A Review of the Use of Simultaneous Interpretation in War Crime Tribunals






By Miriam Sharon











A Seminar Paper presented for Dr. Ruth Morris’ Course:

Interpretation In Courts


As part of the requirements for the



Masters Program in Translation Research

Department of Translation

Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan  





October 2004


Introduction……………………………………………………………………         3


Background……………………………………………………………………         4


Impact of SI at the Nuremberg Trial on the Future………………………            9

Japanese War Tribunal (1946 -1948) …………………………………          10

The Eichmann Trial (1961)………………………………………………       12

The Demjanjuk Trial (1986)……………………………………………..        14

The Lockerbie Trial (2000 - 2001)………………..                                          16        The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (1993-         18 ongoing)


Shortcomings of SI in War Crime Trials and Problems Facing the Interpreter

Linguistic Issues…………………………………………………………..      20

Personnel and Stress………………………………………………………     22


Improvements Since Nuremberg of SI at War Crime Tribunals……………      24


Conclusion………………………………………………………………………      25 













With the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers and the revelation of the unprecedented atrocities against humanity perpetrated during the Second World War, the Allies set up the first International Military Tribunal whose task was the indictment and trial of major Axis figures. The purpose of this Tribunal, held in Nuremberg, was not only to judge and sentence the war criminals but to have the heinous crimes brought to the consciousness of the world. Furthermore,  another objective of the Tribunal was to raise awareness to the fact that any persons perpetrating crimes against humanity, even if done so in the name of that person’s country and on command of its leadership, would individually be liable for indictment and punishment. “An entirely new international precedent was created. In the largest sense, the Allied powers as a group hoped to establish for the future of humankind international legal precedent by prosecuting Nazi leaders for waging aggressive war and perpetrating crimes against peace and humanity.”  [1]


In order to render this momentous, historic trial effective and have its procedures understood by the world it was decided that the proceedings would be conducted in four languages - German, French, English and Russian. For this purpose the innovative system of simultaneous interpretation was implemented, a system which was to become the accepted solution to overcome language barriers in conferences and multi-lingual trials and settings during and after the Nuremberg trial, till this very day.


Since the Nuremberg trial the world has witnessed numerous wars and crimes against humanity in different locations. Several of these have concluded with military and criminal tribunals.  Literature discussing the issue of simultaneous interpretation (SI) in these tribunals is scarce and a general overview of trials using SI since 1945 has apparently not yet been written.  The aim of this paper is, therefore, to  give a brief historical review of the different war crime tribunals that have been operating since 1945 such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY),  the Eichmann and Demjanjuk trials in Israel and the Lockerbie trial in the Netherlands.  The paper will examine the development of  SI as an effective tool to overcome language barriers deriving from the fact that witnesses, judges, lawyers and defendants participating in these international trials  come from different backgrounds, cultures and speak different languages.  A review will be given of the various structures, provisions and requirements of the respective tribunals and an attempt will be made to examine the shortcomings and merits of SI as applied in this context while comparing proceedings and linguistic features of the various trials.   



“The need for interpretation at international conferences only developed during the First World War. Before that time French was the only official diplomatic language.”[2]

The need for interpretation became far more pronounced with the establishment of the League of Nations and the meetings of the International Labour Organization. At first the method used was consecutive interpretation or whispering but this proved time consuming. “Simultaneous interpretation was devised as an improvement of the consecutive and whispering modes”[3] and was initially made possible by IBM’s  production of the Filene-Finlay “hushaphone” which was the closest device to what we have today for SI booths. The device, that enabled the electrical transmission of speech  through a wired system of microphones and headphones, was first used in 1927 at an International Labour Conference. Nevertheless, the actual SI was not carried out then entirely as we practice it today. The procedure could rather be referred to as “simultaneous successive interpretation” whereby “the interpretations were simultaneous with each other, but not with the original speech. There was always at least one successive interpretation. The various interpreters would take notes on the original speech … after the end of the speech, one of the interpreters, usually the French interpreter, would take the stand and translate consecutively into his language. At the same time, the other interpreters…gave their version of the speech in English, Spanish etc.”[4]


At the International Labor Conference in Geneva in 1927, the Filene-Finlay system was used for the simultaneous reading of pretranslated texts where the speakers had made available the text of their speech well in advance for the interpreters. The interpreters would translate the text prior to the session and read it at the exact same time that the speech was being delivered. Hence we can safely say that the first time that SI, as we know it today, was officially and effectively implemented was between November 20, 1945-October 1, 1946 at the Nuremberg trials.


When the representatives of the major Allied powers - Great Britain, the U.S.S.R, the U.S.A. and the provisional government in France - convened in London in August 1945 they drew up the London Charter, an agreement signed by 19 countries, which established the International Military Tribunal (IMT) and listed “the categories of crimes that would fall under its jurisdiction, namely crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and conventional war crimes.”[5]


 The moment that preparations to set up the war tribunal began it was clear to all involved that the trial would have special linguistic needs. Two major constraints stipulated in the charter had to be overcome when making interpretation arrangements. They were the right of every defendant to a fair trial and the need for the trial to “be carried out as expeditiously as possible, in order to reduce costs and time and to keep the attention of the media.”[6]  Article IV in the Charter of the IMT regarding the fairness of trial stipulated  that:

“(a) A defendant shall be furnished, at a reasonable time before his trial, a copy of the indictment and of all documents lodged with the indictment, translated into a language which he understands. The indictment shall state the charges plainly, concisely and with sufficient particulars to inform defendant of the offenses charged.

(b) The trial shall be conducted in or translated into a language which the defendant understands.”[7]


Consecutive interpretation was not appropriate for this situation as it would have prolonged the trial extensively, particularly given the fact that proceedings were to be interpreted in four languages - English, German, Russian and French. The decision to have the trial conducted officially in four languages derived from the fact that the prosecutors and judges were from four countries and like the defendants were entitled to fairness in procedure. “The complexity of the issues at the trial was such that the prosecution could not be expected to carry out their work in a foreign language.”[8]  Furthermore, the Nuremberg Trial was a dramatic event covered by international media and one of its main goals was to inform the entire world of the atrocities perpetrated during the war and make all aware that these crimes were punishable by the international community.


Once the decision was made to conduct the trial simultaneously in four languages, a policy was adopted which stipulated that interpreters would interpret directly into one language at a session and there would be no relay system. It was the belief of the translation teams coordinators that two-direction interpretation would place double   pressure on the interpreters. This method required the recruiting of a much larger translation staff than would have been required had the policy allowed for two-direction translation. Recruitment, thus became a major project particularly due to the fact that a large cadre of professional interpreters did not yet exist. The School for Interpreters in Geneva, for example, had been established only in 1941. Furthermore, professional interpreters had not yet been trained in SI along the lines to be implemented in the Nuremberg trial. Potential candidates were tested and were sent to

Nuremberg for the second stage of the hiring process. “Selection in the first part of the process did not imply that they could interpret simultaneously. The potential interpreters were given extensive testing in order to determine if they were actually able to listen and translate at the same time.”[9] Once a candidate passed this stage he/she was given training sessions in the form of mock trials. The selection and training process for interpreters was not always successful and it soon became clear that bilingual capabilities or a language degree did not guarantee effective performance in interpreting. 


Parallel to the efforts made to recruit interpreters, technical ways were being examined to execute this unprecedented system of SI in the most effective way. The solution found was to adopt the Filene-Finlay system. The machines for the system were produced and installed by IBM. “Everybody in the room wore earphones and every word was spoken into microphones. Every listener, judge, lawyer and press correspondent could choose the interpreted version of their choice or the original speech called ‘verbatim’. The channel choice was possible by means of a selector switch installed at every seat and connected to the earphones. There were five channels on the dial: channel one for the verbatim speech, channel two for English, channel three carried Russian, channel four French and channel five German… The interpreters received the original speech through their earphones and translated into the microphones into the language to which they were assigned. They had to speak softly in order to avoid interference with the speaker or with the other interpreters, because they were sitting behind glass partitions that were open at the top. They were the only ones whose earphones were always set for the verbatim mode. Every other listener, on the other hand selected the language of their choice.” [10] In effect, this system is still in place today (with the technical improvements to be mentioned later in the paper) and is the accepted form of SI for conferences and trials internationally.


At the Nuremberg trial there was a working team of  36 interpreters at all times. Twelve interpreters were in the room at any time, divided into four desks, each desk representing the language they interpreted. Each desk had a microphone with an on-off switch and three headphones. The desks were separated from each other by glass panels, one interpreter at a time spoke at each desk and only three interpreters translated at any given moment in the courtroom.  The interpreter whose language was being spoken from the stand or by the lawyers or judges remained idle until the need arose for him to interpret into another language.


In addition to the twelve interpreters who were on duty and sat in the courtroom, another twelve interpreters waited on stand-by in a room nearby. These back-up interpreters listened in to the proceedings through earphones connected to a special channel and could thus keep abreast of what was going on. They were ready at any point to replace an interpreter who suffered fatigue, faltered or could not continue for a particular reason. By being informed of the proceedings the stand-by interpreters could prepare themselves with dictionaries and glossaries. This arrangement ensured continuity and a standard vocabulary “because the interpreters conformed to the version that had been used so far by their colleagues.” [11]


 A third team of twelve was given a free day off at the beginning of the proceedings but was then later employed in checking the transcripts of their translation against the verbatim recording. Some of these interpreters were also engaged in translating documents or other linguistic related activity aimed at enhancing the interpreters’ performance. Rotation as a whole allowed for more accuracy and effective work.  The teams on duty worked shifts of 85 minutes, about three hours a day, two out of three days.


The Translation Division at Nuremberg comprised:

a.   the abovementioned simultaneous team

b.   auxiliary consecutive interpreters - about twelve people using languages different from the four official languages used in the trial

c.    translating branch - 20-25 people who could write eloquently, translated in one direction, of these about eight would edit the translations

d.    court reporting branch - about twelve people for each language recorded original speeches in their language and the translations into their language

e.     transcript reviewing branch - about 100 people of all languages reviewed the shorthand transcripts of the  translations against the original speech.


Soon it was realized that the interpreting system needed a supervisor to oversee the smooth functioning of the process. Hence the function of ‘monitor’ was established. He would sit between the English desk and the marshal of the court and was responsible for monitoring the “accuracy of the interpretation and the functioning of the equipment and for the communication between interpreters and the court.” [12] The latter function included, inter alia, ensuring that the interpreters received the speaker’s voice clearly and to procure documents for the interpreters. The monitor ensured the accuracy of translation by employing a yellow and red light system. The switches of these two lights were located at the monitor’s stand. He used the yellow light to indicate to a speaker that he speak slower (ideally to keep his pace at a desired 60 words a minute) or that there was a need for a pause between questions and answers. The red light was flashed to signal a number of problems that called for an interruption of the court proceedings e.g. a coughing spell of an interpreter or his failure to understand or hear the speaker.


 The task of the interpreter did not stop inside the court. “Language services at Nuremberg were provided not only for communication between the accused and the courts, as is normally the case in court interpreting today, but also for communication between the judges, none of whom understood and spoke the languages of all their colleagues.”[13] Behind the scenes interpreters interpreted for the judges and legal staff. At first this was carried out by means of chuchotage or the consecutive mode but very soon provisions were made in the chambers for SI. The language services were also for the benefit of the press and general audience. The tasks were formidable: Consecutive interpretation for the pre-trial interrogations and for emergency situations, simultaneous interpretation for the court-room proceedings and written translation to be supplied for thousands of documents. It thus transpires that simultaneous interpreters were indispensable during the Nuremberg trial and that without their services the trial would have taken at least double the time it in fact took and neither defendants nor the legal staff would have been able to receive fair representation.



Impact of SI at the Nuremberg Trial on the Future

Despite the skepticism expressed by many regarding the possible success of SI at the International Military Tribunal and the apprehension felt by those who promoted the system lest it prove a failure, SI at the Nuremberg Trial actually far exceeded expectations and was a relative success. The system proved workable, effective and efficient despite certain shortcomings that would, over the coming years, be addressed overcome by modifications. In the words of Justice Robert H. Jackson, who was instrumental in installing the simultaneous system, the Nuremberg Trial was “a landmark in overcoming the barrier of language differences…So here we have a prototype of the modern international meeting - every word available in several languages just as it is spoken.” [14] “The application of SI at Nuremberg changed forever the method of multilingual international communication.”[15] Thus the system was adopted by international tribunals and organizations and has become the accepted and most common method for overcoming language barriers at international conferences, trials and meetings.


The first organization to adopt the method was the fledgling United Nations (UN). “Because it saved time and improved the quality of the output, UN officials decided to use simultaneous rather than consecutive interpretation, which had been used at the League of Nations.” [16] Thus it invited Leon Dostert, the Chief Director of the Translation Division of the Nuremberg Trial, to New York in early 1946 and commissioned him to set up the simultaneous system at UN headquarters in New York.  


Japanese War Tribunal (1946-1948)

While the Nuremberg Trial was still in process in May 1946 the International Military Tribunal for the Far East opened the trial in Tokyo against major Japanese leaders for the crimes perpetrated in WWII. The nations that sat in judgment were the United States, Great Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, France, the Philippines and China. “Preparation for dealing with war crimes had begun by mid-1942. The Western powers by then knew a good deal about atrocities already committed during the war.”[17] The trial, exclusively conducted by the Americans, lasted from May 1946 till November 1948. It has often been equated with the proceedings at Nuremberg, however, there were substantial differences between the two trials. At Nuremberg there were only four judges while in Tokyo there were eleven. Nuremburg operated in four languages while the Tokyo trial operated in two.


Although the Tokyo trial adopted the SI technique of  Nuremberg, the system there did not prove to be as successful.  “The Japanese trial was conducted under one serious handicap not present during the Nuremberg prosecutions. In spite of the presence of more than 150 Japanese staff, effective simultaneous translations could not be managed. Counsel was limited to short questions posed in elementary language or written interrogatories submitted in advance. This restriction undoubtedly handicapped lawyers for both sides in getting the truth.”[18] One of the factors contributing to the translation difficulties was the scarcity of interpreters on the staff who could read Japanese. The trial’s administration had to request from the Japanese government to supply about fifty English-speaking Japanese nationals.  Another obstacle was the Japanese language itself. : “Turning Japanese into English and vice versa, with the precision of nuance required by lawyers is virtually impossible”.[19] Japanese is totally unrelated to English or any other European language and the process of the translation is more like “describing a picture in words creating an equivalent, not a replica.”[20] The process is time-consuming and an accurate translation of a page took one translator almost two days to complete. In addition, the technology of the SI functioned erratically during the trial. Few of the Japanese defence counsel spoke English so conferences and consultation with American attorneys were both difficult and “fertile ground for misunderstandings.”[21]


There can be no doubt that when SI is carried out between European and Asian languages, as was the case in the Tokyo Military trials, linguistic and cultural needs  differ from those characteristic for interpretation between European languages only. This might be one of the main reasons for the severe problems encountered in the SI process at the Japanese trials and for the fact that the system was less successful in Tokyo than it was in Nuremberg despite the fact that in Tokyo the trial was conducted in only two languages. Another major reason for the system’s lack of success in the Japanese trial context were the problems encountered with written translations of documents and the proceedings from Japanese.  Replication of the process applied in Nuremberg was obviously not completely suitable for the Japanese court and the lack of experience with SI of the professionals involved prevented them from being able to foresee all the pitfalls that were in store for them.



The Eichmann Trial (1961)

When, in 1960, the Israelis embarked on a mission to capture the senior Nazi official and arch war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, it was clear that he would be brought to Israel to stand trial and be judged by the Jewish people for his masterminding the genocide of Jews in the Holocaust. The Israeli government at the time, headed by Prime Minister Ben Gurion, sought to make the trial a public, historic event by means of which the atrocities and inhumanity of the Nazi regime towards the Jews would be further exposed to world consciousness. Eichmann represented the epitome of Nazi evil and genocide directed against the Jewish people and hence the operation to apprehend him, bring him to trial in Jerusalem - the capital of the Jewish State - and execute him on Israeli soil was more than just bringing a war criminal to justice. The capture, trial and sentence symbolized Jewish sovereignty, independence  and a justice system which was made possible by the establishment of a Jewish State. The essence of the trial can be summarized in the opening words of the late Gideon Hausner, the Attorney-General and Prosecutor in the trial. “As I stand before you, judges of Israel, to lead the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I am not standing alone. With me are 6 million accusers… Their blood cries out but their voice cannot be heard.”


The Eichmann trial opened in April 1961 in a large auditorium and the proceedings were broadcast daily over the radio (there was no television yet in Israel) and received worldwide media coverage. The language factor of the trial was a complex issue and had to be addressed on different levels and the end result was that all interpretation techniques - consecutive, simultaneous and chuchotage were employed. Most interestingly, although this was considered an international trial of a multi-language nature, the main actors involved spoke the same language - German. The accused was a German speaker as was his defence lawyer Dr, Servatius and the judges. The prosecuting lawyers, although they did not necessarily speak German fluently, did understand it sufficiently. Initially the bench had no need for interpretation. However, given the fact that Hebrew was the official language of the State interpretation was needed into and from Hebrew. “It was necessary to ensure that everything said at the trial could be understood by the Israeli public”[22] and world media. Proceedings were broadcast over the radio.


The trial was conducted thus: interpretation into Hebrew was always consecutive for the record; Hebrew into German, French and English were simultaneous and in certain cases where other languages such as Yiddish were used chuchotage was employed. The simultaneous interpreters sat in permanent booths installed specially for the trial and overlooked the proceedings. The judges questioned the accused in German while the chief prosecutor, Gideon Hausner asked his questions  in Hebrew. However, at the cross-examination stage the consecutive method was so protracted that Hausner lost patience and resorted to German.


Proceedings at the Eichmann trial were conducted very much along the Nuremberg model both where interpretation and monitoring were concerned. One of the major problems of the trial was the complexity of interpreting German into other languages, particularly that of Eichmann. His German comprised “long sentences and inaccurate expressions…Numerous attempts by the judges, as well as his own defence counsel, to persuade Eichmann to change his style proved futile.”[23] Hence a compromise was reached regarding the interpretation into German whereby the judges, all native German speakers, would monitor and correct the consecutive Hebrew interpretation which formed the record of the proceedings. “Despite their care, they pragmatically acknowledged that mistakes would inevitably be present in the Hebrew interpretation of Eichmann’s evidence and agreed to treat the original German words as the authoritative version when reviewing the record in order to reach their verdict.”[24]


The fact that Israel sought to make this trial a landmark event of international interest meant that “the trial had to be comprehensible to media representatives, and so there would also be interpretation into English and French throughout the proceedings.” [25]

Every day a complete transcript of the proceedings was produced in Hebrew, English, French and German. A complete videotape and audio recording of the trial was made as was a Hebrew shorthand record.    


In addition to the four languages officially used during the trial there was also a need to employ interpreters for other languages spoken by the witnesses such as Yiddish and Polish.


Many common features are shared by the Nuremberg and Eichmann Trials and there can be no doubt that the precedent set by the former trial had a direct impact on the latter - the combined use of the three forms of interpretation, the provisions made linguistically to enable international media coverage of the proceedings, the monitoring process and the translation and distribution of transcripts.


The Demjanjuk Trial (1986)

About 25 years after Eichmann was executed in Israel, the trial of Ivan Demjanjuk, accused of being ‘Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka’ opened in Jerusalem in 1987. Like the Eichmann trial, Israel sought to bring this Nazi collaborator, war criminal to justice. The proceedings, held in the large Binyanei Haooma auditorium in the capital, was open to the public and received wide media coverage. Proceedings were broadcast live on both radio and television.


Here, too, there were many language issues to contend with, but these were even more complex than the Eichmann trial. Unlike the latter trial where the members of the bench all spoke the same language, in the Demjanjuk trial the accused spoke Ukrainian, a language not understood by the defence, prosecution nor by the judges. His knowledge of English, one of the official languages of the trial, was very poor and he often had difficulties communicating with his English-speaking lawyers.   Furthermore, the authorities encountered problems in locating Ukrainian interpreters and those people found to carry out the task were not professional interpreters. Consequently,  at times the accused expressed his dissatisfaction with their performance. The system of interpretation used in the trial was what can be referred to as language-hybride - a mixture of methods. The Ukrainian interpretation was conveyed to the accused through whispering using earphones and a microphone. The Ukrainian to Hebrew direction was carried out consecutively. Interpretation from Hebrew into English was carried out simultaneously. Testimonies in German were rendered simultaneously into English, consecutively into Hebrew and (on relay from the Hebrew consecutive or English simultaneous versions) into Ukrainian”[26] using chuchotage. Interpretation into Yiddish and German was carried out by chuchotage when witnesses testified in these languages. 


The Ukrainian-Hebrew rendition was “monitored by an additional interpreter engaged by the prosecution, who identified as problematic certain renderings by the official court interpreter.”[27] Altogether the monitoring process of the interpreted version was a much more straightforward process in the Eichmann trial because of the German speaking legal staff  than the monitoring carried out for the Demjanjuk trial, where the linguistic personnel was not always professional. At times the need arose to interrupt the speaker after a few words so as to enable the interpreters working from Ukrainian to achieve accuracy as they had no prior experience in taking notes.  The simultaneous English interpreters sat in booths installed on the first floor of the auditorium and overlooked the stage where the trial was underway. The Hebrew consecutive interpreter was seated in the courtroom below the judges, opposite the accused and in front of the lawyers.


The complexity of the translation process created serious problems. Unlike the monitoring that was carried out during the Eichmann trial by native German speakers, the monitoring at the Demjanjuk trial was not always consistent and the judges, who did not understand Ukrainian had to completely rely on the Hebrew interpretation. “Moreover, the English version of the Ukrainian provided for the English-speaking defence lawyer was itself an interpreted version of the Hebrew rendering.[28] The interpretation arrangements at the Demjanjuk were far more cumbersome than those applied at the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials. This derived partly from the fact that the relay system was employed frequently in order to contend with testimonies in Ukrainian. Furthermore, German was interpreted simultaneously into English and directly into Hebrew consecutively. This meant that “the English-speaking defence lawyers actually heard an English version of the German before the court interpreter delivered a Hebrew consecutive rendering.”[29] This cumbersome process often gave rise to dissatisfaction on behalf of the prosecution and often reference had to be made to the electronic recording of the original in order to resolve queries and obstacles. “The numerous interpretation-related problems arising in the Demjanjuk trial point to the vital need to keep an accurate record of all utterances made in a trial in the original language.”[30] 


The Lockerbie Trial (May 3rd 2000 - 31 January 2001)

In 1988 Libyan terrorists blew up a plane flying over the town of Lockerbie in Scotland killing 270 people including some residents of the town. It took many years, sanctions against Libya and prolonged diplomatic negotiations before the two Libyans accused of the Lockerbie bombing were finally brought to trial in January 2001. The trial itself set a precedent in that the two Libyans were being tried under Scottish law  within a Scottish court in the Hague, Netherlands. This arrangement received the backing of a United Nations Security Council Resolution.


The interpretation at court was simultaneous and mainly from English into Arabic, with the language of the court being English. It was required of the interpreters to have a certain familiarity with the Scottish accent in addition to being competent in Arabic. “The complexity of the trial itself and the attention it attracted required the selection of highly experienced interpreters who should have facility and speed in interpreting and deliver an interpretation that could be easily understood by the two Libyan accused.”[31] It was made clear, at the outset, that the Arab dialect chosen to be used by the interpreters was one that was understood throughout the Arab world. The varied origins of the witnesses testifying at the trial required a total of 11 languages: English, Arabic, Maltese, German, French, Turkish, Kurdish, Slovene, Czech, Swedish and Japanese. The languages other than English and Arabic were mostly translated by means of relay into English and then into Arabic. This process meant that the accused were several lines behind what was going on in court.


A minimum of four interpreters worked in the Arab booth, 15 minutes at a time two sitting in a booth at a given moment. There were three soundproof booths “equipped with microphone sets, a control panel linked to a fixed evidence monitor in the middle of the console and a laptop used for the live transcript...The glass separating the interpreters from the courtroom was blackened from the outside to guarantee the anonymity of the interpreters and to avoid any eye contact with the users of the courtroom, but it allowed good visibility for the interpreters.[32]


After it transpired that the role of the interpreter and his needs were not always clearly understood by all involved in the process, it was decided that a monitoring system would be employed to monitor the translation arrangements and ensure that they were both adequate and accurate. “The interpreters into Arabic were instructed to add systematically the marker ‘question’ and ‘answer’ before each question and answer for the benefit of the accused.”[33] Furthermore, the interpreter’s booths were fitted with a slow-down button that was to be activated by the interpreters in the event that they felt proceedings were too fast for them.


The work of the interpreters was very stressful because in addition to contending with the linguistic challenges they had to deal with “external factors such as the media, the diplomatic representatives, the monitors, as well as with internal factors such as the evidence screen, the live transcript screen and teleconferencing.”[34]


The concept of monitoring which was initiated at the Nuremberg Trial and later adopted by other tribunals was interestingly applied in the Lockerbie case. Both an internal and external system were established, the former supervising the quality of service provided by the interpreters and the latter system presenting recommendation on how the system could be improved. The internal monitors had to check:

a. how and what each member of the interpreting team relayed to the accused as compared to the live, original transcript

b. if the standard met the needs of the court and if interpretation was an accurate account of the proceedings.

The external monitors made observations about the level of translations, errors made and offered explanations and recommendations.


Modifications were made throughout the trial and as problems arose they were addressed and solutions found.  Methods were gleaned from trials that had taken place in the past and then integrated into a setting that suited the context and requirements of the Lockerbie case.  


The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (1993-ongoing)

The issues of war crimes and international justice “have taken on a new urgency in modern times. Specifically the hellish images and accounts of war crimes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early ‘90’s provoked a swell of public calls for international intervention to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.”[35] An international tribunal (ICTY) was established in the Hague on 25th May, 1993 on the basis of Resolution 827 of the UN Security Council. The ICTY is “a Western court that investigates war crimes committed in Eastern Europe, it also handles cases of genocide and crimes against civilians, and it also relies on evidence given by foreign witnesses through interpreters.”[36] In fact the ICTY is one of several ad hoc tribunals formed or sponsored by the UN to “try crimes against humanity and other war crimes committed in the world’s trouble spots at the end of the 20th century.”[37]  


The bench of the ICTY consists of 16 judges coming from 16 different countries. Trials are held before three judges representing three different legal systems and there is no jury. All proceedings are translated simultaneously into English and French (the official languages of the UN and the ICTY), into B/C/S[38] and whatever other languages required by the participants. All participants in the proceedings are fitted with headphones and the courtroom with all the necessary electronic devices to facilitate recording as was the case in the Lockerbie trial. The English text, both the original and the version interpreted from other languages, is taken down by online shorthand typists and appears on the computer screen only a few seconds after it has been delivered. Each participant has a screen on which this LiveNote transcript appears. This transcript allows the interpreting team to spot errors and either correct them within the next few sentences or report them to the section Chief if they are serious and he will send a memo to the court. If a dispute arises regarding the original and the interpretation the text can always be checked on the LiveNotes. If the interpreter has a query during his work, as was the case in the Nuremberg Trial, he can consult the Translation unit or a colleague regarding terminology. In the ICTY the interpreter uses a telephone receiver installed in his interpreting booth to contact the unit.


A salient feature of the ICTY as opposed to other war crime tribunals in the past is its prolonged nature. Proceedings have been ongoing since the Tribunal’s inception in 1993 and as such has cumulative experience in dealing with language, communication and cross-cultural obstacles. The length of time and the exposure to a long series of cases of a similar nature enabled the Tribunal members to develop a better understanding of the historical, political and cultural background behind the conflict in former Yugoslavia and of the mentality of the B/C/S witnesses. “Continuity permitted investigators, prosecutors, judges, interpreters and translators to improve and, whenever necessary, adapt their particular working methods…years of experience permitted them to reflect upon linguistic difficulties…and compile glossaries.”[39] All this activity finally resulted in the formulation of the Interpreters and Translators’ Code of Ethics which deals, inter alia, with issues of quality control.


Unlike the Nazi crime trials discussed earlier in this paper, the ICTY interpreters have the additional role of being involved in the investigative stage. The ICTY interpreters and translators are taken from the translation unit and attached to an investigative team for the duration of a case or a number of cases. This system enables them to be well-informed about the cases and also gives the investigators a deeper understanding about the role of interpreters. “Working with interpreters gave investigators an understanding of how to communicate with witnesses, interpret their reaction and phrase their own questions.” [40] Investigators relied on interpreters for learning the  correct pronunciation of such details as names and for other cross-cultural advice. In so doing they could interpret the witnesses’ body language and recognize their mental and emotional state.   


While the ICTY was well underway, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established in 1994 very much along the lines of the ICTY with the main difference being that it was trilingual. The official languages English and French  were translated in the simultaneous mode. The third language was the native Kinyrwanda which was interpreted consecutively. Proceedings were greatly hampered because of the lack of translated documents and the lack of experienced interpreters into and from Kinyrwanda.


A direct outcome of the ICTY and ICTR experience was the creation of  the International Criminal Court  (ICC) based in the Hague. The ICC was created by the 1998 Rome Treaty, came into existence on July 1, 2002 and is modeled along the Rwanda and Former Yugoslavia Tribunals.  This is the first permanent global war crimes court which will uniformly try cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and yet-to-be defined criminal aggression.


Shortcomings of SI in War Crime Trials and Problems Facing the Interpreter

Linguistic Issues

One of the most prominent problems prevalent in all war crime tribunals is the linguistic aspect. “The lack of exact legal equivalents between English and French and (B/C/S) reported by translators… for example, French and B/C/S lack equivalents for everyday terms such as allegations, cross-examination, pre-trial[41] and so on. These lacunae derive from different concepts in the legal systems represented by the different participants coming from their respective countries. A case such as the Lockerbie trial is a good example of this. Here the trial took place according to Scottish law on foreign soil in the Netherlands and the accused were from a completely foreign legal setting in the Middle East, so that participants had come from at least three different legal backgrounds. In addition to legal terminology, lexical voids frequently appear which require a glossary to be compiled ad hoc for a particular trial, particularly where technical, professional terminology is involved. In a number of trials, such as the ICTY, there is still a lack of adequate “two-way” modern legal dictionaries (English-B/C/S and vice versa) and terminology specialists are needed.   


Other lexical problems are created by, among other things, false cognates, collocations or the literal translation of certain expressions. Translating the Latin bona fide, for example, into B/C/S dobra volya (good will) leads to the loss of legal meaning. In certain cases the target language may have only one word where the source language offers two possibilities. The following is an example taken from the ICTY:  “The English word ‘commander’ can be translated into B/C/S either as komandir or as komandant. The difference in the meaning can be crucial, as the former word indicates a commander of a level that does not exceed a company, whereas the latter indicates a higher level of command.”[42] Altogether, military terms pose a significant obstacle for interpreters at war crime trials. There is generally a lack of correspondence between the various languages regarding these terms, particularly army ranks and formations.    


The cultural aspect poses a challenge for interpreters on various levels.  The cultural aspect entails, inter alia, intonation, interjections, accents and different concepts of such important factors as time, dates and geneology. “B/C/S witnesses appear to lack precision as they are not Roman calendar-based, and Bosnian witnesses have a confused notion of the relation between months and Christian festivals (thus a witness believed that February was before New Year) and may not know their date of birth.”[43]   An example of cultural intonation is the German use of “Ja” at the beginning of a sentence. The equivalent of this in English would be “Well” and not its literal meaning of “Yes”. At the Nuremberg Trial interpreters were instructed to wait before translating the word in order to make sure that it was or was not intended to be “yes” - a critical answer in court proceedings. Altogether German posed a serious syntactical problem for the budding simultaneous interpreters at Nuremberg. Sentences in German end with a verb making it very difficult for the interpreter to construct a sentence in the target language. As this was the real first encounter with SI for most of the interpreters this structural feature was a real obstacle.


To a considerable degree the interpretation factor determines the “list of trial defendants: for example, despite Italy being one of the major Axis powers, no Italian war criminals were ever prosecuted under the jurisdiction of the International Military Tribunal. The prosecution excluded Italian war criminals for the disarmingly forthright reason of not wanting to complicate the trial with a fifth language.”[44]


In trials where the language problem has not been dealt with efficiently and with great care the results can be a complete failure of the system. A case in point is the Australian War Crimes Prosecution (1986-1993) where three former Ukrainian residents were charged with crimes allegedly committed during WWII. Proceedings were conducted in the consecutive mode and a large number of witnesses, mostly Ukrainian, were brought into Australia from overseas to testify. The level of interpreting was totally unsatisfactory.  The court did not take into consideration the linguistic and cross-cultural problems nor the legal difficulties deriving from the fact that the witnesses came from a continental legal background with expectations that were not met by the Australian legal system.  The result was a significant number of witnesses was disqualified (from about 25 Ukrainian witnesses during the committal in the Polyukhovich case only four or five were brought back for trial) and the prosecution failed to reach any convictions.       


Personnel and Stress

Recruiting professional simultaneous interpreters for the Nuremberg trial was a major hurdle to overcome as the whole concept of simultaneous interpretation was new and being officially applied along the Nuremberg lines for the first time. Interpreters, who had until that time dealt mainly in consecutive interpretation, had to be trained virtually on the spot to be able to perform. Hence many of those chosen for the job were fresh out of language and translation schools around Europe (particularly Geneva). In many cases regular citizens who spoke at least two of the required languages but had never interpreted before were employed. In yet other instances military veterans who had fought in the war served as interpreters. Some proved naturals for the job others failed.


This problem of recruiting professional interpreters, however, was not exclusive to the Nuremberg trials. It is true of all war crime tribunals where some of the languages of the court are “exotic”. Such was the case with the Demjanjuk trial where there was much difficulty in finding interpreters who could speak Ukrainian. As it transpired the people employed had had little if no experience in interpreting before. They were merely native speakers of Ukrainian and were literally “pulled out” of their jobs for an indefinite period of time on their own volition. Furthermore, in these trials the interpreters are often the very victims who have suffered directly or indirectly at the hands of the accused and find it both emotionally and morally very difficult if not impossible to face him/them. In a particular incident, a young Jewish graduate of the Geneva school was trained on location for SI at the Nuremberg trial. During the dry runs she proved very promising but when she had to perform in the real courtroom she froze and said that she could not function while facing those men who had killed a large number of men from her family.


Even for interpreters who have not been directly affected by the atrocities of the people standing on trial or their regimes, often war crime trials are too gruesome for them to digest. At times they are completely overwhelmed by the enormity of what they hear, are completely taken by surprise and suffer emotional stress. Hence, there is generally a large turnover of interpreters. These interpreters also find it very hard to be impartial and not to become emotionally involved during the proceedings.  Furthermore, many such trials last for a long time - often years - with an unpredictable closing date. Interpreters cannot stay for the duration, particularly if the trial does not take place in their country of residence, which they have temporarily left for the proceedings. 


At war crime trials it is often difficult to supply interpreters with sufficient translated documentation which can assist them in familiarizing themselves with the material to be discussed and thus getting prepared. Under all circumstances, the broader the interpreter’s knowledge and the more pre-preparation available the better will be his performance.


Improvements Since Nuremberg of SI at War Crime Tribunals

If we compare the conditions, methods and interpretation standards and personnel of the Nuremberg Trial with those of the most recent ICTY and ICC there can be no doubt that SI has come a long way over a period of  half a century. Following its debut in 1946 and the international decision to bring war criminals to justice, SI has become the accepted tool for handling linguistic and cross-cultural barriers in war crime tribunals. The role of the interpreter in a war tribunal has become more defined and understood by the legal personnel involved. The growing need for this service and developing technology have greatly improved the capabilities that prevailed at Nuremberg.


First and foremost at Nuremberg it became clear that interpreters and potential interpreters had to be trained to translate simultaneously.  The need for more language schools arose and these now included in their curriculum simultaneous interpreting. Thus, over the years a cadre of interpreters has developed and in most cases (unless a language which is required is very rare and there are few if no interpreters who work in this language) professional, experienced interpreters can be found to work in the courts.  Furthermore, there are, today, many interpreters who have over the years worked in protracted trials or have worked in similar settings and are highly experienced. The cooperation and sharing that is required from the simultaneous interpreters generates glossaries of terminology which are very useful during the trial for the interpreters.


From the list of ‘competence and skills’ appearing in an ICC’s “Wanted” advertisement looking for personnel, one can discern to what extent SI has improved since Nuremberg. One of the requirements to interpret at the court is, among other things, twelve years experience, proven training ability, some degree of specialization and a university degree in topics dealt with by the court. At Nuremberg, the criterion for interpreting was merely knowing the language without any earlier experience.


Over the years the physical conditions of the interpreters has improved extensively. At Nuremberg the ear phones and microphone system was quite primitive and the wiring was laid along the floor. People often tripped on the wires or these wires became disconnected thus causing interruptions in listening to or relaying the proceedings. The booths were narrow and were open at the top, without a ceiling and not sound-proof. This situation made it hard for the interpreters to concentrate as they were not isolated from the noise of the courtroom.  Today the electronic equipment is so developed that there is little if no wiring on the floor, the earphones have a more ergonomic design than they did at Nuremberg, more conducive to the interpreters needs. In addition to the improved listening and microphone technology, SI now enjoys the use of computers where the spoken text is typed directly on a screen for all involved to see. The use of video/closed circuit television which did not exist at Nuremberg, enables the effective recording and reviewing of proceedings. This facilitates the monitoring process and checking the equivalence between the source text and the interpreted rendition.


Methods of translating, printing and distributing documents related to the trial and needed for preparation by the interpreters are more efficient and effective than they were years ago and hence the interpreter can be better informed and prepared than his predecessor was at Nuremberg.


At the ICTY it was decided that a Code of Ethics be drawn up to define the role of the interpreter and the parameters for quality control. This Code is a positive development in that it provides guidelines for the interpreter and helps the “client” understand the nature of the service he is getting.  According to this Code, for example, an interpreter is entitled to address the bench in order to clarify ambiguities or to correct his own mistake. Another article in the Code stresses the importance of preparation for the interpreter in order to improve his performance.   



This paper has made an attempt to present a survey of some of the significant war crimes trials where SI has been used. It begins with a description of the Nuremberg Trial which is where SI as we know it more or less today was initiated. The paper discusses the various pitfalls of the system in war crime trials as well as looks at the marked improvements that have been made to the skill over the years.


Simultaneous interpreting in the “electronic” form as it was used at Nuremberg was not fully and successfully used until years to come. However, there can be no doubt that it was the Nuremberg Trial that laid the seeds and foundation for this system to later become the official system by which the language problem in international trials would be overcome. Although this a less accurate method than consecutive interpretation it is definitely time saving. Where proceedings take place in a mult-linguistic setting and at least three languages are being translated in a single session the time factor overrides that of accuracy.


The legacy  of SI that the Nuremberg Trial left has been adopted by conferences and legal systems worldwide and the method is being constantly improved because of  a growing  international awareness of the need to bring war criminals and human rights violators to trial. The system must also be modified for each individual trial as every case has its own idiosyncratic needs and problems. Technological developments, linguistic research in the field of interpretation, glossaries and related fields have made SI a far more reliable tool than it was in Nuremberg. The drawing up of a Code of Ethics for as a guideline for the interpreter is yet a further step forward in establishing SI as a system that cannot be foregone in international settings where justice is being made, where the defendants involved are entitled to a fair trial and where the world must be informed of the crimes and violations perpetrated.


















Bowen, David & Margarita. “The Nuremberg Trials (Communication Through Translation)” in Meta, Vol. 30  (1985).

Cox, Graham. The Interpretation Factor: Overcoming the Language Barrier at the Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (University of Houston, 2003).


Endrst, Elsa B. “Interpreters : Inside the Glass Booth” in UN Chronicle  (September, 1991).


Gaiba, Francesca. The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation: The Nuremberg Trial (University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa, 1998).


Gzour,  Aomar. “The Lockerbie Trial”. A paper presented at The AIIC Court Interpreting Forum, Hague, July 2001.


Harries, Meirion and Susie. Sheathing the Sword: The Demilitarisation of Japan (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1987). 


“International Court of Justice: The Lockerbie Trial.”



Morris, Ruth.  “Justice in Jerusalem - Interpreting in Israeli  Legal Proceedings” in Meta 43 (1) 1998.


Morris, Ruth. “Justice in Four Languages or ’Interpreters and Mistresses.’”



Morris, Ruth.  “The Moral Dilemmas of Court Interpreting’ in The Translator: Studies in Intercultural Communication, Vol I, (1) ( St. Jerome Publishing, U.K, 1995).  


Morris, Ruth.  “The Eichmann and Demjanjuk Trials: A Comparison”. A paper presented at The AIIC Court Interpreting Forum, Hague, (July 2001).



Smith, Robert Barr. Justice Under the Sun: Japanese War Crime Trials.



Stern, Ludmila. “At the Junction of Cultures: Interpreting at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Light of International Interpreting Practices” in Judicial Review, Vol.5 (3) (2001).


Stern, Ludmila. “Interpreting Legal Language at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia: Overcoming the Lack of Lexical Equivalents”. (School of Modern Language Studies, The University of New South Wales, 2004).


Stern, Ludmila. “Interpreting During the Australian War Crimes Prosecutions (1986-1993).



Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals Under Control Council Law No.10. Vol XV (Nuernberg 1949).


Vander Elst, Patricia. “The Nuremberg Trial.”

Http://www.aic.net/ViewPage.cfm/page 983.htm.


 “War Crimes Tribunal Verdict on Srebrenica.” in Guardian Limited  (U.K., 2001). 



Wilson, David E. “Defending War Crimes Cases in the Hague.”


[1] Graham Cox, The Interpretation Factor: Overcoming the Language Barrier at the Trial of the Major War Criminals Before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (University of Houston, 2003),  p.17.

[2] Francesca Gaiba, The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation: The Nuremberg Trial (University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa, 1998), p. 28.

[3] Ibid, p.29.

[4] Ibid, p.31.

[5] Ibid, p.26.

[6] Ibid, p.33.

[7] Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals Under Control Council Law No.10. Vol XV (Nuernberg 1949), p. 30. 

[8] Gaiba, p.33. 

[9] Ibid,  pp.45-46.

[10] Ibid, pp.61-62.

[11] Ibid, p.71.

[12] Ibid, p.77.

[13] David and Margarita Bowen, “The Nuremberg Trials (Communication Through Translation)” in Meta, Vol.30  (1985), pp.74-75.

[14] Cox, p. 18.

[15] Ibid, p. 116.

[16] Elsa B. Endrst, “Interpreters : Inside the Glass Booth” in UN Chronicle  (September, 1991).

[17] Robert Barr Smith, Justice Under the Sun: Japanese War Crime Trials.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Harries, Meirion and Susie, Sheathing the Sword: The Demilitarisation of Japan (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1987),  p.117. 

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, p.150.

[22] Ruth Morris, “Justice in Jerusalem - Interpreting in Israeli  Legal Proceedings” in Meta 43 (1), p.5.

[23] Ibid, p.2.

[24] Ibid, p.5.

[25] Ibid, p.2.

[26] Ruth Morris, ‘The Moral Dilemmas of Court Interpreting’ in The Translator: Studies in Intercultural Communication, Vol I, (1) ( St. Jerome Publishing, U.K, 1995).  

[27] Ibid, p.6.

[28] Ruth Morris, “The Eichmann and Demjanjuk Trials: A Comparison”. A paper presented at The AIIC Court Interpreting Forum, Hague, July 2001. 

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Aomar Gzour, “The Lockerbie Trial”. A paper presented at The AIIC Court Interpreting Forum, Hague, July 2001.

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid

[35] “War Crimes Tribunal Verdict on Srebrenica” in Guardian Limited  (U.K., 2001). 

[36] Ludmila Stern, “At the Junction of Cultures: Interpreting at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Light of International Interpreting Practices” in Judicial Review, vol.5 (3) (2001),  p.2.

[37] David E. Wilson, “Defending War Crimes Cases in the Hague” (Washington,2004). 

[38] B/C/S, or Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian - a term coined at the ICTY.

[39] Ludmila Stern, (2001), p.19.

[40] Ibid, p.12.

[41] Ludmila Stern, “Interpreting Legal Language at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia: Overcoming the Lack of Lexical Equivalents”. (School of Modern Language Studies, The University of New South Wales, 2004), p. 1.

[42] Stern (2001), p.5

[43] Ibid, p.7

[44] Cox (2003), p.2.