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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (August 2014)

Whatever Could Be Said
By Ewandro Magalhães

On September 10, 1934, a speech was made in Nuremberg that would change the world forever. Thousands of fanatical German youths stood in well-trimmed phalanxes on Zeppelin Field as an awe-inspiring and eloquent Adolf Hitler brought the 6th Nazi Party Congress to a close.

Hitler had made a series of public appearances that week--his first as the almighty Führer of the German people, who already knew him as their Chancellor. A few days prior, an unlawful proclamation--and landslide plebiscite--had granted him unlimited authority over the country and its mighty army.

Through political cunning and the allure of promises of a far-reaching, invincible empire that was to last a thousand years he had earned the loyalty and obedience of German citizens and soldiers. With his mesmerizing presence this Austrian-born and hitherto ordinary politician, naturalized just two years before, had managed to sway a nationalistic country in his favor. By sheer force of oratory he would soon drag millions of well-meaning Germans into what was to become the bloodiest conflict in human history. Such is the power of words.

Something else happened that day. Across the border, some 500 miles away, radio listeners in France were amazed to hear the message in their own language just as the words were being pronounced in German. Andre Kaminker, an interpreter of legendary renown in the day, had reluctantly accepted to shadow the speech as it came, rendering every word and idea into French equivalents, in real-time. It had never been attempted, and Kaminker himself doubted that it could be done. Somehow he managed, and a new form of communication was thus born. Simultaneous interpreting had been invented.

The significance of that breakthrough could not be appreciated immediately. Soon thereafter, the world plunged into war and the technique lay dormant for another 10 years.

A decade later the eyes of the world once again turned to Nuremberg, as the Allies attempted to bring closure to the senseless conflict and unprecedented genocide Hitler had unleashed on Europe. Twenty-one Nazi officials charged with a variety of offenses and atrocities were brought to justice in what would go down in history as the first war crimes trial of modern times.

As judges, prosecutors, and counselors prepared for the historic case, a practical problem arose. Every testimony and every piece of evidence brought before the court would have to be interpreted from its original language into three others. Relying on consecutive interpreting--the traditional oral interpreting technique in which speakers and interpreters take turns--would prove tedious. It would prove risky, too. U.S. Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson feared that the defendants could use the trial as a platform to justify their wrongdoings and gain sympathy for their predicament. The longer the proceedings, the higher the risk that the Germans would succeed in depicting the trial as a victor’s charade: a tribunal for which no legal framework yet existed to address deeds yet to be qualified as crimes.

The new, untested method of interpreting--which promised to cut the duration of the trial by half--now had to be expanded and perfected. IBM had been experimenting with a “simultaneous telephonic system” and offered its equipment to be pilot-tested at no cost, thereby solving the hardware issue. The challenge of actually making this system work, using students untrained in the new technique to deliver instantaneous interpreting into German, English, French, and Russian, fell to Leon Dostert, who had formerly served as interpreter to General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The first professionals to be approached about the job objected fiercely to the proposed system. They resented the impersonality of being placed in an “aquarium,” and the inhuman speed required of them. Dostert, however, insisted that the new system was feasible and set about to provide whatever minimum training could be given to translators, lawyers, and judges on how to use it.
On November 20, 1945, the inaugural session of the court was called to order. Aware of the privilege and grave responsibility with which he had been entrusted, Justice Jackson had worked for weeks on his address. He chose his words wisely:

The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish were so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, for it cannot survive their being repeated.1

Once again, a powerful speech had set the tone. With those opening remarks, any hope of a Nazi rebuttal was seriously compromised. Jackson’s eloquent rhetoric held the courtroom spellbound for nearly four hours and successfully framed the trial as “the most significant tribute that power has ever paid to reason.”2

Divided into three groups of 12, the interpreters relieved one another every
45 minutes and rendered every word spoken in court into their respective languages, doing their best to capture the subtle figures of speech and the sentiment behind each utterance. To compensate for the overwhelming mental and psychological demands of the job, one day off was offered for every two days of work. A most welcome break after the “never-ending recital of horrors in the courtroom,” remembers Patricia Vander Elst, one of the Nuremberg interpreters. She also recalls how stressful it was to live “amidst a sullen native population in a town that was just a heap of rubble.”3 After just four months in Nuremberg, she said she felt 10 years older.

Despite their unpreparedness and limited training, these pioneers managed to get the job done and impressed many. Whitney Harris, with the American prosecution staff at the trials, marveled at 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.4

The trial proceeded for another 10 months, setting an important precedent in international law. Of the 21 accused, only three were acquitted. Seven were given prison terms and 12 were sentenced to death by hanging. In his summation to the court, on July 26, 1946, turning to Shakespeare for a powerful analogy, Jackson spoke of the defendants:

They stand before the record of this trial as bloodstained Gloucester stood by the body of his slain king. He begged of the widow, as they beg of you: “Say I slew them not.” And the Queen replied, “Then say they were not slain. But dead they are.” If you were to say of these men that they are not guilty, it would be as true to say that there has been no war, there are no slain, there has been no crime.5

Jackson had managed to establish “incredible events by credible evidence.” For him, the defendants had been given a trial which they, “in the days of their pomp and power, never gave to any man.” Finally, as if to reassure the world of the fairness of the proceedings, he asserted: “The future will never have to ask, with misgiving, what could the Nazis have said in their favor. History will know that whatever could be said, they were allowed to say.”

Indeed, whatever could be said was said and heard in four languages, thanks to the men and women who dared to challenge conventional wisdom and take the hot seat behind the glass, in that far-off year of 1945.

Nuremberg, a city so quintessentially German, had witnessed both the start and end of a vicious war. Like most, it was a war fought with guns and bayonets. And like any other before or since, one triggered and eventually crushed by outstanding speeches. Such is the power of language.

1. Nuremberg Trials. Opening Address for the United States. Justice Robert Jackson,

2. Ibid.

3. First-hand account of the Nuremberg Trials published on the website of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (2003),

4. Harris, Whitney. Tyranny on Trial: The Trial of the Major German War Criminals at the End of World War II at Nuremberg Germany 1945-1946 (Southern Methodist University Press, 1999), 27-28.

5. Nuremberg Trials. Justice Robert Jackson’s Summation for the Prosecution,

Ewandro Magalhães is an experienced conference interpreter and trainer of interpreters. He has a master’s degree in conference interpretation from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is the chief interpreter at the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva, Switzerland. He is the author of Sua Majestade, o Intérprete - o fascinante mundo da tradução simultânea. You can find his blog, Field Notes, at Contact: