Better World: Interpreting permaculture

Over four decades ago I had a hard time going through the English alphabet without tripping over the correct order or pronunciation of each letter. Now, here I am in Dayton, Montana, standing in front of an audience of about 70 people, translating between German and English.

I had always dreamt of sharing a journey with someone who is a recognized world authority in his or her particular field. Now I am literally standing and walking side by side with an expert of agricultural ecology.

Permaculture has captured my interest for many years and is closely related to ecology. It offers solutions on how we can live individually and in communities in a way that increases the health, beauty, abundance, fertility and wellbeing of our environment. We are accountable to cocreate, maintain and increase the vitality, livability and diversity of nature.

The terms sustainability, green living and other catchphrases have been used to describe aspects of this idea. In the early 1970s, the term permaculture was introduced by co-originators Bill Mollison and David Holmgreen to first describe a system of “permanent agriculture.” Soon it became obvious that this narrow understanding needed to be broadened to “permanent culture.” It is not just about growing our food, but about everything related to it, which is almost everything else and includes water, energy, shelter, livelihood, technology and economy — in a sense, all of our human culture.

The concept behind permaculture conveys how to design human systems (culture) that can go on and exist permanently. Planet Earth represents the one system that has been the most successful in long-term existence and with which we all are intimately involved. Thus it makes sense to study its underlying laws, so we can derive how the planet’s ecosystem works. Nature is extremely resilient. Our global natural history has been going through many natural and man-made upheavals and changes, and still continues to teem with this incredible thing we call life. Why not learn from that and imitate it?

Permaculture is an ecological design system based on guiding principles (such as closing natural cycles and energy efficiency) built on the foundation of three fundamental ethics. The main one, from which the others can be derived, is care of the Earth. Permaculture is also a living practice, implementing ecologically sound human systems and lifestyles. It is about a human-designed ecosystem embedded in the largest one, the natural ecosystem, using what we currently understand of how nature’s “design” works and applying it to human civilizations. Accomplished designers and practitioners have used a multitude of ways to express what permaculture is. For me they all point to our deeply anchored desire to live a life that is in tune with nature, others and ourselves, enjoying this beautiful planet to the fullest without diminishing the same pleasure for any other living being now or in the future. In a nutshell, acting in a way that is beneficial and regenerative to the air, water, earth, plants, animals and ourselves.


Interpreting for the first time

The person I’m interpreting for has been practicing what he calls “natural farming” for about 50 years and has only recently been told that what he does is called permaculture. Today, the terms Holzer Permaculture and agro-ecology are mostly used. Sepp Holzer, an Austrian farmer in one of the coldest areas in Austria, has developed a farm on approximately 45 hectares (111 acres) of mostly steep, mountainous land between 1100-1500 meters (3609-4920 feet) high, and it is one of the most highly productive farming systems in Europe. It is living proof that working in tune with nature works and can also be economically successful. His former farm is now managed by his son, Josef Holzer, who is continuing to develop the farm by applying ecological methods and permaculture design. Sepp Holzer and his wife are working today on their new nine hectare farm in southern Burgenland. Today Sepp Holzer is involved in projects of every size, all around the world, from just one hectare (2.47 acres) up to tens of thousands of hectares. His work provides solutions for some of the most extreme situations, be they in the desert, the Siberian tundra, in subtropical or cold climates, for affluent or marginalized communities, in resource rich or poor situations. In his view, we have forgotten to listen to nature’s voice and so often never ask if what we do is truly beneficial for the planet.

So here I am interpreting for the first time, with no training, no experience — and I’m questioning my capability. How did all this come about? One day I unexpectedly received a call asking if I could interpret. I am Austrian and German is my native language, I have been living in the United States for 20 years, speak English fluently and also have a strong interest in permaculture and its related subjects. Additionally, after having lived for many years in Salzburg I would probably understand Holzer’s accent as he is from the same Austrian region. Moreover, I had been actively pursuing permaculture in Europe as well as in the United States, picking up the vocabulary unique to this field in English and German independently. In retrospect I am not astonished that it seemed I might be a good fit. Nevertheless, it was a total surprise to be asked.

After arriving for my first interpreting gig, quite nervous, but tuned in to the interpreter who was currently translating, I found myself helping out with a few words. When my turn to interpret came around, I listened to the speaker, standing right next to him and then translating. It was a little bumpy at first, but soon I was able to use the natural breaks in what the presenter was saying. He started to extend those pauses and it was all flowing quite quickly. Soon I was not just relating meaning, but also started naturally imitating the tone, volume, inflection and facial expression as well as the body language. I just had fun and it felt almost like imitating or play-acting. Even wordplays or jokes came across.


Developing a strategy

I developed a strategy to interpret quietly while not live interpreting, while I was listening to the speaker and current interpreter. I realized that due to the interpreter’s change in breathing pattern or some change in tone, I often had a sense when a helpful word might be needed. So I started doing what I call “throwing a word.” When the interpreter hesitated or almost stopped, I offered the word or words I already had translated in my mind. As things go quickly, sometimes this was picked up, sometimes not and sometimes what I offered wasn’t actually a good choice.

We now always have two interpreters who tag-team. When one of us is the interpreter, the other one is close by as support, to provide or look up words as needed and also take notes. The second interpreter is always silently translating in parallel so as to be ready with the right word at the perfect moment. It is amazing how one can learn to anticipate what words might be needed — also, if the translation of a word or phrase does not pop up, there are often a multitude of ways to explain or describe the same content using different words.

The first interpreting I did was in 2012 at a workshop held on a piece of property overlooking a large lake. It was a unique situation in that representatives of Native American tribes were involved. In this ten-day workshop we changed ten acres into a highly productive landscape of raised beds, waterfalls, spillways, several small ponds and a larger pond, all with the help of hired heavy equipment and the efforts of the participants. It was an amazing transformation.

As a result, we needed to switch between the indoor classroom and the outside world with very different conditions and weather. We were also attempting to record as much of the event as possible. Between workshop sessions, mealtimes and breaks, there was time needed for discussion with the hosts as well as with the equipment operators. We ended up making sure that there was always one interpreter close to wherever Sepp Holzer was.

After this event I was invited to interpret for Sepp Holzer on his US tours in 2013 and 2014. Additionally, in 2014 an opportunity opened up to travel to Austria and interpret for a group of people, mostly from the US, at the farms of Sepp Holzer and his son Josef, and at other locations.

As we went to certain specific projects and farms it became clear that the accents and dialects became thicker. Once in a while I needed to ask what a specific word meant in High German. Connecting with the presenter was also slightly different as we generally met only briefly just prior to the event.

At one point I had to interpret for a presenter who is a vintner combining biodynamic and organic methods. As I have no knowledge of wine, either in theory or practical experience, this was quite a unique situation. Several times I needed to ask the presenter the meaning of what he just said before I knew how to translate it accurately. He told me afterward that he kept his use of wine-specific vocabulary to a minimum. I hadn’t noticed! It went pretty well anyway, partly because he sometimes jumped to English. This was quite humorous at times, as I continued “translating” because I hadn’t immediately realized that he had switched to English and I was thus just repeating what he had said. It sometimes took me a few seconds to realize, oh, hold on, he said it already in English, no need to translate. Sometimes there were German people in the audience who were joining parts of the program, so then I quickly switched to translating what the presenter had said in English into German. Maybe you can see how this can get confusing. A similar situation arises when a participant has a question or makes some remark in English and I don’t catch it right away, being so focused on interpreting. Usually everybody takes all this with a sense of humor and has a good laugh.


Finding interpreters

We looked for additional interpreters for one of the tours and posted the opportunity on various websites. When someone seemed to fit what we were looking for, I interviewed the candidate myself. We would be at three different locations for this tour and would need three different additional interpreters. So I spent some time thinking about how to find the right person.

The initial interview was conducted over the phone. After some introductions, we went over a number of items while I recorded the interview with the permission of the interviewee. I asked questions about their backgrounds in language, interpreting and permaculture-related fields. Then we did a practice test where the interviewees interpreted a paragraph from one of Sepp Holzer’s books. We also talked about how much time they thought they would be able to translate, if walking rough or fairly steep terrain would be a problem, and if it would be possible for them to stay focused during the workshop sessions and be supportive of the other interpreter while not actively interpreting themselves. Yet even with all the effort described above, only a live interpreting session, or several, could really show how well suited the new interpreter would be.


Tour preparations

There are a number of things I do to prepare for a tour:

Read a subject matter book in English and the same book in German, or compare translated DVDs. It is interesting to see what general changes have been made to the original content and details of the translation, which might be quite different than what I thought would have been the most accurate. At the same time, it was helpful to get into the subject matter, reactivate and stimulate the brain and learn how to better translate a word or phrase. So while reading or listening to a recording, I translate it into the other language, quietly or out loud, which I record for reviewing purposes. Doing it both ways helps to shift easier between the languages when needed. As for me, even after just a few days of speaking only one language, it starts getting more difficult to translate into the other one.

Make, update and use word lists. During times when I’m not translating but am supporting the live interpreter while he or she is translating, I make notes of word usages I like and want to remember. Then I note words I’d like to find a better translation for. These notes flow into an alphabetical word list kept in a spreadsheet that can then be used as a preparation tool.

Listen to recordings of previous events at which I interpreted for the same speaker. With the right equipment it’s possible to turn down the translation, hearing only the voice of the presenter, and it’s possible to simulate the live situation quite well. This practice interpreting can be recorded and then compared to the recorded translation from the live event.

Besides having a good dictionary in print, I also make sure I have one or two online English/German dictionaries at hand that I can consult quickly on breaks, when suddenly a question of how to translate a word or phrase comes up. Using a smartphone or tablet if an internet connection is available helps in that regard as well. The site I use most is Another one I use, but less frequently, is

It has occasionally been helpful to use a localization poster, containing information and formulas for conversions of lengths, areas, volumes and temperatures.

Preparing for the differences in dates, times, measurements, paper formats and so on is important, as you may be translating something that is displayed, such as a slide or poster. What is read directly from what is displayed can seem at first not to match what one hears — such as the digits 7 and l. First, depending on the font or writing style, l could mean 1, capital I or lowercase l. Also, the equivalent to 7 (US) is 7— (German), which is easy to distinguish from 1, especially when handwritten. However, for someone from the United States, a handwritten German 1 looks a lot like a 7. Another example is the format of dates — 3/4/14 (US) is equivalent to 4.3.14 (Austria). When it comes to numbers it can be confusing that in English, the decimal is a period and the thousand separator is a comma, which is the opposite of German. Even more challenging are temperatures, thankfully there are formulas to make these conversions easier. Similarly the measurements of length, area and volume are based on different unit systems in the United States (imperial) and Europe (metric). Then there are currencies, holidays, clock time and more that are all to a lesser or higher degree different. Sometimes we prepare a chart with key conversions each way. As an interpreter the challenge is to make rough calculations while translating. So one hears five hectares and while continuing interpreting, calculates how much that is in acres. To make it easier, I use the conversion factor of 2.5 and can quickly come up with the answer: “about 12.5 acres.”

Technical terms can create challenging situations. Ecological design can be applied to any field, discipline and practice, including technology and science, which leads to the use of many technical terms from these fields. Ecology has its own vocabulary. If the speaker talks about a plant or a plant family, translation will depend on a number of factors. First, is the term the common or the botanical name? Common names for a given plant can be different in the same language based on the region. Even in the same region, different common names are sometimes used and some regions might not have a common name for a particular plant, or two different plants might share the same common name. It can be extremely difficult to translate this, especially in the middle of interpretation, so I developed a way to deal with that.

Scientific names pose their own challenge. First, there is the pronunciation issue. The binomial system for taxonomy uses Latin or Latinization. Is Latin in US English pronounced the same way it is in the German language? Your guess is as good as mine, but I have noticed the German or Italian pronunciation of the vowels and consonants is used, albeit depending on the speaker and the flavor of her or his specific accent. Then there is the question of the emphasis of the syllables, which is different in English and German. Moreover, there is often more than one correct way to pronounce a scientific name. Or the scientific nomenclature of a taxonomy might have been changed or there may be more than one taxonomy for the same species kingdom. As you can see, this can get quite confusing. Of course, either for a common or botanical name, if nobody besides the speaker knows what they are referring to, it’s hopeless during and sometimes even outside the classroom setting. A solution might be to have a sample of the species and two botanical experts, each native speaking in one language and fluent in the other, to identify the species.

As an interpreter there is a somewhat easy cop-out, as even not knowing what it means, one can just repeat the scientific name and put the problem of figuring out what plant it is to the listener. Not a good solution! But even then, sometimes the scientific name is long and complicated and it is hard to repeat it correctly the first time you hear it. If the speaker has an accent this becomes even more difficult.

To deal with this, I ask the audience to write down the common or scientific name so we can clarify afterward what it is in the other language. With an internet connection one can actually type in the common name and get it in the other language quite quickly, sometimes even including the scientific names. This really helps.

Another option I use in conjunction with not being able to translate a species, especially common names, is to say instead something like “with a specific type of mushroom” then hope the other interpreter or someone in the audience will write down the German name so we can later clarify and provide the English translation.


Setup and logistics

Being there early for each session is always good practice to make sure everything is set up as needed. If applicable, the sound system, microphones and recording equipment need to be tested. If you’re interpreting outdoors, there are a few extra things to consider. One is to stay close to the speaker. Then there is the issue of projection. I have used a megaphone quite successfully. It does not weigh much, but over a period of hours can still strain one’s shoulder.

In my field, there is often a need to advise a heavy equipment operator on what to do while in the middle of implementing the design for the property owner. Heavy equipment such as backhoes and bulldozers are used for forming the land, but often in a way that is unfamiliar to the operators. Quick and accurate translation is crucial, otherwise a lot of time and effort is wasted and things have to be redone. Moving material is one of the biggest expenses of implementing a design.

As there is often the attempt to have these workshops and talks recorded, there is a great deal of equipment around and you are hooked up to it. It is good to have the presenter and the interpreter equipped with wearable microphones that are on two different channels, which makes it easier to use the material later because it allows for increasing or lowering the volume as needed and also for hearing one voice without other noise interruption. Don’t forget to turn it off after the session, as otherwise your private conversations might get recorded!

If filming is going on, be aware of the camera so you don’t get between it and its target.


Translation styles

In consecutive interpretation, the interpreter listens to a section of speech, then summarizes it. In simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter attempts to relay the meaning in real time. Naturally there is a small delay while the interpreter processes information. Often this type of interpreting uses specialized equipment and setup, such as interpreters’ booths, headsets and so on.

I have been developing something that falls between consecutive and simultaneous interpreting. I translate in the natural breaks when the speaker is talking. In that sense it is consecutive, but I do it for short portions of speech, not for full sentences or paragraphs. This is a word-for-word translation, as accurate as possible. I like to call it parallel interpreting, as at least two things go on at the same time in the interpreter’s brain. One thread is translating and speaking, the other is listening to what the speaker is saying. This happens because often the speaker continues talking while the interpreter is finishing the previous portion and so it overlaps more or less. Once this style has been practiced for a while, the speaker and interpreter find a rhythm fairly quickly and it becomes quite natural. It is amazing what the brain is capable of. It is actually possible to listen to someone speak and almost parallel interpret those words, while the speaker is already saying the next thing. As the interpreter translates to one language, and listens to the speaker talk in another language, at the same time one can also calculate some numbers (like hectares into acres), listen to some suggestions of alternative words to use from the other interpreter or the audience and relate in the translation the point, joke or specific detail.

At the same time this way of translation poses additional issues. For example, the flow of translation is a little skewed as the verbs in English and German are often placed at different positions in a sentence. Interpretation happens before a sentence is finished by the presenter. Besides guessing what the verb is going to be I developed two approaches for this issue that have worked for me: One is to translate without the verb and place it in the last portion of the sentence, whenever it arrives. The other is, once the sentence is finished, to repeat the whole sentence or a portion of it, with the verb placed in its proper location. The audiences seem to adapt fine to that.


Additional thoughts

A good or poor translation can make or break what is learned at a workshop. If I make an error I readily admit to it, correct it on the spot and move on. I encourage everyone to do the same if misunderstandings occur.

It makes a big difference for the audience if the translation stays lively. Listening to an interpretation that is done in a very neutral, monotone voice, with little emphasis and expression can become almost unbearable.

On the other hand, I remember at some point it happened a couple of times, where everything was going really well and out of the sheer excitement of the moment, I added a little joke of my own and the audience laughed. Realizing what had happened, I now restrain myself from doing this. It feels inappropriate to do that without the consent of the presenter.

It is exciting to interpret in a field and area I have a great passion for. I sometimes wonder what our natural environment will look like in 10, 50 or even 100 years. Nobody really knows, but what we do know is that we have a strong influence — the structures, systems, roads, wires and everything else that we have been producing and constructing over recent centuries means that a great deal of land is used up not by the natural nonhuman cover, but by what we put there. This is why we need to look to a sustainable, ecological future.