Translating Cultural Memory in Fiction and Testimony

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in workshop, seminar, course


"Interpreting at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials (1963-65): Knowledge, Memory, Mediation"

The trial of 22 former Auschwitz personnel in Frankfurt-am-Main in the mid-1960s was a watershed moment in public debate about the legacy of the Holocaust in West Germany. The trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 had given the many survivors an international stage for their testimony, but the Frankfurt proceedings brought survivors to Germany, where they could speak directly to the public. Intense media interest focussed on the voices of the survivors and on the character of the accused, ensuring that the seemingly abstract, industrial world of the extermination camp now had to be understood in terms of individual experience and the struggle to find language to express what had happened.

Witnesses were brought from across the world, and their testimony was translated by a team of interpreters. Witnesses had been encouraged by the prosecution to speak German where they could, with the support of interpreters; where they could not, the often multilingual survivors had to choose a language in which to testify so that an appropriate interpreter could be found. The result is a complex linguistic situation in which the witness’ memories are mediated through translation in ways that are often striking and moving, but also often confusing and frustrating. There have been significant historical studies of the trial in recent years, and it has also been the subject of a number of successful novels and film. Despite this, the work of the interpreters themselves has attracted little attention, even though one of them, the German-Russian-Polish interpreter Wera Kapkajew, became something of a celebrity in her own right at the time.

The archive of the trial has recently been awarded UNESCO documentary heritage status in recognition of its significance in the development of Holocaust memory. Using the tape recordings of the victim testimony, which are now curated by the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt, this talk will set out the linguistic situation of the trial and explore the work of the interpreters. Rather than discussing the usefulness of the documents as historical or legal evidence, the talk will instead consider the different - and at times conflicting - knowledge practices at work in the act of testifying, and consider the contribution of the interpreters to the process of knowledge creation and the construction of the image of the Holocaust witness.
Period10 Oct 2019
Event typeConference
LocationInnsbruck, AustriaShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational