Posted by: Paul A. Forsyth | September 13, 2014

From Persico’s Nuremberg Trials Book: Inventing Simultaneous Interpretation, and the American Way vs. the British Way of Prosecuting War Crimes Trials

On Friday, I mentioned my regard for Joseph Persico’s book the the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials, Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial. (Persico passed away at the end of August, occasioning the post.) It is a book full of interesting tidbits of history, including much background on the preparations for the trials and the negotiations among the Allied powers leading up to the trials. (The Soviets were hampered in their ability to shape the form and procedures of the trials because most of the major German prisoners were in British or American custody.) Persico provides well-written portraits of such figures as Robert Jackson (who took a leave of absence from the US Supreme Court to serve as the chief American prosecutor), Gustav Gilbert (an American Army psychologist who interviewed the defendants), Burton Andrus (the prison commandant) — and of a number of the defendants. Besides giving an overview of the course of the trials and the evidence produced and defenses offered, the book discusses, for example, the difficulties of the German, Russian, and French attorneys in adapting to Anglo-Saxon style cross-examination of witnesses.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H27798, Nürnberger Prozess, Verhandlungssaal

Photograph showing the basic setup of the courtroom of the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg, Germany, September 1946. The defendants are in the dock at the left of the picture, with their guards standing behind them. Defense counsel sit at the tables just in front of the dock, facing the judges’s bench at far right. The judges’ clerks and other staff are sitting in front of the bench. The prosecutors’s tables are in the foreground. The witness stand is against the far wall, and the interpreters’ booth, shielded by glass, is in the left corner, behind the dock.

One part of Persico’s work that I found interesting (one of several such) was his treatment of the development of simultaneous interpretation for the trials. With the defendants and most of their counsel working in German, with the prosecution in three different languages (English, French, Russian), with judges from four countries, and with witnesses testifying in a multitude of languages, the organizers of the trial decided that they needed a system of close-to-real-time interpretation between four languages. At first, the man in charge of the Language Division, charged with making simultaneous interpretation work, was Col. Leon Dostert, US Army:

The colonel, former interpreter for General Eisenhower, champion of the still unproven IBM simultaneous-translation system, had set up a mock courtroom in the attic of the Palace of Justice. … Dostert was testing a job applicant to see if she could keep up with the “witness.” Speed was the acid test. An interpreter could not delay more than eight seconds before starting to translate. Otherwise, too many words backed up. Academics might be able to interpret written passages of Nietzsche or Schopenhauer, but often fell apart when the subject was toilet arrangements in a concentration camp. One of Dostert’s assistants, Lieutenant Peter Uiberall, a Viennese-born American, had developed a practical test. Uiberall would ask candidates to reel off in two languages the names of ten trees, ten birds, ten medical terms, ten automobile parts. They were looking for breadth of experience, people with curious minds as much as language mastery. Uiberall was always surprised by the number of city people who could not name ten farm implements in any language.

Dostert had made one basic decision. The best work was done when the interpreter listened in his native tongue and translated into the second language. They found that the interpreter first had to understand perfectly what was being said and then could usually find suitable words in the second language to express the thought.

Their greatest headache was German. Because the verb usually appeared at the end of the sentence, the interpreters never knew which way a thought was headed. Yet they dared not wait too long to start interpreting. The sentence might be, “I deny all knowledge of the existence of the death camps.” But what the interpreter heard in German was “Of the existence of the death camps all knowledge I deny.”

Dostert dispatched his deputy, Alfred Steer, a navy lieutenant commander and a gifted linguist himself, to scour Europe for the talent they needed. Steer raided the League of Nations in Geneva. But he found that many interpreters there were older, accustomed to translating from written documents, and unable to adapt readily to the pressure of interpreting on the spot. Steer had better luck at the Paris international telephone exchange. The operators were used to everyday foreign conversation under time pressure. In the end, whatever the candidate’s background, Steer found that only one prospect in twenty had the mental agility to listen and talk at the same time.

(111-12) Later, during the trial, Dostert left Nuremberg, and Alfred Steer was promoted to full commander and assumed command of the Language Division (262-63):

Steer, thirty-three, an energetic amalgam of man of action and scholar, with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, had inherited a crushing responsibility. Though simultaneous interpretation was complex and just born at Nuremberg, it had quickly been taken for granted. Justice Birkett enjoyed exercising his talent for invective against the interpreters. A speech in the vigorous, masculine Russian of the prosecutor, Rudenko, had been rendered into English by an effete interpreter whom Birkett complained sounded like “a ‘refayned’ decaying cleric, a latecomer making an apology at the vicarage garden party rather than the prosecutor of major war crimes.” Gruff German generals were interpreted by young women with chirpy little voices, diminishing the power of the witnesses’ testimony. On one occasion, after the aristocratic Erwin Lahousen had been interpreted by a barely educated German-American, Birkett asked, “And what language was that?” “Brooklynese,” Steer answered.

The interpreters also faced linguistic booby traps. Germans had a tendency to begin speaking with “Ja.” Interpreted literally, the utterance could amount to an admission of guilt. “Did you realize that what you were doing was criminal?” a prosecutor might ask. “Ja,” the witness would reply, meaning not “Yes,” but a space-filler, more accurately translated as “Well…”

What his critics should know, Steer thought, was how many candidates he rejected. The Pentagon shipped him batches of new interpreters, mostly ill-prepared. When he heard clumsy, made-up cognates such as judgify or tribunalize, he knew he did not have a lingust. The rejects were consigned to an area called “Siberia,” performing menial tasks until they could be shipped back to the States. And when all else ran smoothly, someone was always tripping over the cables that snaked through the courtroom, plunging the interpreting system into silence.

Interpreters section

Interpreters at the Nuremberg trials, March 1946.

The staffing experience of the Language Division was typical of a larger phenomenon that Persico identifies: the American tendency to throw a lot of people at a problem, with the expectation that sheer numbers will minimize the effects of variable quality, and brute force will get the job done. The book contrasts this with, for example, the British approach as exemplified during the trials (226-27) (emphasis added):

The British prosecutors, in their black coats and striped trousers, formed a small, select corps, skilled in their profession and steeped in the historical context of each case. By contrast, as Howard K. Smith noted in a broadcast: “The weakest feature of the case has been Justice Jackson’s staff … their briefs are written for them by assistants and many appear not to have read them over before entering the courtroom. They were probably quite skilled at defending railroads or prosecuting gangsters back home. But with a few brilliant exceptions, they have shown absolutely no knowledge of Nazism.” Janet Flanner, in her January 5 piece for The New Yorker, noted the succinct, reasoned cases the British prosecutors made. But the Americans, she wrote, had managed to make frightful war crimes “dull and incoherent.” Katy Walch, a British researcher working for the Americans, confided to a fellow Briton, “You see, they haven’t had a classical education.”

Jackson’s huge staff was suffering from the inefficiencies of scale. For all the prosecutor’s other strengths, administration was not among them. He was spending almost no time in the courtroom these days; instead, he willingly delegated the prosecution to assistants, who ran competing duchies. Jackson also recognized, too late, that he had made a fundamental mistake. The small corps of British prosecutors constituted a legal elite. Jackson, instead, had taken on phalanxes of American lawyers of mixed talents from the military. Most were civilians in uniform. They would acquire the requisite points for discharge, and within days would be on their way home, with hardly enough time to show their successors where the PX was, much less the intricacies of cases in progress. Jackson found himself begging people not to leave in the middle of a prosecution. Only 13 of his 150 original lawyers were still with him by January. Jackson complained that his staff was melting away.

Perhaps I am overgeneralizing, but that contrast — phalanxes versus a small, select, highly trained team — could probably characterize much about the American approach and the approach of the British (and some other countries and cultures), both in the WWII era and since then, in war and in other fields as well.

Jackson Nuremberg color

Justice Robert Jackson, as chief American prosecutor, addressing the court, 20 November 1945.

Incidentally, here is video of Alfred Steer talking about the Nuremberg trials for the USC Shoah Foundation. It appears that Steer passed away in 2003. Also, according to this one-page bio (PDF), Steer earned his Ph.D. in 1952, after leaving the Navy. The passage from Persico above could give a different impression. And it pleases me to note that Steer’s master’s degree was from Duke.

Image Credits: (1) Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27798 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 Germany. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Photo by Raymond D’Addario, 3264th Signal Photo Service Company, US Army. Dated 29 March 1946. USHMM, courtesy of National Archives. Retrieved from USHMM, Photograph #82954. Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Photo by Raymond D’Addario, 20 November 1945. Via Wikimedia Commons.



  1. Most interesting. I’ll have to pick up the book.

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