A swing and a miss: NAI’s new definition of interpretation

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?

  1. 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?
  2. 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?


  1. Couldn’t agree with you more. The biggest miss was the link to “natural and cultural heritage”.

  2. “Facilitates?” Puh-lease! Good points above, Don. But where is the mention of story? Who listens or follows along without story?
    Sorry, this smells like committee-think. I just wandered off to explore on my own.

    • Jill Deuling

      I totally agree with you. It isn’t a definition; it is a goal or a vision. That definition describes a journalist or an event promoter. There is no distinction between inyerpretation and other communication and teaching professions with this definition. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Bill Reynolds

    Definitely the missing link is the non-mention of “natural and cultural heritage” however perhaps the premise of our profession being a communication profession should be reassessed. This has set us up with a sender- message-receiver model and one way flow of information (sage on the stage) process. What we really need more of is experiential enhancement for the natural and cultural heritage visitor.

  4. Dr. Robert D Hinkle

    Spot on review, Don. Heritage interpretation is glaringly missing, as is the resource link. I see it as a decent draft, but it’s missing the core of who we are and what we do. “Just because something CAN be changed, doesn’t necessarily mean it SHOULD be changed”. The original definition was cleanly written, clear, and succinctly defined who we were and what we do.

  5. The trouble with finding a definition that separates Interpretation from all those other communication activities, is that it’s difficult not to be either very narrow (precise) or very detailed (complex). Either way it would probably render 75% of what’s described as interpretation, not actually interpretation. Which might well be true, but do you want to be the one saying it?
    I don’t know that ‘experiential activities that provoke personal and meaningful engagement with heritage’ works any better, but that’s the best I’ve ever come up with, gives a nod to Tilden, and nests it within the wider Visitor Experience as the bit involving the actual resource, whatever that may be.
    And that’s avoiding some of the connotations of the word ‘direct’ in these digital virtual times.
    I’d rather have ‘facilitates’ (what it does) than ‘story’ (how it’s done) in there. It’s a definition not a guide. You can’t explain how it’s done without story, but you can say what it is.

    • Agreed. But how about a definition that a) acknowledges that we are part of a greater communications and education world and have much in common with these disciplines (deepening and broadening perspectives, facilitating meaningful experiences) and then b) outlines the few things that distinguish interpreters from our communications and education and tourism colleagues? With this definition, we have affirmed the things we do (all of which we share with our colleagues in education or communication or tourism) without actually identifying what makes us a discrete profession.

  6. Well now you’re just moving the goalposts 😉 A job description or mission statement rather than a definition.
    But what we actually do and where we fit in is important I suppose.
    Classic fill in the gaps activity for a workshop or training course:
    We… (who) do this… (what)
    in this way… (how)
    in this context… (where and when)
    in order to… (why)
    Job done.

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