When public and social service providers encounter linguistic barriers, bilingual citizens are frequently asked to mediate. However, communication via a third person involves challenges of which the participants are rarely aware, let alone able to tackle. Since citizen interpreters have not been trained to do this work, they do not have essential tools such as memory techniques at their disposal in order to render the uttered content completely and with precision. Concerned with the well-being of their fellow-citizens in distress, they tend to try to actively help, passing their own judgements and giving advice and emotional support. The effectiveness of the professional service provider’s efforts, however, depends on the completeness and clarity of his or her message. Therefore, the interpreter’s task is to suspend the natural impulse to help, to explain and to console. Emotionally demanding interactions encountered in asylum hearings, as well as mental health and medical settings, challenge interpreters to perform a balancing act between empathy and distance if they are to keep to their professional role. Citizens can find themselves facing their own traumatic experiences while interpreting. If they have been refugees themselves, this is very likely to occur. For this reason, trauma prevention and stress management strategies need to be acquired. It should be noted that children and family members are too involved and vulnerable to act as interpreters.
Since the acquisition of an official interpreting qualification later in life is difficult, it is important to pass on the know-how for effective communication in an interpreted interaction. The keys to an effective interaction via citizen interpreters must therefore be in the hands of the service providers and, if possible, the receivers as well. Once all parties learn how interpreted interactions can be managed, once they understand the task and the required skills, once they endorse basic ethical principles for decision-making and recognise ensuing dilemmas, the conditions are created for citizen interpreters to provide an unbiased, complete, and culturally appropriate interpretation serving the needs of both service provider and receiver. Our research and experience suggest that the less qualified the interpreter, the more relevant the training for the professionals who employ them.
The Berliner Initiative's project executing organisation is the DoM, Gesellschaft für DolmetschMentoring (corporation for interpreter mentoring). The DoMG contributes to the quality and professionalisation of non-trained interpreters employed to facilitate communication with refugees in public administration and educational, social, and health settings. The DoMG supports public, for profit and non-governmental institutions in their efforts to integrate refugees in the face of cross-linguistic challenges by raising awareness of the interpreting process and improving its quality.
The DoMG demonstrated its expertise in a one-year mentoring project in the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees that focused on the performance and well-being of non-certified interpreters in asylum procedures who were working in collaboration with professional interpreters from the Berlin initiative for quality interpreting in migration and asylum settings. This initiative involves an honorary group of 26 professional interpreters with academic training and extensive experience in both public service and conference interpreting. Its members are practitioners as well as researchers and educators in the related fields.