May 30, 2013

Eichmann’s German: what English-speaking viewers are missing in the new film, Hannah Arendt


Barbara Sukowa as Arendt.

This week marks the U.S. opening of Hannah Arendt, a movie from German director Margarethe von Trotta that portrays the months Hannah Arendt spent reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 and the controversy generated by her articles for the New Yorker, which would later be brought together in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem.

At a panel discussion to a standing-room-only audience at Deutsches Haus in New York Tuesday night, von Trotta, the actresses Barbara Sukowa and Janet McTeer, who played Arendt and Mary McCarthy respectively, Pam Katz, who collaborated with von Trotta on the screenplay, and Jerome Kohn, director of the Hannah Arendt Center at the New School for Social Research — where Arendt was an early faculty member — talked about the experience of making the movie and the thinking that went into certain decisions.

For instance, Trotta used actual footage of the Eichmann trial for all the scenes where Eichmann appears, though she cuts away to shots of Sukowa as Arendt sitting in the gallery, watching the proceedings. Those scenes from the trial are subtitled, and the movie in general is heavily multilingual: characters speak the languages they would have spoken in the various contexts they found themselves in, so that some scenes are all in German, others in Hebrew, others in English, and still others in a mix of languages.

It was at this point in the discussion, however, that von Trotta claimed that there was something that English-language viewers might not get the full effect of: the nature of Eichmann’s German. Because the English subtitles, it turns out, are not quite able to convey the shoddy grammar and the extent of the clichés Eichmann used in his testimony to the court (Kohn said that Eichmann had “a cliché for every emergency”). This aspect of Eichmann is crucial in Arendt’s evaluation of him, and far from Arendt’s simply being a snob about Eichmann’s grammar skills (as this article in the New York Times has it), she believed that Eichmann’s imprecision in speech was part of his inability, or his unwillingness, to think for himself.

To know that this quality of Eichmann’s might always be at a distance for English speakers—able to be imagined but not quite grasped in exact terms—was an interesting realization in the context of the Eichmann trial, which was intended to set standards for transparency. Indeed, Ulrich Baer, moderator of the event, noted that the trial was one of the first highly televised court cases; it was meant to be available for anyone to watch in full in order to draw their own conclusions. But central to such transparency, given the participants and the location, was the issue of language.

In fact, how to hold an international trial and deal with the different languages of the participants without resorting to consecutive translation (where the translation comes after whatever is said) was a problem that the conveners of the Nuremberg Trials faced, and for which they developed the system of multilingual simultaneous translation. French translator David Bellos describes the set-up in his recent book Is That  A Fish In Your Ear:

Members of the court had switch dials to select which language channel they wished to listen to. The output was produced by four teams of three interpreters each. The English team had a German interpreter, a Russian interpreter, and a French interpreter sitting side by side, listening on headphones, and repeating in English what was said in the other languages; the setup was the same in the three other booths. Altogether, thirty-six interpreters were recruited from among the three hundred language professionals hired by the court and the prosecution and defense teams to work at this brand-new and not obviously manageable task of instantaneous oral translation.

This would become the basis for the translation systems at the United Nations and in the International Criminal Tribunals in the Hague, and it was also in place at the Eichmann trial, though Arendt wasn’t always impressed by the quality of the translations: she wrote that she followed the proceedings “through the simultaneous radio transmission, which is excellent in French, bearable in English, and sheer comedy, frequently incomprehensible in German.”

Arendt, of course, didn’t need the simultaneous translation. But it’s an incredible feat, and it’s also the system responsible for the iconic photos of Eichmann in headphones during the trial. These are deeply ambiguous images: on the one hand, the headphones, like the glass witness box, visually amplify his distance from the proceedings—he seems to be insulated from what’s around him. But in fact, those headphones, and the translators speaking into them, were bringing every word of his crimes close to his ears, in an attempt to make him understand.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.