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Departing from Puerto Montt with the Expedición Chile organizers

The Irreplaceable Pearl at the Heart of Human Connectedness

By Katharine Allen

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s technology enables expanded communication at an increasingly breakneck pace, the heart of translation and interpretation remains real people and how they use words to express meaning. Peel away the layers of software and hardware that power global, multilingual communication and you are left with the pearl of language.

Currently, we are rushing headlong into a new world where computers seem able to communicate for us. There’s just one problem: The computers have taught themselves using the incomplete slice of human expression that has made its way online. Despite its allure, this effort will only ever produce an imperfect facsimile.

Bits and bytes cannot do what irritating grains of sand do to produce the humble pearl that is human language. Our pearl is forged out of every facet of human experience, emotion and thought, going back to the origins of our species. Human language is so much more than the sum of its parts.

In my career, I’ve experienced the irreplaceable value of human interpreters in enabling collaboration and empowering vulnerable people in society — many of them women. This is my story: a demonstration of the power of interpreting to bring about positive change.

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Career beginnings

My journey into interpreting began in high school in the United States, when I was pulled out of Advanced Spanish class to help interpret a business meeting with visiting Peruvians, who were in negotiations to franchise a local Mexican fast-food chain in their country. Looking back at that first time being thrown into the deep end, I am both amazed and grateful that I didn’t run screaming from ever doing something like that again.

After college, I found myself living and working for several community development programs in southern Chile, just as the Pinochet dictatorship came to an end in 1990. After 17 years of international isolation, it was a heady time of borders reopening and renewed human connection.

I became involved with an American environmental organization, Ancient Forest International, which was working with its sister organization in Chile, Bosque Antiguo. I somehow became an integral part of the organizational team, tapped most frequently to interpret for this disparate group of more than 100 people, who otherwise “got by” with various degrees of pidgin English and Spanish. I had absolutely no training to play this pivotal role.

Over two years, the organizations collaborated on ambitious expeditions to a remote region of fjords called Cahuelmo, in a joint effort to save it. A lost Yosemite-by-sea, Cahuelmo’s worth was beyond measure — and it was up for sale to the highest bidder. The series of adventures, mishaps, and successes I experienced during this time were a master class in what would eventually become my profession.

More importantly for the planet, those multinational, multilingual efforts to shine a spotlight on a vulnerable environmental treasure helped spark what ultimately became the Tompkins Foundation: one of the most consequential environmental organizations in the world. And yes, along the way, Cahuelmo was saved.

It was the first experience that taught me how enabling individuals who don’t share a language to express themselves in their native tongue — with full nuance and context, in real time, and with the aid of an interpreter — can have an outsized positive impact on their efforts to collaborate and effect change.

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Community focus

When I returned to the US, I eventually landed — where I still am now — in a remote small town in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. It seemed an unlikely place to continue my interpreting journey, but I moved there just as the huge wave of immigration that swept across the United States in the 1990s arrived in the isolated region. In less than a decade, small communities would go from having almost no diversity to becoming up to 50% Latino.

Once again, my bilingual skill set was in constant demand, but this time to serve as the language bridge between newly arrived immigrants and our woefully unprepared schools, social services, and health clinics. The years I spent shuttling between small-town government offices, homes, classrooms, and doctors’ offices provided example after example of how just one person providing the language link to life-sustaining services could cascade into much bigger, positive impacts for the broader community.

One newly arrived immigrant woman was able to access supportive mental health services, and eventually became a preschool teacher and then program administrator. More than a dozen immigrant women successfully created licensed, home-based childcare centers, which allow them to make a living and provide an urgently needed service to other working, immigrant families. Many of their grown children now work as trained bilingual staff providing language access to the community on a regular basis. And the initial ad hoc interpreting I provided in my local area ultimately helped two local hospitals seek assistance in setting up formal interpreting services programs, which exist to this day.

These are small personal examples that mirror those of countless other interpreters providing services in their own communities. They capture the beauty of the pearl, forged from imperfection. Through small encounters, individual connections are made. A family gets enough food for the month. A child gets the special education services they need.

Each one of these interpreted encounters requires talent, training, and professional acumen. To be successful, interpreters need the ability to observe the complex cultural and socioeconomic dynamics in play, as well as an understanding of the human condition and the situational context. This is what human interpreters do day in and day out. They are impossible to fully replicate through technology.

And, mostly, they are women.

Making it official

Eventually, I understood that my occasional side gig was in fact a potential lifelong career. I made my way to the Middlebury Institute of International Studies for formal education and training in translation and interpretation. I raised my hand, as so many others were doing, to contribute to professional associations and early initiatives that helped build community interpreting in the US.

I found myself surrounded by the backbone of community and legal interpreting: mostly female immigrants from all over the world who were also drawn into interpreting because their language skills were urgently needed.

Why is interpreting dominated by women? There are many answers to that question, some of which I can name here. In general, outside of conference interpreting, interpreting is a field with a low barrier to entry that often begins as low-paid, relatively low-prestige work. It provides mostly freelance work with flexible hours that can accommodate family responsibilities effectively.

The good news is that interpreting can also function as a pathway to opportunity for many immigrant women, who climb the ladder from practitioner to better-paid roles inside and outside of our profession. These roles tap the full range of the talent and experience they bring to their adopted countries — in training, education, project management, entrepreneurship, leadership, and agency ownership, which immeasurably strengthen our profession.

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Looking to the future

Now, 30-plus years into this career, my work plays out on two fronts. As a training specialist focused on supporting the development of remote interpreters, I remain firmly embedded in the oyster’s shell, hoping to help pry out new pearls from the tens of thousands of individuals who provide the same language bridge remotely that onsite interpreters always have. My role also lands me on the flipside, in the heart of technological change that seeks to fill the gaps where no human interpreter currently goes and will likely never go, because there simply will never be enough of us.

As machine translation and generative AI become ever more effective, the temptation to have it fully replace human interpreters will grow. We are far enough along with technological transformation throughout society to know its unfettered adoption can lead to catastrophe. Technology’s translation of words, and now full sentences, is rarely the same as a complete transfer of meaning between two people or groups of people, or even between nations. And when meaning is lost, our existence is genuinely impoverished.

As we embrace the opportunities of technology, we must do so while mindfully and intentionally preserving the role of human interpreters. Let’s make sure to take the necessary steps to protect the educational, training, and employment pathways essential to the human side of interpreting.

It is my sincere hope that we will, as an industry and as a species, understand that “accuracy” defined as words captured is only a small part of how language connects us. We must never lose sight of this pearl of wisdom, or we risk losing the irreplaceable expertise that only humans can contribute.

Katharine Allen is director of language industry learning at Boostlingo and has more than three decades of interpreting experience. She helped found InterpretAmerica, the Coalition of Practicing Translators and Interpreters of California, and the American Association of Interpreters and Translators in Education. Katharine is author of The Indigenous Interpreter, The Community Interpreter, and The Medical Interpreter, among other books.

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