Language barriers can serve as a bridge building challenge in situations where both communities are not fluent in a shared language. Recognizing this concern, organizations and institutions facilitating intergroup dialogues and programs must plan to accommodate multiple languages in order to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for all participants. Beyond just verbal interpretation, this often also includes the need to translate written materials such as worksheets, role-play scripts, and the like. Additional plans may be necessary when showing films or videos, particularly for those that lack multilingual subtitles. The time and resources required for producing materials in two or more languages is a luxury that few organizations can afford. Multiple participants noted this barrier to progressing with their intergroup efforts.

Interpretation generally occurs within one of two modes – simultaneous or consecutive. In simultaneous interpretation, interpreters use headsets to interpret speech as it unfolds, relaying translated speech via receivers and earphones. This allows all listeners to hear the words at approximately the same time. This form of translation is mentally taxing, and interpreters may require frequent breaks.  CASA de Maryland has used this type of interpretation equipment in its intergroup work, as does the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee.

Consecutive or parallel translation mode allows interpreters to translate in short bursts when the original speaker pauses after each of his/her main ideas or points.  This means that one group’s understanding is always delayed while waiting on interpretation; however, a major benefit of this mode is that it does not require any technology or equipment.  Consecutive translation interpreters generally do not require breaks as frequently as simultaneous interpreters do.

One organization in particular that emphasized its regard for multilingual capacity is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  According to Greg Asbed, a co-founder of the CIW, around 1995 the CIW stopped its early practice of holding separate meetings by language and instead engaged in consecutive interpretation in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.  Under the mantra of “Consciousness + Commitment = Change” that is central to CIW’s ideology and organizing, the organization decided to regard multilingual capacity as part of is Consciousness aspect, thereby elevating this need and response within the organizational structure.

Helpful materials

Tips for Using Translation (.doc) – a short document by Leah Wise of the Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network (REJN) that covers key aspects of interpretation

Interpretation and Translation: Power Tools for Sharing Power in Grassroots Leadership Development (.pdf) –  This document from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation outlines El Centro Hispano’s experience with interpretation and delves into the benefits and drawbacks of different forms of translation.

What Did They Say?: Interpreting for Social Justice (.pdf) – an introductory curriculum from the Highlander Research and Education Center that addresses both the linguistic skills and political analysis vital to interpreters working in the social justice field

Organizations that develop multilingual capacity

Highlander Research and Education Center offers Multilingual Capacity Building (MLCB) workshops.

Boston Interpreters Collective provides workshops and trainings on multilingual capacity building using a popular education approach.

Wayside Center for Popular Education works to build interpreting capacity through trainings, consultations, and interpretation services.

The Center for Participatory Change engages in grassroots organizing, capacity building, networking and grantmaking in Western North Carolina.

Image: Ed Yourdon,