Imperfect Interpretation in Community

Monteverde Friends Meeting and School. Photo © Michael J. West.

I began interpreting long before I felt prepared or qualified to do so, which I suspect is a common occurrence in Monteverde, Costa Rica. In that bilingual community, the need for translation and interpretation is constant. Of course, there were day-to-day interactions in which we interpreted for ourselves to the best of our ability or helped others perhaps less capable in one language or the other. The need could come up in conversation, in trying to convey what we needed at the hardware store, or while helping clueless tourists. The stakes felt higher at school, where I taught. Because paid interpreters cost money, teachers with at least a basic working vocabulary in both English and Spanish were expected to navigate our way through parent-teacher conferences without assistance, take turns translating one way or the other for less-bilingual colleagues during faculty meetings, translate for ourselves during all-school assemblies and programs, etc. And we translated during Quaker worship: messages, afterthoughts, introductions, announcements, religious education events, and special programs.

It sometimes felt like a lot. It could be tiring and inconvenient. However, interpretation was necessary for us to be a community. It required commitment and participation by individuals willing to be interpreters and by the community as a whole.

Interpretation was needed in order for all members of the community to participate in the life of the community: to be able to understand what others were saying, share their own thoughts, and feel part of the conversation. To allow something to go untranslated meant leaving people out. Interpretation was not an academic or abstract exercise: it was a commitment to everyone in the room.

It took courage to step up and be an interpreter, especially in any kind of formal situation. There was a very real risk of making mistakes and being embarrassed or sounding foolish. I risked making mistakes that caused a misunderstanding, hurt someone’s feelings, or gave an incorrect impression of what the speaker actually said. Interpreting during worship felt especially risky. After all, this was not merely someone’s thoughts you were interpreting but a divinely inspired message. And unlike many other situations that have a fairly high degree of predictability or in which the topic is known ahead of time, a message in worship can be about almost anything and use vocabulary I may or may not know in my second language. The speaker might mumble, become emotional, or cry, making the message challenging to hear and understand. The message could include singing or quoting scripture: content that I might or might not be familiar with. The messages were sometimes quite lengthy, and since our practice is to translate after the entire message rather than by short sections, remembering the whole message and choosing when to summarize added to the challenge.  All of this was in a very public setting. To be an interpreter in a situation like that was to commit to all of the risks involved, and choose to do it anyway.


I came to see that in order for individuals to be willing to accept the public risks and responsibilities of being an interpreter, it was necessary for the community as a whole to have a strong commitment to interpretation.


There are many tiny decisions involved in interpretation in general, and interpretation during worship in particular. Should I add context, when interpreting a concept I know is more familiar to native speakers of one language than to those listening to my translation? Should I use a more literal translation of the words the speaker said or one that is more culturally appropriate? Costa Rica is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and the use of God-language is widespread and received differently from the way it is received in many Liberal, unprogrammed Quaker circles in the United States. Is it rightly ordered or just plain wrong to adjust the language used for the Divine to the cultural context of the language I am interpreting into? And what about messages that might seem outright inappropriate? What is the correct way to handle interpreting a lengthy political rant or a sexually explicit message?

I came to see that in order for individuals to be willing to accept the public risks and responsibilities of being an interpreter, it was necessary for the community as a whole to have a strong commitment to interpretation. In Monteverde, everyone was part of making interpretation work, even those not in an active role. It meant everything took longer; it meant planning who would interpret; it meant hearing every message in worship twice. 

Sometimes this required going out of your way even when it seemed unnecessary. I have a vivid memory of creating smaller discussion groups as part of a religious education event where all participants were fluent English speakers. Despite knowing that everyone in the room could participate in English, we asked for volunteers for one of the small groups to speak in Spanish. In part, this created an opportunity for the one native Spanish-speaker in the room at the time to participate in his native language, but it also turned out to be very meaningful for two Spanish speakers with much more limited English who joined the conversation later. Each of them told me how important it had been to have us call out, “¡El grupo de español está aquí!” (“The Spanish group is over here!”) when they arrived, rather than needing to do some rearranging after they arrived. We weren’t adjusting our space to accommodate their arrival; a space accessible to them already existed.


Being an interpreter requires to a greater or lesser extent setting aside your own participation.


Something that was a more active issue in the context of the school than in the context of the meeting was making choices about which language was treated as the dominant language in any given formal setting. For meeting activities, the dominant language remained English, despite the strong commitment to inclusion and interpretation. In the school context, it varied, and I learned a lot about the impacts on participation, power, and decision making that resulted from the choice of dominant language. The clearest example was our staff meetings. During some years, we alternated between dominant languages each week, and in other years, we slipped into one language or the other as dominant on a more consistent basis. This had a number of important consequences.

First, remember that whoever is participating through an interpreter is operating with a constant time lag. Speakers of the dominant language have a moment during the interpretation to organize their thoughts and reactions, and are ready to jump in quickly with comments, questions, or replies. Without constant and strict facilitation, this leads to a situation where those operating through interpreters rarely have time to organize their thoughts or get a word in edgewise. The choice of dominant language also influenced the precision and accuracy with which different participants were able to express themselves or understand the ideas being discussed. This could be either because we were expressing ourselves in our second, less-fluent language or because what was communicated by the interpreter might miss or simplify parts of what the speaker wanted to convey. It was significantly easier for most of us to participate in one language rather than the other, and that showed clearly in the amount of airtime each of us tended to use. Thus, the choice of dominant language changed the balance of who participated, the nuance of what we were able to communicate, and the relative power different people in the room had to influence the outcome of our decisions.

Being an interpreter requires to a greater or lesser extent setting aside your own participation. When interpreting, you are focusing on that task and rarely have the time and mental space to put your own thoughts together and share them. It can also mean suppressing at least temporarily your emotional engagement. This was most intense for me when I interpreted during memorial services. I did a lot of crying in the graveyard after the services because allowing myself to grieve during the service would have hindered my ability to speak loudly and clearly.


A community commitment to translation requires sharing the work among many people.


A community commitment to translation requires sharing the work among many people. It was tiring to interpret, and it added a layer of work and obligation. Sometimes we just wanted to show up and listen, or show up and participate, and being suddenly asked or being needed to interpret could feel like a real burden. Having enough people willing to take on these risks and responsibilities made the situation workable. When the number of people around who were willing to interpret dropped, the toll over time on the remaining interpreters was very noticeable. We had to spread the burden widely, including among those of us who didn’t feel ready or qualified. We needed to step up and take a turn, even knowing there were people in the room who could do it better than we could. It was equally important for the community to be supportive of our best efforts.

As a community, we were aware of and could use the different skills people brought to the task of interpretation. I am horrible at simultaneous translation, where you are listening in one language and speaking in the other language at the same time. Others in the community excelled at this form of interpretation. Some had prodigious memories and were able to recall lengthy messages almost verbatim, then render them into the other language. Others had large vocabularies, able to exactly translate words rather than talk around an idea or convey a general concept. But each of us offered what we had, and the community made it work with what we had to offer.

Having a generous and supportive attitude within the community was critical. Yes, we made mistakes. Yes, we caused misunderstandings and hurt people’s feelings. Yes, it could be frustrating. But underneath all that was a very generous appreciation for those willing to step into the role of interpreter, or who were forced by circumstance into that role. We were part of what made our community possible, and its acceptance of our imperfect efforts supported us in taking the risks our community needed.

Heather Gosse

Heather Gosse lived in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and taught at Monteverde Friends School for nine years, from 2006 to 2015. At this time, her membership remains in Monteverde, though she is living in the Philadelphia, Pa. area and participating in Lansdowne (Pa.) Meeting. She works for Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas.

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