Interpreters in Conflict Resolution

by Kayoko Takeda

I am not an expert on conflict resolution. As an interpreter and interpreting researcher, however, I am keenly aware of the indispensable role that interpreters play in resolving conflicts between parties who do not share a common language, or in interlingual communication between the third-party mediator and the parties concerned. It is a simple fact that exchanges of views, inquiries, negotiations, and peace-building or legal discourse across different languages and cultures would not be possible without people who bridge the language gap, whether they be professionally trained interpreters or bilinguals acting as ad-hoc interpreters. Also true is the possibility of the poor quality of interpreting becoming a hindrance to the process of resolving conflicts. Nonetheless, the significance of who interprets and how they interpret in conflict resolution seems to draw little attention, except when errors in interpreting lead to a diplomatic mishap or when interpreters become victims of violence. In some aspects, interpreters and conflict resolvers face the same kinds of challenges. Just like people who try to facilitate the resolution of conflict, interpreters can find themselves in dangerous and hostile situations. Also, interpreters have to deal with issues of neutrality just like people who assist dialogue between disputants. Inspired by Dr. Pushpa Iyer’s article on neutrality in the previous issue of Reflections, I would like to briefly discuss interpreters’ neutrality, focusing on the context of conflict resolution.

Neutrality has been one of the much-debated topics in recent scholarly works on interpreting and among practitioners of interpreting, mainly in the areas of sign language, legal, and healthcare settings where asymmetric power relations exist among the participants of a given communicative event. The attention to this subject is primarily due to the gap between the canon of “neutrality” that seems to be imposed upon interpreters and the actual behavior of interpreters under certain circumstances. The “myth” of interpreters being a neutral conduit (doing nothing more than a machine-like rendition of what is said in the source speech into the target language) has been repeatedly challenged by empirical evidence that reveals interpreters as cultural brokers and active participants in constructing the communication discourse, especially in dialogue settings (as opposed to conference settings). Some scholars and practitioners argue further that “neutrality” is an unattainable or unrealistic expectation since interpreters’ awareness of the purpose of a given communicative event (such as treating a patient, advising a student, or obtaining information from an asylum seeker) makes it difficult for them to be totally detached from or disinterested in how the discourse shapes up and to what outcome it may lead. There are some people who even contend that interpreters should be advocates of patients, deaf people, speakers of a “non-colonial” language, etc., to protect their rights in asymmetric power constellations. Nowadays, codes of ethics for interpreters rarely mention ‘neutrality’, except those for judicial interpreters (though similar but clearer terms such as “impartiality,” meaning being unbiased, and “avoiding/disclosing conflict of interest” are still used in various codes).

Now let us think about interpreters in the context of conflict resolution. There are a number of possible scenarios in which interpreting can take place during the effort to resolve conflict. Let us say that the two conflicting parties share more or less the same language, but the mediator does not. If a member of one of the disputants acts as an interpreter for the mediator, the interpreter’s neutrality may be questioned by the opposing side because of her own interest in the outcome of the discourse. She may be suspected of interpreting to the advantage of her own group. At the same time, her familiarity with the issues may help minimize errors in interpreting. She may also be able to advise the mediator about local culture, customs, geography, etc., which may help the mediator have a better understanding of the dispute. What about a third-party interpreter the mediator may bring? She may be considered “neutral” because she is not affiliated with either party. But can she really keep herself detached from the situation that is unfolding in front of her? Some may even question if the parties would actually trust a “neutral,” disinterested interpreter with no deep understanding of the case in the first place.

There are a couple of ways to approach these issues in the context of conflict resolution. One is to focus on the purpose of this interpreter-mediated communication. Clearly, it is to resolve conflict. How one can contribute to fulfill this goal should be the guideline for interpreters in making decisions on how they act. If interpreters engage in something more than “faithful” renditions of the source speech, such as adding explanations and toning down highly charged offensive remarks, they should be conscious of why they are doing it and what consequences such behavior may generate. Further, what Dr. Iyer suggests can be applied to interpreters in conflict resolution as well. Interpreters should acknowledge that their own values, positions, and interests could influence their ways of interpreting. They should critically reflect on their own actions and learn to manage different degrees of “neutrality” by quickly analyzing the discourse, with the ultimate, collective goal of resolving conflict in mind. As Dr. Iyer says, it is indeed about process.


Kayoko Takeda is professor of translation and interpreting studies in the Graduate School of Intercultural Communication at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. After living in the U.S. for more than 20 years, Kayoko recently moved back to Japan. She is a conference and legal interpreter, and published translator. Her research interests include sociocultural aspects of translating and interpreting, translation and interpreting history, translator and interpreter education, and translation technology. Kayoko is the author of Interpreting the Tokyo War Crimes Trial (University of Ottawa Press).

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