What was it like to research Nuremberg before the web existed?

This is the question I asked Northwestern University scholar Francesca Gaiba, author of the only book about simultaneous interpretation at world’s first international trial. She began her research in 1994—the old-fashioned way. For reference, the world wide web (www) was just coming online this same year.

After publishing her book in 1998, Francesca held onto all her original documents and looked for a university library to archive them properly. I am most grateful she invited me to view and photograph them before shipping to the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Francesca has also generously shared her digital archive with us for use in the Courtroom 600 website.

How her project started

As a multi-lingual Italian student and conference interpreter, Francesca questioned the origins of her craft for what began as a thesis paper.

“Who had the idea that it was possible to connect microphones and earphones in such a way that a speech could be translated instantaneously and extempore in a different language? Who thought it was possible for an interpreter to hear and speak at the same time?”

Francesca learned the simultaneous interpretation system pioneered in 1945 for Nuremberg, soon became adopted globally by the newly formed United Nations. In effect, from this historic trial a new profession was born—the very profession she was studying in college.

Uncharted territory

Researching a topic no previous academic had pursued, Francesca soon realized published source materials did not exist. She had to access archival materials, and even those were scarce. A quest for answers transported her from libraries in Bologna, Italy to Heidelberg, Germany and eventually to Berkeley, California where she completed her thesis and book, The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation: The Nuremberg Trial (University of Ottowa Press, 1998).

Active interpreters in Courtroom 600 face the witness booth (off camera, right) to monitor lip movement as they speak into microphones. “SLOW” cards in large type remind them not to rush. Photo sources: (L) University of Ottowa Press (R) National Archives and Records Association.

Why was simultaneous interpretation so important at Nuremberg?

Previously, the most widely used interpretation style was the consecutive method, wherein interpreters wait until after a speaker finishes a sentence before starting the target language. This method doubles the amount of time for each additional language involved.

Architects of the world’s first international trial realized, court sessions in four languages (English, German, Russian, and French) would extend proceedings far longer than the Allies desired.

Need for an expeditious trial inspired innovation, and a process still in place today. 

“The Nuremberg Trial was the first official international gathering in which simultaneous interpretation was used.”

US Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson at the lectern in Courtroom 600. Photo source: National Archives and Records Association.

This 10-month trial filled 42 volumes and was estimated at six million words. Yet nowhere in the official record was there any mention of the system that permitted a historic first: multilingual conduct in a trial.

Francesca’s resulting paper and book broke new ground, detailing how more than 500 people in Courtroom 600 were able to understand prosecutors, judges, witnesses, and defense council in real time—for the first time in the world.

It’s hard to fathom life before Google. Library card catalogs were the pre-internet equivalent, which led Francesca to books, papers, and eventually—to the actual interpreters who worked at Nuremberg. Fluency in English, French, and Italian allowed her to communicate with a variety of global interpreters and really got her project off the ground.

Through handwritten and typed letters, Nuremberg interpreters answered questions and shared details no one had thought to document previously, in thousands of published works about the trials.

Peter Uiberall in the Courtroom 600 interpreter’s booth, and one of the many letters he wrote Francesca Gaiba. Photo sources: (L) National Archives and Records Association, (R) Francesca Gaiba.

Peter Uiberall, a Jewish interpreter who fled Nazi Germany in 1938 for the US, and Alfred Steer, the American Translation Division Chief, became key sources for much of Francesca’s resulting paper and book.

The Origins of Simultaneous Interpretation sheds light on multiple aspects of the Nuremberg story, both technical and personal. Through her letters, Francesca learned some of the best interpreters came from the Paris telephone exchange, where multi-lingual fluidity was a make it or break it skill.

 Alfred Steer called Nuremberg “a dirty job” in a ruined city—where shocking, horrendous revelations of Nazi crimes had to be repeated in multiple languages, then proofed against the recorded speech for historical accuracy. After this type of stress, trial staff could look forward to army rations for food and barely enough heat to keep warm in the winter. Drinking water required a chlorine tablet added for safety, and hot water for bathing was rare.

The ruins of Nuremberg in 1945, and the Palace of Justice cafeteria at lunchtime, where army rations were served on metal trays. Photo sources: (L) FOR ALAN/Alamy Stock Photo (R) National Archives and Records Association.

As Francesca shared original letters and fondly recalled her correspondences that turned into friendships, I realized how much patience and time was required to conduct research without the internet. She would drop a letter in the mail and wait 2,3, sometimes 6 weeks for a response. While Francesca had a university email account in 1994, the newfangled internet was not part of life for Nuremberg interpreters now in their 70s and 80s.

Today we take for granted communication that can be sent and responded to in minutes, internet search queries that return thousands of results in a fraction of a second, and digital archives with photos and primary source documents available 24/7/365.

The world wide web was invented just as Francesca was beginning her research in 1994.

To access the internet at that time, one needed either an AOL, CompuServe, or Prodigy account and a 56k dial-up modem connected to a telephone line. It could take up to a minute for a screen graphic to paint up (and we thought it was miraculous!).

Corporations were hustling to create their first web pages, and as broadband became available (achieving 4% penetration in 2000), universities pondered how to digitize their archival collections—a process that wouldn’t materialize for years to come.


The World Wide Web in 1994. Photo sources: https://www.businessinsider.com/tech-in-1994-the-year-the-web-was-born-2014-

After inheriting my father’s war memorabilia from Nuremberg, Francesca’s book was one of the first I acquired in my own research journey—found through a Google search in 2015 and previewed extensively thanks to Google Books.

Her approachable writing style and attention to detail quickly drew me in. Along with sharing interpreter experiences at the trial, Francesca’s book answered an important question: why are there multiple spellings for Nuremberg (Nürnberg, Nuernberg, Nuremberg, Nurenberg)?

“According to Alfred Steer, Head of the Translation Division in Nuremberg, the Americans adopted it from the British, who imitated the French pronunciation. The French add a third syllable, -em- to the two syllable German word.”

Alfred Steer in his office at Nuremberg, and one of the many letters he wrote to Francesca Gaiba 50 years later. Photo sources: (L) Francesca Gaiba (R) National Archives and Records Association.

Francesca’s research into uncharted territory will impact scholars (and inquisitors like myself) for decades to come. When I approached her about the Courtroom 600 project her response was—she wished a website like ours had been around when she was researching Nuremberg (check out Francesca’s kind endorsement at the bottom of our Project Roadmap page).

We live in an age where the internet is ubiquitous to our daily lives. Who could imagine attempting any type of research without going online as a starting point?

For the next generation of internet-savvy Nuremberg researchers and inquisitors, Courtroom 600 will be a dynamic learning tool—and a new way of experiencing history.

I’ve asked Francesca to be a guest in our upcoming podcast series about the “Making of” Nuremberg, so stay tuned for much more of her story! And, to get the latest on Courtroom 600, follow us on Twitter and Facebook or sign up for our e-news updates.

The trial of the Major Nazi War Criminals was the first time in history the world passed judgement together, in four languages, inside Courtroom 600 at The Palace of Justice, Nuremberg.


Check out Francesca’s book on Amazon or Google Books.

For information on interpreting as a career path, visit the International Alliance of Conference Interpreters (AIIC).

See behind the scenes photos of the simultaneous interpretation system at the trial, in “The Making Of Nuremberg” section of our Courtroom 600 pilot site.

Francesca Gaiba, PhD, CPRA is a Research Associate Professor and Associate Director for the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing at Northwestern University.