(Special thanks to Tanya Gesse, who contributed to this piece.)
Peter Less, who served as an interpreter at the Nuremberg trials, died October 9, 2019, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Peter was the recipient of ATA’s Alexander Gode Medal in 2006 for his pioneering service to the interpreting profession.
A native of Germany, Peter fled the Nazi regime and arrived in Switzerland in 1938. Peter’s father, mother, sister, and grandmother, who stayed in Germany to “wait out” the Nazis, perished. His father was an attorney, his mother a businesswoman, and, being educated people, they couldn’t imagine that the Nazis would take hold. They said, “this will pass.” Peter never saw them again.
Peter attended the Geneva School of Conference Interpretation, becoming one of its first graduates. In 1946, Peter, then 25, was recruited by the U.S. Army to provide interpreting services during the Nuremberg trials. From June to December 1946, he interpreted the proceedings from English into German (simultaneously in the courtroom, and consecutively during depositions). He also translated court documents as well as the final judgment. Nuremberg was one of the first times a multilingual event was interpreted using the simultaneous mode (with primitive interpreting equipment, including bolted-down microphones and heavy headsets).
Peter sat in the courtroom a few feet from Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, and others accused of crimes against humanity. These were the very people responsible for the deaths of his entire family. In the September 2004 issue of The ATA Chronicle, Peter reflected upon his role at these historic trials.
“It wasn’t easy. You were sitting in the same room with the people who probably killed your parents, but you could not let your feelings interfere with your job. You swore to interpret as faithfully as possible, to put the speaker’s idea into the listener’s head. So we did.”1
Following the trials, Peter moved to the U.S. and worked as a family law attorney in Chicago. Throughout the years, Peter generously gave his time to speak to audiences large and small. Having lived through a tumultuous historical period, Peter was asked in the 2004 Chronicle interview what advice he would give us today.
“Don’t follow somebody who tells you what’s good for you. I like the motto lead me to those searching for truth, but keep me away from those who have ‘found it.’”
- Gesse, Tanya. “Lunch with a Legend,” The ATA Chronicle (September 2004), 44, http://bit.ly/Peter-Less-Chronicle.