Being an Interpreter

Working with an Interpreter
in Alternative Dispute Resolution

As a dispute resolution practitioner, whether volunteer, court-appointed or privately retained; whether mediator, arbitrator, conciliator, or facilitator, one day you will find yourself in a mediation with people whose first language is not English, or who do not speak English at all. In addition to being nervous and unfamiliar with the procedure about to take place, they will be concerned about understanding what is happening around them, and worried about the consequences. When people in these situations bring interpreters to assist them, guide them, or even to participate for them, your role is immediately made easier. Remember that an interpreter is NOT a translator. A translator converts the words of one language to the words of another language, without adding editorial insight. An interpreter is a translator with the mandate to take the words spoken and rephrase or paraphrase them for the understanding of his clients.

For convenience in this article, all dispute resolution practitioners shall be referred to as “mediators”, all pronouns used for reference to interpreters shall be masculine, and all references to an interpreter’s “clients” are not meant to suggest any relationship beyond that of linguistic aide.

Four questions arise when discussing the role of the interpreter in the mediation process:

  1. Who is enlisted as an interpreter?
  2. What is the role of the interpreter in the process?
  3. How does the interpreter affect the process?
  4. How does the mediator relate to the interpreter?

There is a great deal of ethnic diversity in southern Florida, so in the last six months I have mediated cases with Haitian, Hispanic, and Chinese interpreters. A surprising number of similarities have emerged among the interpreters which prompted the writing of this article.

I. Common Threads

  1. In all cases, the interpreter was a respected member of the participant’s community; not a “hired” gun or an attorney, but an individual who has lived in this country long enough to understand the American way of doing things and who, by virtue of education or success, has achieved a position of respect within his ethnic community.
  2. The interpreters have all demonstrated a familiarity with the case under discussion, indicating that their presence at the mediation is probably not the first opportunity to hear or discuss the issues. The interpreter may have been consulted before a contract was signed, or may have assisted in translating a document, or in negotiating a deal which has become the subject of the mediation.
  3. The interpreters have all been alert observers of the others in the room, looking for body language clues from the other side and from the mediator, perhaps to gauge the relative strengths and weaknesses of the case, perhaps to assess the position of their clients, perhaps to look and listen for prejudice or bias in the attitude of the others with respect to the party being represented.
  4. The interpreters have not single-mindedly represented their clients to the detriment of the process. In fact, I have found the interpreters to be open-minded and willing to participate or even take the lead in identifying options available to resolve the dispute, rising above the emotional content of the dispute to best represent their clients.
  5. All interpreters have looked for eye contact from the mediator, to be included in the process, to be acknowledged as more than a conduit for words, but as a full participant in the process. Therefore, the key to a successful mediation with an interpreter is to communicate with the interpreter, not just through him.

II. Common Issues

What should you make of the dialogue between interpreter and his client when the response to a question is two minutes long and the interpreter sums it up in a handful of words?

Don’t worry. The interpreter is giving the client his “day in court”, and the opportunity to fully explain himself. Then the interpreter communicates to the rest of the room the essence of the answer. Don’t worry about selective translations. It is there that the interpreter can be most effective. He is reducing the emotional content to its factual core. The others in the room can see and hear the emotion, the interpreter is providing the substance.

You may have been informed by the other side that the parties can speak English, and that the interpreter has been brought in to generate sympathy, or to slow down the process and make it cumbersome.

While a party may speak English as a second language, most of us have had the experience of being among others speaking a foreign language where we may have understood the gist of what was being said, but not each word. We are aware of the power of nuance and inflection in language, and cultural differences in understanding transactions. So it is not surprising that often the unfamiliarity with those nuances and inflections and cultural differences lead to conflicts and lawsuits. An interpreter is essential to the party to shed light on the language used and cultural meanings in documents, in actions, and in person. The interpreter is truly “interpreting” the words, not just translating them.

The interpreter may also function as “counsel” to the party as a respected member of the party’s community.

The interpreter may be invited to take the lead on behalf of his clients in the dispute resolution process. The mediator must acknowledge the interpreter as the spokesman for his clients (again, not merely the translator of the words being said) to give him the opportunity to maximize his effectiveness.

If you continue to give the non-English speaking party your undivided attention at relevant moments, through eye contact and positive body language, even though you do not understand what is being said, you will observe the party’s progress through the mediation process. This progress is significantly affected by the interpreter, so the interpreter’s comfort level affects more than his own participation: it determines his client’s comfort level as well.

III. Empowerment of the Interpreter

The turning point in an interpreted mediation occurs when the interpreter addresses you or the other party directly, initiating questions or offering suggestions.

It is at that point that he has drawn conclusions as to the strengths and weaknesses of the case, and is willing to assist you in reaching a conclusion. When the interpreter speaks on behalf of the client and is no longer simply a conduit, you have created the environment for settlement. A comfortable, competent, confident interpreter is a great asset and ally to the mediator.

Acknowledging the interpreter empowers him.

He feels his own importance in the dynamics of process . Couple that with his assessment of the others in the room, his ability to bridge the language barrier, and his position of respect with the people he represents, he becomes the central player in the process. If you have accorded the interpreter the respect you would pay a party, then he will be a powerful ally. He is the one who knows how far he can move his clients. He is the one who knows their emotional investment in the matter. He is the one who can add a positive or negative “spin” to the options and issues being discussed.

Showing respect to the interpreter empowers him.

Empower the interpreter and you have created the environment necessary for reaching a resolution of the dispute that brought the parties to the mediation.

Does this empowerment weaken your position as mediator?

If we borrow a lesson from the ancient Egyptians, the answer must be “No.” During the more than 2000 years Egypt ruled the world as they knew it there was, almost without exception, a policy of incorporating the deities of conquered peoples into the pantheon of Egyptian gods. In that way, the conquered people were not deprived of their spiritual identity even when they had been stripped of their worldly possessions and perhaps their freedom. Consider the interpreter a powerful force in the mediation, brought in by the party who perceives himself to be weakened by his inability to communicate in English. The interpreter can assist the party he represents to maintain his identity in the process and overcome the sense that if one cannot be understood, one cannot be treated fairly.

IV. Conclusion

In any mediation, it is the responsibility of the mediator to create an atmosphere “safe” for the parties to back down from polarized positions to explore intermediate options for settling their dispute. In a mediation with an interpreter, it is equally important for all parties to feel well represented and on equal footing. Empower the interpreter to guide his clients with the understanding he has gained at the proceeding, and a satisfactory result is more than likely to emerge.

An interpreter, more than any other non-party in the mediation room, can be an extremely powerful ally for the mediator if given the respect he is entitled to in the role he performs.

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