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Ukraine’s Churchill, his interpreter and the legacy of the Nuremberg trials

The tear-filled voice of a Ukrainian interpreter translating Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech has shone a spotlight on the skilled linguists who bring the words of world leaders to us in real-time

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (on screen) gives a live video address during a special plenary session of the European Parliament. Photo: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Victor Shevchenko does not come across as an emotional man. He’s also very private and doesn’t even like his relatives putting pictures on Facebook. So he wasn’t exactly delighted to find himself in the eye of a media storm when his voice broke and he had to stifle a sob while translating Volodymyr Zelensky’s words into English at the European parliament this week.

Shevchenko, who was born in Kyiv and has lived in Brussels for 10 years, did not expect to break down, however briefly. He prides himself on his professionalism and has done this kind of thing many times before; it was, he says, “business as usual”, as Zelensky, hollow-eyed and haggard-faced, appeared via a live link from Kyiv and the extraordinary speech began. 

But then, a few minutes later, the president started talking about a missile attack on Freedom Square in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, and as grim-faced European politicians listened in sober silence, Shevchenko struggled to keep his emotions in check. 

“Dozens of dead ones. This is the price of freedom. We’re fighting just for our land …” Shevchenko stopped, there was the sound of a swallowed sob and a sharp intake of breath. It was just a moment but it made headlines around the world and lifted the veil, ever so slightly and ever so briefly, on the discreet and complex world of simultaneous interpreters, who can trace their roots back to another war, other atrocities, and a German city called Nuremberg. 

Shevchenko says there was no one reason he reacted as he did but a lot of it had to do with the man he calls a “Ukrainian Churchill” and the way Zelensky’s defiant message of resistance has resonated at home and abroad. 

“The sheer magnitude of his understated heroism … has inspired a lot of people … His message to the Europeans and to the world was so powerful and so crystal-clear and at the same time very down-to-earth and no-nonsense, it goes right through to your mind, to your heart,” he told The New European. 

“When it came to this combination of things – president Zelensky being the Churchill of Ukraine, the events on the ground, the fact that he was talking to the European parliament – all these things made me feel emotion. I recovered quickly but at the same time, I couldn’t hold it because I grew up in Kyiv and for me, it’s not a distant land. It’s the country and city where I was born.”

Shevchenko, who says his relatives in Ukraine are now in a safe place, is not the only professional interpreter to be rendered speechless by Zelensky’s words. A few days earlier, Dr Kateryna Rietz-Rakul, a Ukrainian who was working on a Zelensky press conference for a German TV station, broke down in tears after translating the words: “We know exactly what we are defending. We will definitely win.” She stopped and whispered, “excuse me”, through her tears. 

Traditionally, interpreters like to be invisible channels for other people’s stories but they are only human and sometimes that can enhance the message, says Alison Graves, the European Parliament’s director for interpretation. “What Victor did, and the emotion you could hear in his voice, really highlighted what President Zelensky was saying … Suddenly people could see what this means to a person and that really struck a chord.”

This kind of raw emotion was also on heart-breaking display when simultaneous interpretation came into its own during the first Nuremberg trial of 1945-46 when four nations – Britain, the United States, France and the Soviet Union – came together to try 22 Nazi leaders with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“Nuremberg was an absolute watershed in interpreting history,” says Jennifer Fearnside-Bitsios, president of the International Association of Conference Interpreters. She explains that previously interpreters would note down a speech, or a few sentences, and then deliver the translation, while the speaker paused – a process called consecutive interpretation. But this wouldn’t have worked in Nuremberg because it would have taken too much time, and the tribunal’s remit was to deliver justice in a “fair and expeditious” manner. 

The technology was nearly there – they’d already been experimenting with simultaneous interpretation using an IBM system at the League of Nations – but it would need to be massively scaled up for what would become known as the “trial of six million words” because of the sheer volume of evidence. 

And that’s what they did: over 600 headphones were hooked up so that everyone could hear the proceedings in one of the four languages and the rest of the necessary equipment – four tonnes of electrical gadgets – was installed. 

Interpreters were recruited from all over Europe, and some even made their own way to Nuremberg, like Siegfried Ramler, who left Austria for London on the kindertransport as a 14-year-old and later went AWOL from the US army where he was working as a linguist to make his way to the Bavarian city. 

The problem was that very few had any experience at all in doing simultaneous interpretation. Francesca Gaiba, author of The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation: The Nuremberg Trial, says most people didn’t believe it could be done.  

“People did not think you could hear and speak at the same time, and on top of that, you could hear and translate at the same time and make any sense. Nuremberg proved them wrong … and showed that it is humanly feasible to do simultaneous interpretation,” said Gaiba, who is a faculty member at Northwestern University in Illinois.  

Today, conference interpreters like Shevchenko undergo hours of rigorous training and vetting. But the interpreters arriving at Nuremberg were lucky if they got a few hours training during their lunch breaks. The fail rate was 95% because not everyone was good enough and some people were too scarred by the war to be able to relive it through the voices of their recent oppressors, voices being fed directly into their ears through the IBM headsets. 

“They were basically thrown in at the deep end,” said Fearnside-Bitsios. “It was sink-or-swim and they swam and it took off and particularly after Nuremberg because all the international organisations began to be established and there was much more of a need for simultaneous interpretation,” she said. 

Fearnside-Bitsios, who is originally from Yorkshire, now lives in Rome and works in French, German, Italian, Greek and Spanish. She is part of a small group of AIIC members who put together a travelling exhibition – One Trial, Four Languages – on the Nuremberg trials. 

The exhibition, which draws on Gaiba’s book, tells the stories of the interpreters, people like Armand Jacoubovich, whose family was sent to a concentration camp but who fled to France and then, with his wife, to Switzerland. In 1945 the French Ministry of Justice recruited him as an interpreter for Nuremberg. But the work had a devastating effect on him – he broke down several times in the booth. He was not the only one. Some of the interpreters were Jewish, some had been in concentration camps themselves, others had lost entire families. 

Stefan Priacel wrote an unpublished account – L’interprète de conférence, Cet Inconnu – of his time at the trials. “That day it was the turn of (Julius) Streicher, the anti-Semitic journalist who had been in charge of the “Stürmer”, … with its vicious texts and cartoons which had played their part in creating the climate of racial hatred in Germany – culminating in the genocide at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt and, alas, so many other death camps ….Streicher spoke, and I interpreted, for more than an hour. I was so engrossed in his arguments, heard through me by the French judges and prosecutor, that I did not notice the time pass. Some phenomenon of depersonalization of which not even I was aware, but which must be familiar to actors, had in a sense identified me with a man to whom all around me were opposed. When Streicher had finished, I knew I was an interpreter.”

When Gaiba started her Nuremberg research as a university student in the 1990s, thinking she would find “the mistake that would change history”, she was stunned to discover that no one had really written about the interpreters. Newspapers of the time marvelled at the “miracle” of translating four languages simultaneously but that was as far as their interest went. For Gaiba, the audacity of the project was both amazing and appalling. There were also issues of trust.

In her book, she recalls how Hermann Göring, who spoke excellent English, repeatedly challenged US chief prosecutor Robert Jackson about the quality of the German translation, demanding repetitions and clarifications. “He was so skilled at exploiting the fact that the whole court was uneasy about this idea of simultaneous interpreting … By the first day of the cross examination, it was clear Jackson had failed,” she said.

Today, those trust issues have largely dissipated but the stress of covering history-making events can never be totally eliminated. Fearnside-Bitsios, who is off to cover a meeting about fertilisers after our interview, says the only way to cope, sometimes, is to split oneself in two. 

“There is you, you as a person, but when you interpret you become the person you are interpreting … How much you identify with the person you are interpreting will very much depend on the subject, the issue. There are times that you have to say things that are so divorced from what you actually personally believe … We have to say it, it’s part of our job, and it can be extremely painful,” she said. 

Graves says conference interpreters need nerves of steel, excellent language skills (of course) but also vast general knowledge. They need to be “the best of the best” because that is the only way the system can function. 

“I often compare it to driving a car. It’s a multi-tasking skill… once you’ve passed the test, that is when you start learning to be a driver and it’s the same with interpreting. It’s by doing it that you accumulate the experience and knowledge and the presence to do what Victor did: to sit there and accept this pressure and adrenaline and still be able to perform.”

Fearnside-Bitsios has herself grappled with her emotions on the job after a friend, who was also an interpreter, was killed in the Ethiopian Airlines crash in 2019 while on her way to a UN conference in Nairobi. Two other members of AIIC were also killed, and Fearnside-Bitsios was translating at the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome when a tribute was paid. 

“One of the delegates took the floor and he was speaking Spanish and he looked up at the booths and he said, ‘I don’t know how I can do this because a dear friend of mine should have been sitting up there in the booths and she’s not with us anymore and she’s somewhere even higher up’ and …” Fearnside-Bitsios pauses and takes a deep breath: “ I’m doing it now even as I speak to you but that was a very … It was a personal situation but sometimes you have to really gulp and say, ‘OK, get a grip.’”

This stoicism reflects that shown by so many of the Nuremberg interpreters whose work was a vital part of post-war efforts to ensure that such a devastating conflict could never threaten Europe and the world again. But today, civilians are again being killed indiscriminately as Vladimir Putin’s forces fire missiles and bullets indiscriminately in his unprovoked assault on Ukraine. A war crimes investigation has already been launched by the International Criminal Court with the chief prosecutor saying he will begin work to look for possible crimes against humanity or genocide. 

Undoubtedly, there will be a role for interpreters at any future hearings and, given the appalling way events are playing out, more may have to swallow their sobs as they translate the words and actions of others. Shevchenko hopes he has, at least, played his part in getting Zelensky’s main message across, a small part in trying to halt the horror. 

“If this little crackling sound of my emotion actually managed to enhance the message President Zelensky was sending to the world, then I’m happy… The message being: let’s just be serious about realizing what’s happening there. That’s what the President of Ukraine tried to convey: ‘just don’t let us go, just be with us’, he said. ‘Just stick with us’.”

Queen Elizabeth II 1926-202

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