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Journal Articles The Translator Year : 2010

Crime and judgement. Interpreters/translators in British war crime trials, 1945-1949

Simona Tobia


At the end of the Second World War at least 19,500 alleged war criminals were in the custody of British authorities, and as a consequence war crimes tribunals were set up in the British zone of occupation in Germany. Under the law known as the ‘Royal Warrant’ a number of very well known proceedings were organized between 1945 and 1949, such as the ‘Belsen trials’, those of the Neuengamme concentration camp, and those for the mass murder of 50 British airmen at Stalag Luft III camp. In this situation, interpreters and translators had a key function in communicating the conflict, in the attempt to legitimize punishment and in the condemnation of their stated enemy. This ‘war crimes trials’ case study is particularly interesting both for the fact that it is situated at the very heart of the conflict, when Germany had just been occupied and peacemaking was still to be organized, and because its framework is national (British), rather than international. Whereas war crimes historiography has tended to concentrate on the international trial of major war criminals in Nuremberg, the crimes examined in this paper were committed within the British zone of Germany either against British soldiers or against people liberated by British soldiers. The responsibility to judge and punish was a national one, and the role of those involved in the process was correspondingly highly charged. The historical account and the analysis of the function of interpreters and translators in World War Two war crimes trials will be set within a Bourdieusian framework, taking into consideration both policy and practice. From the point of view of policy the paper will concentrate on the role of the institutions in charge of setting up the courts, and it will try to determine how interpreters and translators were selected and recruited both by the War Office and the Foreign Office, how they were trained and what kind of function they were officially given in those particular courts. Policy struggles will be studied via regulations and reports, especially on the Interpreters Pool and the Control Commission Germany – British Element, from the National Archives in London. Within these frameworks, practice, involving experience on the ground of interpreters and translators who were mainly British and Jewish émigrés, will be studied through their oral and written testimonies held in the Imperial War Museum in London. The study of social positions, identities, and cognitive dispositions of interpreters/translators in their relationships with defendants, prosecutors and defenders, highlights both the fluidity of their role in that particular situation, and the onerous nature of their task within the process of judgement and punishment of war criminals. Overall, the paper will try to contribute to broader discussions by a) providing some insight into the highly charged and fluid roles of both Anglophone and German interpreters/translators who were called to provide the ‘linguistic presence’ of all those involved in war crimes courts, and b) offering a historically grounded analysis of the functions that interpreters/translators can have in violent conflicts.


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hal-02552570 , version 1 (23-04-2020)


  • HAL Id : hal-02552570 , version 1


Simona Tobia. Crime and judgement. Interpreters/translators in British war crime trials, 1945-1949. The Translator, 2010, Translation and Violent Conflict, 16 (2), pp.275-293. ⟨hal-02552570⟩


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