Recently, the tasks of interpreters and cultural mediators have been overlapping in many fields. Interpreters convey not only information, but also elements of a culture. After all, language is an inseparable component of culture.

In France, Italy and parts of Germany, the terms “interpreter”, “cultural mediator” and “intercultural mediator” may overlap or even be interchangeable. However, in some healthcare fields, these tasks are kept strictly separate but complement each other. For example, in the Irish medical system, the tasks differ very distinctly. But is it possible to deliver comprehensive information without considering cultural differences? We don’t always understand each other at the workplace. We are involved with people we know personally, who move within the same culture, and who speak our language.

During business negotiations between two companies, the interpreter points out the cultural features, clarifies customs, indicates the building blocks of correct behavior, and interprets greetings, signs, and expressions of thanks and confidence. Cultural differences are found in speech, in formulating a request, an instruction or a critique, and extend all the way to differences in thought, conversational techniques and negotiation tactics. The interpreter must often be able to explain elements of the foreign culture in order to create successful communication. In the end, these elements may cause misunderstanding in the listener, or evoke negative reactions.

Why a cultural mediator?

Many think of interpreters as parrots that just repeat words in a different language. This doesn’t account for the fact that an interpreter actually conveys a meaning, a thought, from another culture into the culture of the target language. In his speech, he must factor in cultural features that may cause misunderstandings or even conflicts. These may arise even before business negotiations — such as when the cultures understand time differently. An American always arrives at a meeting on time. But a Spaniard? A half-hour delay isn’t unusual. Our article on faux pas will go into these differences more intensively.

To show the influence a culture has on vocabulary, we point to Slovakia as an example. The Slovak language distinguishes between citizenship and nationality — why would this be? Do you know the difference? Citizenship is affiliation with a government. It describes the relationship between the individual and the state. This word is expressed in English as nationality and in Spanish as nacionalidad. Nationality is membership in a nation, a tribe, so to speak. In Spanish, the term nacionalidad is used for this, also. At the time when Czechoslovakia existed, members of two nations lived in one country — Slovaks and Czechs. But both were also citizens of the Czechoslovak state. These experiences affected their view of the world. Countries like France or Spain know only one concept — state citizenship. But what does a translator do when a legal text calls for the word nacionalidad to be translated into Slovak? Does he translate it as citizenship or nationality? He has to convey the concept from a language that doesn’t make this distinction. He therefore has no appropriate term for this. Even legal experts don’t agree in this realm.

One of the first cultural mediators

Maybe you’ve already heard of her. She was called Doña Marina, and she accompanied the conquistador Cortés in his exploration of the New World. Today she is spoken of as the first interpreter. As a woman, however, she was given little importance, and there is little information about her. She was a mediator in discussions with Native Americans who spoke Nahuatl. She started by interpreting into the Mayan language, and another interpreter conveyed her words to Cortés in Spanish. She is considered to be the first cultural mediator — and after all, the cultures of Spain and the Americas differed considerably. Malinche, as she was also called, interpreted from a language that is known for its juxtaposition of two or even three metaphors. Two to three sentences were needed to express one thought. For example, if one says in Spanish, “The king is dead”, the sentence might be expressed in Nahuatl as, “The king is dead, deceased, gone”. She expertly knew her way around the linguistic differences. So, despite the cultural gap and differing perceptions, communication in the New World went successfully.

Interpreters in business

In business, interpreters are now indispensable as intercultural mediators. They are part of negotiations, meetings and business travel. Many international companies employ their own interpreters and translators. Smaller companies engage external providers. However, in business, this can be a trap for many companies. They don’t put enough trust in someone they don’t know. For the company, there is potential danger in revealing their business plans to an interpreter who needs to prepare himself. This is why many companies do not bring in interpreting services, but use internal employees with enough language knowledge to serve as interpreters. But not everyone can come up with a substitute with adequate language skills for each situation. Negotiations are not only encounters between representatives of companies, but between different cultures. There are different modes of thinking and understanding of concepts.

Interpreters and “false friends” in healthcare

As mentioned at the beginning, in Irish healthcare, the tasks of an interpreter and a mediator are not identical. Moreover, the profession of interpreter is not legally specified — any family member, including children, friends and the cleaning lady, can perform the task. It is enough that communication can occur. It is exactly the opposite in the United States: There, a foreigner in the healthcare system has the right to a professional interpreter. Often, there is no awareness of the risk to both sides.

In such a situation, it must be ensured that the communicator is aware of what are called false friends. These are words that sound similar in both languages but have completely different meanings. Maybe you’ve already heard of the tragic case of Willie Ramirez, a basketball player in Florida. When he was brought to the hospital, he was already in a coma. His family member told the interpreter that he was “intoxicado”, which in Cuban Spanish means he had food poisoning. The interpreter translated the word into English as “intoxicated”, which indicates drug use. The doctors then automatically ruled out other diagnoses. When they finally systematically determined that Willie had a brain hemorrhage, it was too late for any effective medication. This mistake led to the basketball player living as a quadriplegic.

An interpreter is like a bridge that joins two cultures. As a cultural mediator, however, he cannot separate the language from the culture. If he just swaps one word for another, misunderstandings can occur. And if he only functioned as a cultural mediator? In that case, business meetings would look similar to this video by Catherine Tate.