Insights November 10, 2023

Interpreting trip of a lifetime – with language and inclusivity lessons

By Living Word

Did you know that Manuela, our friendly, multi-tasking account manager, is also a volunteer at the Red Cross? When the opportunity arose earlier this year to travel to Michigan, US, as an interpreter for a group of blind Spanish people training at a guide dog school, she jumped on it – despite really being a cat person…

The trip came about after a friend of Manuela’s, a social worker with the Red Cross, got an email about the trip, along with a message saying that they were struggling to find an interpreter who would be a good fit. She immediately thought of Manuela.


What was the recruitment process like?

I felt I was perfect for the job. Then on the day when they were supposed to let you know, I heard nothing – I was a bit sad, actually! But that was a Friday, and I got a call on the Monday to say they wanted to meet me.

I’ve never really been that interested in the US and their culture, funnily enough, and I’m actually a cat person. Most of my friends were really surprised when I told them! Then at the meeting the first thing they asked was whether I like dogs. I didn’t want to lie to their face, so I said my mum has four dogs, which is true.

They asked about my volunteering experience and tested my English, and then we did a mock test with an imaginary dog. I could see them glancing at each other and felt that it was going well. The following day I got a call to say they’d chosen me.


What experience did you have of interpreting before the Red Cross trip?

Nothing like this. I took interpreting classes at university, both simultaneous and consecutive as well as a bit of whispering, but most people who go on to work in interpreting do further training. I never wanted to do that as my main job – I preferred translation.

I did a few small interpreting jobs a number of years ago, including a really great Doctors of the World online meeting about sexual violence with the Swedish ambassador to Spain, but it tends to make me quite nervous as you don’t get the chance to rest or consult a dictionary or even Google something. I really enjoy it, but I’m always very nervous beforehand.


What was it like then, arriving in the US?

I was a little anxious in advance as I didn’t know much about dogs, and I didn’t know exactly what we would be doing. We just got the relevant information and the plan on the same day, so there was never much chance to prepare. Yet, I found that I wasn’t particularly apprehensive or on edge at all; instead, I realised that I was well able to use different techniques to manage. When we had a visit with a vet, for instance, and she mentioned a range of diseases and different vaccines, I was able to give them examples and then ask if they wanted more information about anything in particular later.

I also realised very quickly that I had to think in a different way, that when you talk to a blind person, no matter what language, you have to adapt. Descriptors like ‘here’, ‘there’, ‘this’ and ‘that’ – that doesn’t work for them, and it really opened my eyes to other realities. It was such an enjoyable experience. I was amazed to get to witness first-hand how these people navigate the world, doing everything you and I do, just differently.

They have a great sense of humour too. Like if I said, ‘Did you see this?’ they’d joke and say ‘What do you see if you can’t see?’. They still say ‘I watched this film’ or ‘I read this book’ – it’s a figure of speech for them and you don’t have to tip-toe around them.


Any particular challenges?

There was one moment that was tough for one of the participants. They all got to meet a guide dog each in the US, but we ended up only bringing four back. It wasn’t her fault. These dogs have been through a lot and they don’t choose this life, so you really have to click with them, to bond – but obviously she felt like she had failed. And that was another lesson for me, to keep my distance and not get emotionally involved. You spend so much time with the group that you can’t help but feel for them, but as an interpreter, you’re meant to just stick to the facts and what everyone’s saying, not add your own comments or thoughts.


What will you take with you from this experience?

Just that everyone’s reality is different, that something that might seem obvious to you might not be that obvious to someone else. That doesn’t just go for interpreting. If you’re emailing someone in work, you don’t know if they’re typing from a wheelchair or dictating because they can’t speak. Because someone looks feminine, that doesn’t mean they use female pronouns. Just because something seems a certain way, it doesn’t mean it’s like that – and it’s not necessarily better or worse, just different. I guess the lesson is to be more conscious of the way we speak.

We did a project with Living Word a while ago where a company wanted our help to ensure that their new brand name didn’t trigger negative connotations in other local markets. It made me think about how, in the past, if you offended someone you might say that you had no way of knowing. Now, in today’s globalised world, we don’t have that excuse. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions are.

Someone once told me, if I accidentally kick you and you’re hurt, I’ll apologise, even if I didn’t mean to kick you – but it will still hurt. If you use an offensive word, saying that you didn’t mean to offend someone isn’t good enough. That’s at the heart of the work we do, isn’t it? If you don’t bother to find out about the culture in the places where your business is going to do work, you’re going to have issues.


guide dogs