Field Guide

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Excerpted from Chapter 10: Other Challenges: Interpreters, Returnees, Witnesses, Preventing Violence, "Walk-Outs," Cancellations, "No Shows" in The School Mediator's Field Guide: Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges by Richard Cohen


Mediating Using Interpreters

Language is crucial to mediation. It is the primary vehicle for expression in a process that is essentially people speaking with one another. As such, it is important to conduct mediation sessions in the language with which parties are most comfortable. The reasons for mediating in parties' first language include:

  • It demonstrates respect for them.
  • Spoken language has subtleties of meaning determined by tone, context, and inflection. Because mediation depends upon accurate communication among parties and between parties and the mediators, it is essential to conduct sessions in the language with which participants have the greatest facility.
  • Mediating is stressful in any language. Mediating in a language other than one's native tongue forces parties to work even harder and waste energy on communication mechanics that would be better directed towards the substance of the discussion.
  • Mediation sessions often engender intense emotions for parties. Those who speak more than one language typically will revert to their first language when they become emotional. Conducting mediation in parties' first language is consistent with this natural tendency.

Some parties, perhaps to "not make trouble," consent to mediate in English even when they would be more comfortable in another language. Try to arrange to mediate in their first language nonetheless. If the school has a peer mediation program, the diversity of the mediators should make it possible to mediate in the major languages spoken by the student body. In North American schools, mediation sessions have been successfully conducted in languages from Spanish to Khmer to American Sign Language.

It is not always possible to mediate in parties' native tongues, however. The school may not have access to a mediator that speaks the language in question. Or one mediator may be fluent in this language while the second mediator is not. The parties themselves may even speak different languages and be unable to communicate with each other directly, no less than with the mediators. At these times, mediators count on the assistance of interpreters.

What is an Interpreter?
Although the word "translator" is often used to refer to someone who converts what a person is saying in one language to another, the correct term is "interpreter." Technically, an interpreter works with the spoken word, while a translator works with the written word. The two major forms of interpreting are known as "simultaneous" and "consecutive." In simultaneous interpretation, the words of the speaker are interpreted as they are spoken, with only the slightest of delays. The most familiar example of simultaneous interpretation is at the United Nations, where a speech in one language is simultaneously interpreted by different highly trained personnel into the dozens of other languages spoken by UN delegates. American Sign Languages interpreters usually work simultaneously as well.

With consecutive interpretation, the speaker talks for a short while and then pauses while their words are interpreted. A minute of speech is followed by a minute of interpretation. Consecutive interpretation is the most common method of interpreting in mediation for one practical reason: Two languages spoken simultaneously in one room quickly become an unintelligible jumble. Unless one has a complex system of microphones and head sets like the United Nations, or the languages in question use differing media as in American Sign Language and spoken English, simultaneous interpretation is unworkable. Consecutive interpretation can also create a more calm and considered atmosphere in mediation sessions because parties are forced to take frequent breaks while speaking.