its process.

The necessity to ensure a multilingual process came about from the Allies’ mission to provide “fair and expeditious trials” of the Nazi leaders. Since the tribunal had representation from France, the Soviet Union, the UK, the US, and the former Nazi Germany, the Allies determined a fair process could only occur if the trials were carried out in English, Russian, French, and German.

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With interpreters present for the trials, the Allies now had to figure out a way to guarantee expeditious proceedings, a difficult task even with two languages, let alone four. Prior court proceedings and official events generally provided consecutive interpretation – a practice in which the speaker waits for the interpreter to finish speaking before moving on to the next statement. However, such a back-and-forth process would have taken far too long, according to officials.

To speed up the interpreting process, Colonel Leon Dostert, a French-American foreign language expert for the US Army, suggested the idea of simultaneous interpretation. Consulting with IBM, Dostert proposed a system of microphones and headsets to transmit each language simultaneously with the speaker. The solution proved effective, aside from stories of prosecutors occasionally tripping over the wires.

Thus came the birth of modern simultaneous interpretation. Since the Nuremberg trials, interpretation practices are still largely based off the improvisation of Dostert and IBM. Although communication technology advancements have streamlined the process for interpreters, the practice is still heavily reliant on humans to parse regional accents and errors in speech. Nevertheless, the innovative practices of these trials have set a number of precedents for international justice, not least of which the inextricable link to language to ensure a fair due process.

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