In the 2003 film Lost in Translation, actor Bill Murray’s character frequently listens to one of his Japanese hosts or directors ramble on for at least a minute in Japanese only to have a translator explain it in English in a few seconds. Murray looks at the interpreter incredulously and says “Is that really all he said?” Obviously, the interpreter greatly oversimplified what was said and omitted any implication the Japanese speaker’s tone or inflection might have conveyed.
In my mediation training, we were taught to try to restate participants’ concerns in other words, showing both concern and understanding. However, even when all the parties are speaking the same language, this technique runs the risk of misstating or oversimplifying a participant’s concerns or interests. This does not mean that a mediator should not try to restate the concerns and interests. Rather, the mediator must understand that the opposing sides in a dispute frequently have different understandings of the facts based upon their own narrative. Even when speaking the same language, something can be lost in translation. As George Bernard Shaw noted, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Similarly, business partners, competitors, buyers and sellers, and even spouses can speak in jargon or terms that are unfamiliar to others. Sometimes, this is what causes the dispute or conflict. Finding common ground requires the parties to be speaking the same language and understanding each other’s terminology.
In one recent mediation, the participants were arguing about whether a computerized system was defective. One party referred to a pass code. The other said there was no such thing, but there was a registration key. Ultimately, it appeared they were talking about the same thing but they thought it was different. Helping them realize what the other was talking about, even in the same language, became my most difficult challenge. Without a mediator, they might never have reached an agreement. I’m not bilingual, but it seems I can help translate English to English.