Tag Archives: United Nations

A brief history of simultaneous interpretation, from the Nuremberg trials to now

From left, Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

From left, Capt. Macintosh of the British Army translates from French into English, while Margot Bortlin translates from German into English and Lt. Ernest Peter Uiberall monitors the translations at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Here’s a post from Nina Porzucki.

Lynn Visson was a UN interpreter during the height of the Cold War. She can still rattle off grandiose Soviet titles like it was yesterday.

“General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party — you had that practically memorized,” Visson recalls.

After 23 years, she’s still at it, interpreting from French and Russian into English. She’s witnessed — and spoken for — some pretty heavy hitters. “I remember Castro spoke for all of eight minutes, but the charisma was incredible,” Visson says. “The electricity the man generated — Bill Clinton could do that, too, Gorbachev could do that. Some other delegates were great speakers, but they didn’t light that spark.”

These days, we’re long used to seeing diplomats at the UN plugged into earphones, listening to speeches that are instantaneously translated into one of the six official UN lanugages — English, French, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Russian, but simultaneous interpretation is actually a rather recent invention, developed in 1945 for a very different global event: the Nuremberg Trials.

Defendants, Defense Counsel and Interpreters rise as the eight members of the Tribunal enter the courtroom. Monitors, front: Leon Dostert, back: E. Peter Uiberall and Joachim von Zastrow. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Defendants, Defense Counsel and Interpreters rise as the eight members of the Tribunal enter the courtroom. Monitors, front: Leon Dostert, back: E. Peter Uiberall and Joachim von Zastrow. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Before the Nuremberg Trials, any kind of interpretation was done consecutively — talk first, and then wait for the interpreter to translate. But at the end of World War II, the Allies created the International Military Tribunal, which was charged with an explicit mission: “fair and expeditious trials” of accused Nazi war criminals.

“Those two words put enormous constraints on the people organizing the trial,” says interpreter and historian Francesca Gaiba, who has studied the origins of simultaneous interpretation at the Nuremberg Trials.

She says holding a trial that was “fair” and “expeditious” meant speeding up translations of the four languages of the nations involved: English, German, Russian and French. The solution was thought up by Col. Leon Dostert. Born in France and a native French speaker, Dostert became an American citizen and a foreign language expert for the US Army.

“He was the person who thought it was possible for a human being to listen and speak at the same time,” Visson says.

Possible, yes, but far from easy. And then there was the problem of transmitting all of those languages in real time. This was 1945, so digital recordings and tapes weren’t around. But Dostert pressed on and consulted with IBM to develop a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the cacophony of languages. He hired interpreters and practiced this new type of interpreting with them.

And somehow, despite a few episodes of tripping over cords in the courtroom, Dostert’s system worked.

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial; Front: English desk; Back: French desk. To the left, monitor. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Interpreters at the Nuremberg Trial; Front: English desk; Back: French desk. To the left, monitor. (Photo courtesy of Francesca Gaiba)

Even before the Nuremberg trials were over, Dostert had taken his system to the UN in New York. It’s still the model being used today, albeit with some minor upgrades in technology.

“When I started, all interpreters were lugging around heavy dictionaries,” Visson remembers. “Now they’re lugging around iPads and notebook computers because most glossaries are in those.” She says TV monitors in the back booths also let interpreters watch the expressions of diplomats and the movements of their mouths.

But technology still hasn’t advanced enough to replace the interpreters themselves. “The computer can’t pick up the intonation,” Visson says.

But one of the biggest challenges for interpreters is often not the tone, but simply figuring out what a diplomat is saying.

“People with foreign accents for example, you want to be careful that when you hear somebody saying, ‘Mr. Chairman, we wish to congratulate you on your defective leadership.’ You know he didn’t mean his ‘defective leadership,’ he meant his ‘effective leadership.’” Visson says. “But you’ve got to not be simply auto-translating word for word, because heaven help you if you say we congratulate you on your defective leadership.”

Of course, relaying the words of world leaders also means not mincing them, be they Holocaust denials, carefully crafted insults or strongly worded Cold War rhetoric.

“One of the things you are taught is that you’re like an actor on stage,” Visson says. “There are plenty of actors who play the part of people who are absolutely vile. So I think if you look on it as acting, it can almost become fun — even if you are saying things that you personally find repugnant or hateful.”


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Bringing Back Nepal’s Minority Languages

Indigenous Newa girls in Nepal (Photo: Krish Dulal)

Indigenous Newa girls in Nepal (Photo: Krish Dulal)

Linguist Mark Turin returns to Nepal, where he learned and documented the Thangmi language. Spoken by 30,000 people, Thangmi has many unique expressions but it is imperiled. The Nepalese government is trying to protect minority languages by introducing them into schools, but it may be too late: the children of many Thangmi speakers are choosing to speak more mainstream languages.



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Liberian proverbs, Ajami, and courteous interruptions

My colleague Jason Margolis recently went to Liberia to report a few stories for The World. While he was there, he spent some time with his childhood buddy Jason Hepps, who has lived and worked in Liberia for five years. Long story short, the two Jasons  found themselves judging a Liberian proverb competition.

Liberian English and its cousin Liberian Kreyol are littered with pithy sayings. Most of them, though,  are as incomprehensible as badly translated Chinese fortunes. For example:  Your child cannot poo poo on your lap, and you cut your legs off, you just have to clean them off.  Or: If one keeps pressing a young bird in his palms, the bird may one day stooled in his hands. So, on the face of it, lots of toilet humor. But the meanings of many of these sayings aren’t intended to be  funny. Several include refererences to Liberia’s civil war and refugee camps. Jason’s report centers around the night when he and his fellow Jason — with plenty of help from local experts — picked the best proverb.

Is this script a language? Yes and no. The writing system is Arabic. But the language isn’t. In this case, it’s Mandinka, one of many African languages that often use Arabic script. In fact, these languages have borrowed Arabic script  for more than a thousand years. What’s interesting though, is that Ajami has been overlooked by most historians;  African history has been told through the lens of  English, French or Arabic documents. Also, because Ajami isn’t a language, Africans who used it were often classified as illiterate, even though they were quite capable of writing sentences of Mandinka or Hausa or Wolof. Now Ajami is getting a bit more respect, thanks to people like Fallou Ngom of Boston University and Dmitry Bondarev of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Every year, 4,000 staffers at the United Nations in New York sign up for language classes. There, they learn not just how to say things in other  languages but how to say them diplomatically. Which can mean being clear, or being extremely unclear, depending on what’s required.  That takes practise, as does learning how to interrupt and assert yourself without being rude. Most of us have trouble with that in our mother tongues.

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Gaddafi’s translator, Swedish fury at UNESCO, and Nazi slogans in English

Here are the 5 stories  Carol Hills and I selected as our top five language-related stories for the past month or two:

gaddafi5. The sad tale of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s translator at the United Nations General Assembly. Gaddafi spoke for 94 minutes, 79 minutes longer than he was alloted. At 90 minutes, his translator appeared to collapse and was replaced by a UN translator.

Hunmin_jeong-eum4. The quixotic tale of the real estate mogul who is trying to export Korean Hangul script to Indonesia. Koreans are immensely proud of their 24-letter alphabet, which was established in the 15th century in a document caled the Hunmin Jeongeum — “The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People.” (See above: the  Hangul-only column is fourth from left.)

3. India’s burgeoning number of official languages. It currently has 22 official language, with 38 more under consideration. Where will it fit all those languages on its banknotes?

Scanian2. A declaration from UNESCO that a southern Swedish dialect is in fact a language under threat. The image above is a 13th century rendering Scanian and Church Law, which includes a comment in the margin called the “Skaaningestrof”: “Hauí that skanunga ærliki mææn toco vithar oræt aldrigh æn”  — “Let it be known that Scanians are honorable men who have never tolerated injustice.” Sweden recognizes five minority languages but Scanian is not among them — and it’s not likely to be designated as one any time soon.  Most Swedish linguists call it a dialect – a thick one that many Swedes poke fun at – but a dialect nonethless.

1. A German court’s decision to permit Nazi hate speech, so long as it’s not in German. The words in questions are Hitler Youth slogans; they clearly have greater potency in the original German.

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