Between worlds

A recent delegation from San Francisco and Oregon visited Bolivia, providing the opportunity for me to jump back into a mode I very much enjoy: interpretation.

I love to interpret, serving as a link in communication for people who speak different languages. In my case this means Spanish and English, but also the various cultures and assumptions we’re coming from. And it involves important power dynamics. Ensuring that speakers of each language feel included and able to hear and be heard by others can be an intricate dance. The interpreter holds great power as the one deciding how to render the message of another person in a different language. This involves choices that go beyond direct correlation between words in each language, drawing on context, history, culture, and other cues on which the proper understanding of the message depends. And it implicitly relies on the interpreter’s understanding of the context of both the speaker and the listeners.

Recently while talking with some U.S. missionary friends I encountered the notion that I came into this crossing-cultures business young enough to be considered a “third culture kid” in my own right. According to sociologist David C. Pollock’s definition: “A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of [his or her] developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”

I was 22 when I first came to live in South America (as a YAV in Uruguay), ostensibly out of the developmental years, but even so I’ve come to feel comfortable and acclimated in some cultures here that are very different from the place that gave me birth. In some ways I feel more at ease in Latin America than I do in “my” culture in the US. And I certainly find it easiest to connect with new acquaintances who share something of this perspective and experience.

Bringing this back to the practice of interpretation, I think this somewhat awkward position between cultural worlds has a lot to do with my growing ability to serve as an effective interpreter. I make no claims to having a perfect or complete grasp on the cultural intricacies of the communities where I’ve lived and served in Latin America–nor in my home country, for that matter! But constantly crossing back and forth has alerted me to some of the important differences in perspective and experience in each context, and these are helpful things to keep in mind and share with others who step into the liminal space of cross-cultural encounter.

More and more I am convinced that truly hearing one another is one of the most essential and most difficult things in human relationships. Even when we share a common linguistic base, it’s easy to misunderstand others. So how can we hope to connect across language lines? It’s often messy and always imperfect, but somehow when we open ourselves up to listen there can be moments of grace when we truly do hear the voice of another person in spite of all the obstacles and differences. Helping to open that channel is what I love about interpreting.

It can be awkward at times: attempting to convey what is funny for one group when it depends entirely on culture or language; deciding on the spot whether to intervene if I suspect one speaker is moving into culturally inappropriate territory with their questions or comments; being invited into uncomfortable conversations between two friends when one has been hurt by the other’s words or actions. But even in those awkward moments, I give thanks for the opportunity and ability to help people hear and be heard by one another.


About Sarah

I serve with Presbyterian World Mission as liaison to the Andean region. This blog is a place to share stories, experiences, and observations, both my own and those of friends and colleagues and the occasional item of news.
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