Making Interpreting Popular

Interpreting and translation need better PR. That is almost a truism by now. But might improving the way that the world sees interpreting mean changing the way we talk about it?

A few days ago, I had the honour of meeting up with translation marketing expert, Tess Whitty. For an hour or so, we wandered round the National Museum of Scotland, wondered why Edinburgh Bus Station is so tricky for visitors to locate, and generally talked about translation, interpreting and podcasting.

One rather strange thing caught my eye in the museum. A few years ago, around the time I was finalising my first book, I decided to ask the museum if they would ever put on an exhibit on interpreting. After all, it does affect millions of people every day and very little of modern society could happen without it.

When Embroidery Gets More Space than Interpreting

The response to my suggestion was polite but clear. They were booked up for exhibitions for the foreseeable future and they weren’t really sure that interpreting would have enough appeal as an exhibit.

Imagine my surprise then, when the mass, popular, wildly acclaimed and socially vital act of making embroidery samplers got its own exhibition. Of course, it may well give us “an insight into the lives of children in the 18th and 19th centuries” but the fact that those samplers got an exhibition and yet the interpreters – whose work saves the lives of British soldiers, allows the administration of international justice and allows Scottish companies to export – did not tells us that something is wrong with the impression people have of translation and interpreting.

This is not a criticism of the National Museum of Scotland. It is a wonderful museum and I am sure that embroidery samplers got space for good reasons. Actually, this post is an attempt to make us rethink translation and interpreting, especially interpreting.

Who are Our Target Audience?

For almost as long as I can remember, we have talked about interpreting in mostly the same terms. We talk about interpreting as linguistic gymnastics, as cultural mediation, as problem solving, and as part of international politics. We laud historical heroes, repost pictures of large conference halls and fancy equipment, and generally enjoy talking about ourselves to ourselves.

We tend to talk about interpreting in terms that mean something to us, people who are already convinced of the importance of languages and appreciate the work of semanticists, phonologists, language revitalisation linguists and grammarians. We talk about how wonderful interpreting is and how politically and socially astute we all are.

Fortunately, this is a rather easy audience to convince. We could talk for hours on the benefits of learning languages, the neurological complexity of interpreting and the cultural awareness needed to deal with a political speech. Sadly, the response of much of the rest of the world at that point would be to yawn or click onto a YouTube video of a cat playing the piano.

Learning what other People Love

There is one, rather glaring, exception to the general rule I just sketched out. About two years ago, a very clever man by the name of Ewandro Magalhaes got together with the folks at TED-Ed and made a video called “How Interpreters Juggle Two Languages at Once.” As I write this, that video has had a shade over 1 million views and has collected 1,146 comments, most of them in awe of our work, or at least positive about it.

While we are happy to talk to each other, Ewandro talked to the wider world and the wider world listened. Is interpreting a niche subject? It doesn’t seem so.

So what made that video work? Why was it seen so many times?

We could argue that it was the TED brand. And that would be partly true. We might add in the excellent production values and clever script. And that would be a contributing factor too. But, anyone who has been on the internet knows that an obscure person can produce a shaky video and get even more views that Ewandro did. So what’s happening here?

I believe that the answer is simple. With its cartoony production, quirky storyline, and human relatability, Ewandro’s video tapped into things people already cared about and made the connection between them and interpreting. Instead of waiting for people to care about interpreting, it showed them that interpreting relates really closely to things they already care about. That is the key.

Can we be “normal”?

Perhaps better interpreting PR begins with us changing the way we think about our work. Instead of trying to make people love interpreting because of its importance or difficulty or power, we could do with helping them to see that they already do love it. Or at least, they love its results.

A few days ago, I finalised a book chapter on interpreting PR. The one big lesson I learned was that we will struggle to gain traction in our attempts to get the world interested in interpreting until we gain an interest in the world. Few people outside of our little clique really care about EVS or cultural mediation or ISO booth standards. Let’s stop talking about accuracy, neutrality and qualifications.

Instead, we could do with listening to others’ stories of what interpreting means to them. We could pay attention to how the world is already talking about interpreting and learn to listen to the clients who already get the power of what we do.

Outside of the conference halls and the big international organisations, interpreting is already saving lives, transforming communities, bringing restoration and supercharging businesses. Lots of people care about those precise things. Maybe that’s what we need to be talking about too.


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