Conflict Resolution|International|Mediation

UIA Mediation Forum: Interpret or Translate Cross-Cultural Mediations?

The 18th gathering of the World Forum of Mediation Centers was held under the auspices of the Union International des Avocats in Prague, Czech Republic, on June 7-8, 2013.  Mediators and Centers came from the U.S., Canada, Algeria, Iraq, Bahrain, Ireland, France, Czech Republic, Greece, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Germany, Lebanon, Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Nigeria, U.K., Australia and Hong Kong.  About 70 people were present.

Co-President Colin Wall of Hong Kong arranged this conference; Co-President Thierry Garby of France will arrange the next one, March 21-22, 2014, in Houston Texas.

The group was greeted by Antonin Mokrý, Vice President of the Czech Bar Association; František Korbel, Vice-Minister of Justice of the Czech Republic; and Roman Fiala, Vice-President of the Supreme Court of the Czech Republic.  The speakers noted the 2012 law regulating the training and supervision of mediators, and empowering Czech courts to refer cases to mediation.  The legislature used other EU countries’ laws as models for the Czech bill.  A series of trainings for Czech mediators was recently held by Thierry Garby of France and Patrick van Leynseele of Belgium.

The first program was a lively and informative presentation on the use of translators in mediation, offered by Xiaohui YUAN, lecturer at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  She noted at the outset the misuse of terms in the title; “translation” is something you do to a written piece and “interpretation” is something you do when someone is speaking.  The challenges in mediating through an interpreter are several.  One must decide whether the interpretation will be simultaneous or consecutive.

There is also a cross-cultural sensitivity called for.  Literal word-for-word translation fails to convey the meaning of culturally specific phrases (crossed fingers for luck, fatness indicating business success, “I understand you are a rat” [meaning “I understand you were born in the Year of the Rat”]).  But more liberty for the interpreter may invite “spin” and inaccuracy (e.g., “You are wrong” interpreted as “I will need to reconsider your statement”).  Yuan used appropriate and entertaining videos to demonstrate the pitfalls she addressed.  Clearly, interpreters are asked to do more than just translate between languages.  They may be called upon to defuse tension or save face.

Mediators using interpreters should therefore be sure to instruct the interpreter as to how to handle emotional outbursts, overlapping statements, and similar anticipated issues.  Verbatim translation may be acceptable in arbitration but not in mediation, and the interpreter should understand the mediation process and what is going on in the caucus as compared to the joint session.  It is critical that the interpreter not have a connection with a party (though this happens surprisingly often: “My sister can interpret for me.”).  The interpreter should understand the constraints of confidentiality, and speakers should accept the interpreter’s signals when to stop speaking and allow her to interpret.

A final film clip showed the nuanced risks of cross-cultural misunderstandings.  A scene was played of an employee being fired over lunch.  British viewers of the scene reported that the boss’s body language demonstrated evasion, discomfort, embarrassment and disengagement.  Chinese viewers reported that the boss showed sincerity, regret, pain, patience and attention.  So interpreting the words is only part of the challenge.

Further reports on this always-stimulating conference will be forthcoming.

  1. Is there any way that Xiaohui YUAN can make the presentation available? It sounds excellent. In my mediation work I would like to extend the cross-cultural misunderstanding contex to also include trade and professional frameworks such as construction contractor and project owner for example.



  2. Cross cultural conflict resolution and mediation is my favorite topics in all my community work since I arrived to my great state USA.Thanks to my mentors Dr CJ Larkin and Dr Pam DeVoe of St Louis Washington University, I got training and immediate follow up to practice conflict resolution and mediation in my work places and in my community.
    Dr Pam still helps me in my new place at Omaha NE in my conflict resolution career .I will continue same to help people in conflicts in my own community and outside my community

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