Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Interpretation is a Form of Translation

 This is kind of how I feel when I talk to scientists:



I usually have to have another interpreter who is familiar with the basics of biology or ecology accompany me when I go talk to researchers or resource managers (of the scientific kind). My strengths rest in the humanities and liberal arts; the only "C" I got in high school was in biology (I was an "A" student, otherwise... 'nuff said). When people ask me what type of tree is that, I have to bite my tongue with my desired response of "a green one." In fact, at the battlefield, the resource management crew put together a binder of all plants and trees around the visitor center (with colorful pictures and drawings) to help us interpreters answer the nature-y questions. I could point out regiments on a map. I had a hard time remembering the different wildlife found within the boundaries of that map.

As an interpreter, my challenge is taking research and delivering it to the public in a manner that is understandable. I have to make visitors relate to the resource. The resource may be a story, may be the history, may be the place, may be a thing. Since my background is in history and cultural resources management, I find I have to be especially careful that I operate from the lowest common denominator when I give programs. Auto-pilot doesn't always work, for interpreters have to be flexible according to the audience. Just because I inundate myself with readings about all-things-American-history does not mean my visitor will be able to tell me which General Jackson fought during the Battle of New Orleans. Rather than be frustrated with that fact, I embrace it as an opportunity to engage. 

A huge part of being an interpreter is understanding that not everybody is as interested as you in whatever it is you are talking about. Let's be honest: very few will be genuinely interested. Heck, if I had a penny for every time I heard somebody use the word "boring" in relation to history, I'd have at least several dollars (I feel like that one was weak... but you get the idea... many people think history is boring). Interpreters are there to spark interest, to tap into the various pieces of information visitors know about the resource and use that to help provoke thought. I think my biggest struggle is tampering my own passion when conveying history to the public. I need to remember to take the most important idea and present that. I need to remember to present that most important idea in a manner that engages thought and emotions. I need to remember that I can rattle off all the details I want, but they most likely will not stick. I need to remember to choose the concepts I want to convey to the public mindfully.

A colleague reminded me the other day that being an interpreter can often be a struggle, even when dealing with other coworkers. Usually, the problem rests in the distilling information related to others' passions and interests. I receive many reports and articles with information that non-interpreters want to convey to the public. They want to use many words! Big words! Big ideas! Field jargon! But this is great stuff, they say, why wouldn't the public be interested in knowing these things!? Like the Nick Frost character in the excerpted film, it is my job to translate for the public. The idea is if I do well, the visitor will invest more time in learning more. But parks and historic sites find themselves vying for attention, competing against a myriad of distractions. We often have a short length of time to capture the attention of our audience and have to use that time wisely. I don't want to take away from researchers' hard work or the integrity of respective fields. I do want more people interested in the subjects, however, and sometimes that means using my skills to distill content simply and not to overwhelm visitors with that same information.


*These ideas are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

**The excerpted film is from Hot Fuzz.

***I love Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

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