I roamed the neon lit food stands of the Riverwalk San Antonio food court searching for a table where to eat my chow mein. A throng of diners opened and there was Esther Diaz, a colleague of mine from Austin’s interpreting community. “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” I followed her to a table where a man was sitting. Had had piercing blue eyes and frosty white hair, “This is Siegfried, Mr Ramler.”
I was in San Antonio for the 53rd American Translator’s Association Conference in 2013. Siegfried Ramler, the man I had just met, was the renowned German <> English interpreter of the Nuremberg Trials and keynote speaker at the conference.
As we eat he tells me the story of his speeding down burnt out roads through Nazi liberated Europe on a motorcycle. It had only been a few months since Hitler’s army was crushed at the Battle of the Bulge. After the fall of the army, rumors circulated that the Nazi high command was to go on trial in Nuremberg. It was to be an international spectacle, the first globally televised event. Siegfried was young and also in love. He knew the trial would be a defining moment for his life. As a German Jew having escaped persecution, he was determined to be there.
One of the salient memories–I am paraphrasing some of this– was that he took advantage of post-battle confusion to avoid receiving instructions from high-command to report elsewhere, to a less thrilling desk job, but by the time Siegfried’s superiors discovered he was in Nuremberg–where he was not supposed to be–he had already begun training with the other interpreters. He was allowed to stay.
This was by many estimations, the most important trial of the 20th century. The interpreting team included German, Russian, French and English interpreters. The goal of the televised trial was to discredit the remaining members of the 3rd Reich, and put an end to Nazi sympathies around the world. The interpreters practiced using a newly devised multi-channel system for live, on-the-fly interpreting, what was yet to be known as ‘simultaneous’ interpreting.
Mr Ramler’s went on to tell me he was to interpret for the medical portion of the trials. Unimaginably horrific to be sure, but interpreting for Nazi doctor’s was not the worst of it necessarily.
“Due to the stress I had a rash which had broken out on the side of my face, and one day the Nazi doctors came in to the courtroom and sat down in the gallery near to me.” Being a German-Jew made Mr. Ramler uncomfortable to say the least. “One of the doctors called me over and grabbed my face to examine the rash. He took out a pad and scribbled a prescription. Of course, I thought he prescribed me poison, so I waited a few days without going to the pharmacy. The rash got worse. It turns out the ointment cured the rash and it was not poison.”
After we finished lunch, Esther took a photo of Mr Ramler and myself at the Riverwalk. I look at it often. In light of a global pandemic, and a starkly divided nation, his stories remind me of the importance of coming together and taking risks, trying to define what values we esteem as an increasingly global society, and remembering our differences should be embraced, and that interpreters are essential to ushering in a new era of cultural understanding, social progress, and above all compassion.
Mr Ramler passed away in January of 2020.