Like many face-to-face interpreters, I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. I would make up stories for other kids in playgroups, shops, the waiting room at dentist’s office… wherever I could really. My mother called it a “flair for the dramatic”, but really I was just story-telling. I had no idea where it would lead me.
The first real ‘talk’ I ever gave was during a zoo internship in the US. I was 17. I had to tell about 200 people about Bengal tigers whilst throwing balls of raw meat over a fence. With shaking hands and a cracking voice, I began by asking the audience to give me their best tiger impression. I didn’t have a name for what I was doing. I didn’t know what an ‘engagement strategy’ was, but nevertheless, I was trying to connect with people. I’d like to lie and say my first talk was confident and polished but really, how many of us can say our first presentation was perfect? The people training me were animal experts who happened to talk to people… I didn’t know it at the time, but I wanted to be the reverse; a people expert who happened to talk about animals.
When I worked as the Volunteer Coordinator for a wildlife NGO in Guatemala, part of my job was to show volunteers around on their first day. I’d end up giving these tours five or six times a week for over a year. It just wasn’t in my nature to only say “there’s the kitchen, this is the vet clinic, that is the education centre…”. No, each place we stopped had a story; about how the kitchen dog, Stinky, lost his eye; or how we give the birds swinging perches to mimic the wind; or the eccentric Dutchman who donated our surgical equipment. I presented in this style somewhat selfishly to break up the monotony of giving tours everyday, however, when I would over-hear the volunteers chatting in the kitchen or Skyping at the internet cafe, they’d be telling the stories. The stories made the centre memorable. They made the volunteers want to return and tell other people. It’s the stories that stuck. I wasn’t being paid for my communication skills, and yet looking back, that might have been the most important part of my job.
This character trait would follow me through lots of various jobs over the years. Even though subconsciously, through trial and error, I was honing these face-to-face interactions, I didn’t think of it as a skill. I didn’t realize that there was so much thought and theory behind it, that there were tools I could use to learn and grow, or that there was a community of other people who loved engaging too. In fact, it is only in the past year that I really had a name for it; interpretation.
As I began to peek behind the curtain of interpretation, it felt like an alien world and a home-coming at the same time. The idea that everything is a story, that anything could be a way of engaging, from a playground to a presentation, it was the start of a new way of thinking in my mind. And suddenly, I saw it everywhere! (My partner tells me he can’t take me on vacation anymore because I am always pointing these things out- I’m sure many of you feel this way as well!)
The world of interpretation changed the way I valued myself. I am an interpreter, but I didn’t always know that. Interpretation is a craft and a career and I am grateful for this close-knit community for welcoming a newbie interpreter like myself into your world!