Finding common ground is essential to the success of any negotiation but, in an increasingly globalised society, crossing the language barrier and encountering unfamiliar cultures can be a major barrier to a satisfactory resolution.
Now, experts at The University of Nottingham are leading a new initiative aimed at taking the latest academic research on language, translation, intercultural studies and conflict resolution directly into professional practice.
The Translating Cultures in International Mediation project aims to equip and improve professional translators and mediators in both the political and business arena with the skills they need to navigate the sensitivities of cultural differences and minimise the possibilities for misunderstanding.
The project, funded with a £30,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is being led by Dr Xiaohui Yuan in the School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies, who previously worked in Geneva as a professional interpreter with the United Nations agencies the World Health Organisation, the International Telecommunication Union and the UN Assembly while studying for her PhD.
She said: "We want to investigate the impact that language , body language and the cultural variables and differences have on the mediation process and to highlight and understand how they are represented in translation or interpreting. We are also very interested in how interpreters interact with parties in conflict and represent their intentions and attitudes in this dynamic process.
"People from other cultures such as the Arab world, China or Malaysia have very different ways of expressing themselves to those from the Western world and as an interpreter it is very important to represent these differences accurately in a cross-cultural context. However, there is currently next to no training in these skills for translation and conflict resolution specialists."
The skills of good mediators and interpreters are in constant demand to manage cross-border conflicts, whether it concerns a business deal gone sour between two multinational companies or disputes between Governments over contracts for international companies.
Mediators are often called upon in an attempt to avoid costly legal action through the courts or to protect confidentiality and their public image, with the intention of working out differences through negotiation.
Often working across nationalities, ignorance about the use of facial expressions, language and body language in other cultures to express ideas and values can sometimes lead to misunderstandings that could undermine the negotiation process, which is where the intercultural skills of the mediator can be vital.
Dr Yuan said: "In situations like this, mediators must have a good grasp of the cultural differences that are at play, how language is used and the impact on the other party when that language is not their mother tongue. The project is interested in the role of interpreters, the power they have, how they represent the parties' intentions and where the boundary lies for their actions."
The initiative aims to develop an interdisciplinary research and knowledge transfer network that will allow academics and professionals to exchange ideas and to develop a good understanding of each others' work.
Currently, courses for interpreters and translators, such as Nottingham's MA in Chinese/English Translation and Interpreting, are very intense and offer training in a range of practical interpreting skills including note taking, presentation and public speaking skills, consecutive and simultaneous interpreting techniques, and a set of comprehensive translation skills. The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) provides accredited training for mediation professionals. However, very little training is currently offered on the issues around cross-cultural differences.
Dr Yuan added: "The ultimate aim of this initiative is to use the findings of research in collaborative work with professionals and feed those back to their training."
Translating Cultures will culminate in August in a two-day international symposium where experts from Canada, the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the UK will present the latest research in the field of language, translation and intercultural studies, and share experiences of working in a professional mediation environment in Southeast Asia, the UK and Australia.
It will feature speakers including Dr Karl Mackie, CEO of the London-based Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) and Mr Danny McFadden, CEDR's Director for Asia and an arbitrator, lawyer, mediator and trainer; Professor Guo-Ming-Chen, Professor of Intercultural Communication at the University of Rhode Island; and Dr Angela Cora Garcia, Associate Professor of Global Studies at Bentley University in the US.
More information about the Translation Cultures network and its symposium in August is available on the web at http://translating-cultures-networking-development.com/home