On Ethics and Interpreters

by Małgorzata Tryuk (Author)
©2015 Monographs 201 Pages


The history of translation and interpreting is above all the history of men, women, and sometimes children, who became translators and interpreters. It is the history of why and how they chose that job, how it affected their lives and work, how they carried out the tasks of translating and interpreting and what consequences their actions had on their families and fellow compatriots. The book presents the lives, loyalties, and identities of interpreters who, either by choice or by force, had to work during wartime, in armed conflict zones, at the trials of war criminals after World War II and in the Nazi concentration camps.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Setting the scene
  • 1.1 Interpreters in history. The history of interpreters
  • 1.2 Historical and sociological aspects of interpreting
  • Chapter 2. The Ethics of Interpreters
  • 2.1 Why study interpreters?
  • 2.2 The concept of an ideal interpreter
  • 2.3 The sociology of interpreting
  • 2.4 The roles of interpreters
  • 2.5 The responsibility of interpreters
  • 2.6 The habitus of the interpreter
  • 2.7 The need for interpreters
  • 2.8 Conclusions
  • Chapter 3. Interpreters in Nazi Concentration Camp. The Case of Lagerdolmetscher
  • 3.1 Interpreting in extreme situations
  • 3.2 Communication in the concentration camps
  • 3.3 The need for interpreters in the concentration camps
  • 3.4 Camp interpreters
  • 3.4.1 Interpreters in the KL Auschwitz-Birkenau
  • 3.4.2 Interpreters in KL Majdanek
  • 3.5 Language combination
  • 3.6 The duties of the interpreters
  • 3.7 Roles, strategies and techniques of interpreting
  • 3.8 Conclusions
  • Chapter 4. The War Crimes Trials in Poland (1946–1948)
  • 4.1 Power, trust and control in court interpreting
  • 4.2 War criminals trials in Poland after World War II
  • 4.3 Trials before the Supreme National Tribunal
  • 4.3.1 The trial of Arthur Greiser
  • 4.3.2 The trial of Ludwig Fischer, Ludwig Leist, Joseph Meisinger and Max Daum
  • 4.3.3 The trial of Rudolf Höss
  • 4.3.4 The trial of the SS Staff of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
  • 4.3.5 The trial of Joseph Bühler
  • 4.3.6 The trial of Albert Forster
  • 4.3.7 The trial of Amon Goeth
  • 4.4 After the trials
  • 4.5 Trust and control
  • 4.5.1 Recruitment of interpreters
  • 4.5.2 The interpreter’s oath
  • 4.5.3 The waiver of interpreting
  • 4.5.4 Affidavit
  • 4.5.5 Other measures
  • 4.6 Monitoring
  • 4.7 Conclusions
  • Chapter 5. Military and Wartime Interpreters
  • 5.1 Interpreters in high risk settings
  • 5.2 A wartime interpreter – a dangerous job
  • 5.3 A wartime interpreter – more than an interpreter
  • 5.4 Protection of the interpreters
  • 5.5 Conclusions
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Name Index


I wish to sincerely thank and express my deep gratitude to Dr. Piotr Setkiewicz from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum Archives in Oświęcim, Ms Marta Grudzińska from the Majdanek State Museum Archives in Lublin and the staff of the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw, as well the KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau Archives for making available to me the recollections and the statements of the former inmates, the photographs and all other materials on the post-war trials of Nazi criminals.

I wish also to thank Małgorzata Bucka for making available the photograph of Egbert Skowron from her film entitled “Nr 8036 und die Gedenkfeier in Auschwitz” produced by ZDF in 1995.

It would not have been possible to write this book without their invaluable and kind assistance.

Any shortcomings remain my own. ← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →

I refer to people with flesh-and-blood. If you prick them, they bleed.

Anthony Pym


The history of translation and interpreting is above all the history of translators and interpreters. It is the story of men, women, and sometimes even children who at different times in history became translators and interpreters. It is about why and how they chose that job, how they carried out the tasks of translating or interpreting, and what effect their actions had on their families and fellow compatriots, as well as how it affected their own lives and work.

The job of an interpreter is especially interesting for a scholar. Interpreters have always worked in difficult, and often extreme circumstances and conditions, demanding skills which went far beyond simply linguistic or cultural competences. Interpreters were and are indispensable during wars, in prisons and camps, during interrogations, in colonization times or invasion of foreign territories.

Interpreters have been and still are required to execute their job, which is often their only occupation, in situations where they are not just neutral intermediaries between persons of different national and cultural backgrounds who speak different tongues and have different values or adhere to different ideologies. Interpreters are not always able to simply ‘objectively’ interpret between two sides who wish to understand each other. Indeed, it often happens that the two sides do not wish to involve in mutual understanding at all. It also sometimes happens that an interpreter must convey to someone information which is offensive, immoral, brutal, stripped of all human dignity and outside the boundary of any law. The image of a neutral and objective interpreter, equipped with the necessary competences or abilities, is an idealistic – one may even say ‘romantic’ – image of an interpreter. The situations in which interpreters are required to work often lack basic comforts: one may meet them in prisons in occupied territories, in field hospitals, in front lines, in refugee camps or camps for prisoners of war. Interpreters are recruited by armies, occupation forces, war correspondents, and representatives of humanitarian organisations. Without interpreters, communication between the opposing sides in wars, between prisoners and their guards, between the accused and their lawyers would often be impossible. In many situations, however, the two sides do not wish to engage in a two-way communication, and the interpreters do not wish to assist any side. It would be naive to claim ← 11 | 12 → that the role of interpreters is to facilitate communication and understanding between opposing parties. The role of an interpreter is not to avoid conflicts or wars nor to ‘build bridges to communication and understanding’ in such circumstances. Hence, the present book attempts to answer the following questions:

It is obvious that the above list of questions focuses on ethical issues concerning the job of interpreters in situations involving complicated political and social relations. It may often happen that interpreters undertake their tasks and obligations without full awareness of the consequences of their actions. They should be, although they often are not, in a position to justify their decision to undertake an interpreting task, not only to themselves but also with increasing frequency to those who observe and/or describe their tasks, as well as to those whose activities, lives or fates are dependent on the results of their job. The gap between the principles contained in interpreters’ ethical and professional codes, such as neutrality, objectivity, impartiality and their real life job in conflict situations, be it in wars, prisons, or in the courtroom, is known to all who are involved in or investigate the profession. It is noted and commented on in press accounts and it is the object of research into interpreting studies. This issue of interpreters’ ethics, so effectively hidden under the veil of ethical codes, has today become one of the central issues of both theoretical and empirical research within translation and interpreting studies. It is also the main topic of this book, which is dedicated to the lives, loyalties, and identities of a large number of interpreters who, either by choice or by force, had to work in various extreme conditions. Chapter One represents an attempt to explain why ethical issues have become such an object of focus in contemporary interpreting studies. Chapter Two focuses on ethics in both translation and interpreting in the context of international conflicts and crises. Chapter Three presents the life and work of Lagerdolmetscher in Nazi ← 12 | 13 → concentration camps, who must surely have suffered the most tragic fate known in the history of interpreting and not only. Chapter Four shows how courts have controlled the job of interpreters during international war crimes trials, with a focus on those which took place in the years 1946–1948 before Poland’s Supreme National Court. Chapter Five focuses on the job of interpreters during armed conflict and in war zones in the much more recent Balkans’, Iraq, and Afghanistan conflicts, and in particular the issue of the credibility of interpreters, given their affiliations, identities, and security needs. The conclusions contain proposals for future research into the twin issues of interpreters’ ethics and their responsibility for their job and actions. ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 →

Chapter 1. Setting the scene

1.1 Interpreters in history. The history of interpreters


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
Nazi concentration camps interperters Supreme National Tribunal ethics in interpreting
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 201 pp., 29 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Małgorzata Tryuk (Author)

Małgorzata Tryuk is Professor of Translation and Interpreting Studies at the Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw. She is Head of the Department of Interpreting Studies and Audiovisual Translation and Coordinator of the European Masters in Conference Interpreting (EMCI).


Title: On Ethics and Interpreters
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204 pages