The History of Conference Interpreting: The Other WWII Trials.

November 23, 2022 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

We commemorated International Conference Interpreters Day on November 20. The date was selected because on that date in 1945 the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg started the trial of those charged with war crimes in Europe, using simultaneous interpretation for a matter relevant worldwide for the first time. Much has been written and researched about the trial, the interpreters, and the birth of simultaneous rendition as we now know it. For years I observed the date remembering these important circumstances that gave birth to the modern version of our profession, but I always wondered about the trials against the war criminals in the Pacific theatre of operations; there seemed to be little information available about the interpretation, the interpreters, and what really happened in Tokyo after World War II. As November 20 was approaching, I decided to find out what happened in Japan, and why these trials were left out as part of the birth of modern conference interpreting. This is what I learned:

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) was convened on April 29, 1946, over five months after the Nuremberg tribunal was established, to try Japanese political and military leaders for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Twenty-eight Japanese citizens were tried, the tribunal had broader jurisdiction than its counterpart in Germany, as it covered the invasion of Manchuria and World War II, and the proceedings ended on November 12, 1948, making these Tokyo trials almost twice as long as the process in Nuremberg. No defendant was acquitted, but charges were dismissed against one of them because he was found mentally incompetent. Seven defendants were sentenced to death and executed.

Judges represented ten countries (Australia, Canada, China, France, India, The Netherlands, New Zealand, The Philippines, United Kingdom, and United States) with Sir. William Webb, Justice of the High Court of Australia presiding. Most of the prosecution was presented by American prosecutors, but prosecutors from the other nations represented intervened for certain witnesses, defendants, and charges. The defendants were represented by more than one hundred attorneys from Japan and the United States, and the official languages of the trial were English and Japanese.

Trying monolingual Japanese defendants who committed the atrocities on trial under a culture, and using a language so foreign to the members of the tribunal, presented challenges not found in Nuremberg where all languages involved were European, and all crimes had been committed by individuals who shared culture with the judges and attorneys.   

There were no English-Japanese interpreters in the West and there were no interpreters in Japan, period.

To solve this problem, the Tribunal hired twenty-seven Japanese citizens fluent in English who knew Japanese culture, history, and traditions, but they were not interpreters; they had no formal training, they had no experience as empiric interpreters either, and unlike the situation in Nuremberg where the interpreters were citizens of the allied countries, these individuals were from the same country as the defendants. It was decided to hold some “auditions” as mock trials to select the interpreters. Legal knowledge or aptitude to learn and understand legal proceedings was an important consideration also. Those selected were hired by the Language Division of the IMTFE. Because these ad-hoc interpreters were Japanese, the Tribunal established the position of Monitor. These individuals were American citizens children of Japanese (Kibei Nisei) who were proficient in both languages. There were four of them. Their job was to supervise the rendition by the Japanese interpreters, and amend the record when needed, due to the lack of experience and technique of the Japanese interpreters. During the War, these monitors: David Akira Itami, Sho Onodera, Hidekazu Hayashi, and Lanny Miyamoto, worked for the Allied Powers’ Translation and Interpretation Section (ATIS) and as children they all attended school in the United States.

The interpreters, and their monitors, worked in a booth; they worked in teams of two or three; they had a rotation according to an established schedule, and they used the same IBM simultaneous interpreting equipment used in Nuremberg,  

There was no simultaneous interpretation during the Tokyo trials. Interpretation was rendered as follows:

All written opening statements, closing statements, charging documents, etc. were translated, and when attorneys or judges read them for the record, the translations were read simultaneously by one of the four monitors;

All witness examinations, cross-examinations, and re-direct examinations were interpreted consecutively by the Japanese interpreters. Attorneys and witnesses were instructed to speak clearly, slowly, and to pause frequently to give the interpreters a chance to catch up. Whenever an interpreter fell behind a speaker, the monitor would signal the court so the speaker stop and even repeat what was said. Monitors also assisted interpreters with note taking of names, addresses, figures, etc. Preserving an accurate record was a priority.

When a witness or a prosecutor spoke in a language other than English or Japanese (all defense attorneys spoke English or Japanese) other interpreters would participate. Beside the twenty-seven English-Japanese interpreters, there were seven Chinese, six Russian, six French, and one Dutch interpreters. Relay interpreting was used when one of these languages was spoken in the courtroom.

Because Japanese was not widely known in the West at that time, and because knowledge of Japanese culture was practically non-existing, there was the possibility of conflicting interpretation of terms or concepts. To prevent this from happening, the IMTFE created a system of checks and balances by establishing a Language Arbitration Board to settle matters of disputed interpretation. Once the dispute was resolved by the Board, the arbitrated rendition had to be used for the rest of the trial. This process was used both ways: To solve interpreting issues into Japanese and into English.

After the trial all Japanese who worked as interpreters went back to their prior occupations. None pursued a career as a professional interpreter; however, two of the monitors continued to work (at least occasionally) as interpreters, one for the Japanese diplomatic service, and another one for the emperor.

The trials did not give birth to our profession in Japan; there were no simultaneous interpreters yet, and the equipment had been used for other purposes (synchronized reading of translated texts, and consecutive interpretation from the booth). After learning these facts, it became clear to me why the International Military Tribunal for the Far East is not considered as the birth of modern simultaneous conference interpreting. The Tribunal did all it could to ensure the administration of justice and to preserve the record, but it did not have professional interpreting services, the IBM equipment was not used as it was in Nuremberg, and the trials did not contribute to the development of simultaneous interpreting in Japan.

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