Interculturalism: A New Path for the Translator and Interpreter?

By Marianne Pripps-Huertas

What is interculturalism? As globalization moves to the fore as one of the most powerful socio-economic influences of the new century, communication and understanding across cultures become ever more important. Are our well-practiced services of translation and interpretation enough to help the peoples of a shrinking world understand each other? In this article, NCTA member and interculturalism expert Marianne Pripps-Huertas sheds light on this emerging field.

When I first discovered the world of intercultural communication back in 1986, it confirmed for me many of the ideas I had had for several years, especially after arriving at Stanford University, where I did my Master’s thesis in Applied Communication Research. At the time, I went through a difficult, and unexpected, period of culture shock: professors didn’t look out for their students; teaching assistants taught most of the classes; and, with the exception of a fellow student named Shining Chen, from Taiwan (to whom I shall always remain grateful for her constant help), students wouldn’t share their notes or provide assistance to their peers because of competition – all of which was completely unheard of, and even unacceptable, in my country.

Origins and practices

What is intercultural communication? What defines interculturalism? And more to the point, what role does it play in the life of a translator/interpreter? Noted anthropologist Dr. Edward T. Hall was the first to define the field and provided solid scholarship. Culture as such is now defined in several (and hotly contested) ways, but one of the simplest and most straightforward is the traditions, customs, norms, beliefs, values, and thought-patterning passed down from generation to generation. Communication is an element of culture. Godwin C. Chu observed that every cultural pattern and every single act of social behavior involves communication. Thus, to be understood, both concepts must be studied together. Intercultural communication generally refers to face-to-face interactions among people of diverse cultures, a slightly different concept from cross-cultural communication, which refers to comparing phenomena across cultures.

Consider the following exchange, excerpted from a court transcript:

Magistrate: Can you read and write?
Defendant: Yes.
Magistrate: Can you sign your name?
Defendant: Yes.
Magistrate: Did you say you cannot read?
Defendant: Hm.
Magistrate: Can you read or not?!
Defendant: No.
Magistrate: [Reads statement.] Do you recall making that statement?
Defendant: Yes.

As a court interpreter, I encounter similar exchanges frequently. Yet my duties as an interpreter forbid me to intervene to help clear things up. It would be in my role as an interculturalist that I could help unravel this obvious miscommunication. Permission to do so depends on the relationships the interpreter has developed with the parties involved. Personally, I have a very good and longstanding relationship with the judges, attorneys (on both sides of the equation), and others at my courthouse. They have understood and supported my intervention as a cultural specialist when they have recognized that there was an obvious issue. Indeed, many experts now believe that the traditional interpreter or translator role will give way to one where the professional in both fields will become a cultural mediator.

Beyond such courtroom intervention, what does an interculturalist do, exactly? On any given day, interculturalists may train a group of businesspeople on the finer points of a country’s business practices. Or help a businessperson and his family with the social issues involved with re-entering their native culture after a long sojourn abroad. Some interculturalists like myself do research on different aspects of culture. In my case, I’m interested in acting and media, and also the development of cooking. Yet, we might be teaching students who will be going abroad, or taking Rotarians on a virtual cultural tour of a country they will visit with the organization.

In many ways the saying “know thyself” is not well said. It is more practical to say “know other people!”
-Menander, Greek poet (343-292 B.C.)

Skills for the global community

Interculturalism as a field has been growing, most especially with the advent of globalization, as companies recognize the need to understand the cultures in which they do business. An example of this is the creation of Global Teams, a collection of specialists who work together virtually to resolve specific problems within a company. One of the first institutions to hire interculturalists was the U.S. Army, after it started opening up bases all over the world and needed to assess readiness to serve overseas. Today, many different types of companies, institutions, and individuals have a need for intercultural expertise.

Although it may at first seem counterintuitive, this expertise doesn’t necessarily involve language all the time. A question we’re asked often, in fact, is whether a monolingual person who’s never lived abroad can be an intercultural expert. My answer is always a resounding “Absolutely!” I work with quite a few trainers who are monolingual and excellent interculturalists because they share specific skills or traits that are necessary to perform competent training and intercultural work. These include the acceptance and respect of differences, an open-mindedness to new ideas, and the ability to listen carefully.

Dr. Fred Jandt, a researcher in intercultural issues, notes that good intercultural communicators have personality strength, communication skills (verbal and nonverbal), psychological adjustment, and cultural awareness?not all of which, obviously, automatically come with being bi-or multilingual. The mere fact of speaking more than one language, or having lived in another country, in and of itself does not make us instant cultural experts. Even though I grew up bilingual and bicultural, I had to acquire and practice some of these traits, just as I had to learn translation and interpreting skills that did not come easily. In fact, I know of interpreter colleagues who possess none of these traits and would not make good interculturalists. As unique aspects of each culture are reflected through its language, the translator/interpreter is well served if he can leverage these aspects – indeed if he can apply the very principles of interculturalism – to help in his work of the accurate transmission of thoughts and ideas.

Schools and programs

How can a translator/interpreter become an interculturalist? While, as noted above, such expertise is not automatic, what we do have is the base on which to build, and the way to achieve such expertise is through training. There are several places in the USA and Canada that offer training in intercultural work. I have personally done extensive training for several years at the Intercultural Communication Institute, located in Portland, Oregon. ICI conducts one-, two-, and three-week intensive training courses during the summer, led by leaders in the field at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. ICI also offers three distinct certifications and a Master’s program with The University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. At present, I’m working on two new face-to-face seminars for interpreters and translators which will be submitted to the Judicial Council of California and ATA for continuing education credit. I also plan to establish a website from which I will offer online seminars for the benefit of colleagues who are unable to attend live seminars. This information will be available through the associations.

In addition, the Society for Intercultural Education, Training & Research (SIETAR), to which I belong, promotes and facilitates intercultural learning and work through professional interchange. SIETAR-USA is a membership organization for people from many cultural and professional backgrounds, who work within many environments and professions, including business and industry, consulting, training, K-12 and higher education, counseling, and all aspects of the media and arts, to name a few.

Regarding compensation, I can say only that one shouldn’t expect to become wealthy by doing intercultural work. As with translation and interpreting, the best-trained practitioners don’t necessarily work all the time or receive excellent compensation. However, a trained interculturalist/interpreter/translator who can market his skills successfully will get work and even have a niche that others don’t serve.

Interculturalism is an opportunity for translators and interpreters to go beyond our traditional framework. Gaining intercultural competence is something that I strive for every day; I hope that each year and every new encounter will get me there. In the meantime, I enjoy the ride.


Books on interculturalism:

  • Hall, Edward T. (1959) The Silent Language Greenwich, CT: Fawcett.
  • Jandt, Fred E. (1998) Intercultural Communication: An Introduction (Second Ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Katan, David (1999) Translating Cultures, An Introduction for Translators, Interpreters and Mediators. Manchester, England; St Jerome Publishing.

Many books, monographs, and other resources may be obtained through:

The author gratefully acknowledges the work of Dr. Fred E. Jandt and Professor David Katan as source and inspiration for parts of this article.