If I didn’t already know what interpreters do, this definition wouldn’t tell me.
The National Association for Interpretation has released their newly-updated definition of interpretation. It’s a project they’ve been working on for three years; I’m going to take a moment to try to describe to you why I think it’s a bit of a, well, a bit of a missed opportunity.
Full disclosure: I am a member and a supporter of that organization. I was on their board of directors during part of the three-year development process; I was also one of the people consulted (repeatedly) during the definitions process. I do take some responsibility for what you see in it, but I can tell you that I did my absolute best to try to make this definition as useful and accurate as possible, given the influence I had.
Here is it is:
“Interpretation is a purposeful approach to communication that facilitates meaningful, relevant, and inclusive experiences that deepen understanding, broaden perspectives, and inspire engagement with the world around us.”
It’s not wrong. It’s true. It’s inspiring, even. As a vision statement, it’s pretty darn good. But as a definition, it doesn’t really tell you who we are, what we do, how we spend our days. If you didn’t already know what interpretation was, this definition wouldn’t tell you.
Let’s take it apart and then we’ll put it back together.
“Interpretation is a purposeful approach to communication…”
I don’t think the word purposeful is particularly helpful here; all professional communication is purposeful. All professional communications disciplines (creative writing, public relations, journalism, filmmaking, songwriting, heritage interpretation, teaching, what have you) knows what it is trying to accomplish. This doesn’t define us at all
Now, I get why ‘purposeful’ is in here; it’s a little “note to self” to our fellow interpreters: in our profession (more than the others I mention above) we have a bit of a history of interpreters saying a whole lot of random stuff, in no particular order, with no particular end goal in sight. So yes, it’s important to remind ourselves that purposefulness is crucial. But adding this word does absolutely nothing to define our profession. It doesn’t belong in a definition; It belongs in our certifications and standards programs. Literally all professional communications are purposeful.
“… that facilitates meaningful, relevant, and inclusive experiences…”
OK this is definitely laudable; it definitely places an emphasis on where we are trying to go in the profession. Full points for this particular effort. But once again, it is not particular to us. The entire travel industry is trying to do exactly this right now. All travel writers are doing this. Virtually all teachers are trying to do this in some way.
It’s good, it’s true (or at least aspirationally so), and it does describe us. But it doesn’t define us; it doesn’t distinguish us from myriad other communicators and educators. It would have been so easy to make this clause just a little more specific to the kind of work we do; that we, of all the communications professions, connect people to natural and cultural heritage. Big missed opportunity here.
“…that deepen understanding, broaden perspectives, and inspire engagement with the world around us.”
Again: true, but not defining. Teachers do this. Writers and journalists do this. Parents do this. All art does this. LITERALLY. ALL. ART. DOES. THIS.
Descriptive but not defining
So put your non-interpreter goggles on, and look at this definition through the lens of someone who doesn’t know any interpreters nor has ever done nor consumed interpretation. Through that lens, can you look at this definition and tell me what interpreters do for a living? How they spend their days?
So what’s missing?
- The idea that heritage—natural and cultural—is our stock in trade. That’s what we are communicating. That’s one of the things that distinguishes interpretation from other communications disciplines. How did we lose that?
- The idea that we work directly with the heritage resource. Of all educational and communications professions, we’re the ones that are standing in front of the thing—the boat, the bison, the bird, the artifact, the ruins, the flower—and using it as a means of connecting people to a greater truth.
Those two ideas, more than any of the descriptors in the definition above, distinguish us from the rest of the communications/educational world. Call me old-school, but I think that’s important. Don’t you?