Interpreting cultures—insider or outsider?

Who has the “right” to interpret a culture?  Can a good interpreter sensitively interpret other cultures?

I am an American.  More specifically, I am Pennsylvania Dutch.  My German and Swiss ancestors arrived in the New World in the 1700s. My own cultural experiences growing up centred on typical

The Pennsylvania Dutch cultural landscape includes aspects that are considered unusual, even by other Americans. (photo: Eric Weiss Photography)

Pennsylvania Dutch food (homemade pickles, whoopie pies, schnitz un knepp, corn pie, soft pretzels) and crafts (quilts, rag rugs, baskets, corn husk dolls).  I assumed everyone in the world had bright hex signs on their red tobacco-drying barns.  Horse-drawn buggies filled with bonneted Amish women were a common sight, and my Mennonite friends with their hair coverings were just normal.

What a shock it was, then, as a teen to begin to discover that the entire world wasn’t the same.  Since those innocent childhood days, I’ve lived in numerous places in the US, Costa Rica, Panama, and now New Zealand.  I’ve learned that my “normal” Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing is actually quite foreign to many people…even other Americans. I’ve learned that human culture is extremely diverse, even within what we consider individual cultures.

As an interpreter, I am often in a position of interpreting cultural heritage. Sometimes I am interpreting my own heritage, but more often I am asked to interpret someone else’s heritage.  This puts me in a difficult and potentially uncomfortable situation. How can I, as an American, interpret Maori cultural values? Or even Pakeha culture?

In recent years, there has been a refreshing acknowledgement in interpretation that cultures should be interpreted by those within the culture. In the US, this means that more Native Americans are interpreting their own history, rather than their history being told by those of European descent. I strongly support this trend, particularly in the case of cultures that have been historically steamrolled by more dominating cultures.

But what qualifies someone as a member of a culture? How do you “classify” my friend who is 1/8thMaori and was raised as a Pakeha? Or the friend with a Brazilian mother, South African father, raised in New Zealand? With my Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing am I really “American” enough to interpret popular American culture? If we are too picky, we may find that there are few interpreters qualified to interpret any culture.  Indeed, more often than not, interpreters are asked to interpret a culture that is not necessarily their own.  What can an interpreter do in this case?

Staff at the Landis Valley Museum interpret traditional Pennsylvania Dutch culture

Here are some guidelines I work by. They help me navigate the challenging process of effectively and sensitively interpreting “foreign” cultures.

1. Listen and be guided by the culture.  Suspend your own cultural beliefs to be able to fully hear and understand the culture you are interpreting. Let members of that culture tell you what is important and what they’d like to share. Listen, also, to how the culture shares its stories. Consider not just content, but also delivery method.  A culturally appropriate delivery method can be powerful and provocative.

2. Learn what issues are contentious. Are there topics that are culturally sensitive? Things people don’t necessarily want to talk about? Regardless of how interesting some bit of cultural information is, it may not be appropriate to share with visitors.

3. Know your information source. Get your information from members of the culture you are interpreting. This may require extra work, as the culture you’re interpreting may not have extensive written records. You may need to do more interviewing and less library or internet research.

4. Find common ground.  Help visitors understand the culture you’re interpreting by finding similarities with the dominant culture(s) of your visitors. This may require learning more about your visitors’ cultures, too!

5. Get feedback. Once you’ve developed your interpretation, and before producing it, get feedback from members of the culture you are interpreting.  Get feedback from as many different people as you can—remember that cultures are sometimes as internally diverse as they are different from one another.

6. Be prepared to make mistakes. You will get it wrong sometimes. Listen to the feedback, and be prepared to start over from the beginning if that’s what it takes.

In the end, none of us is fully qualified to speak even for our own culture (for example, though I grew up seeing hex signs, I’ve no idea what most of them mean). Our challenge as interpreters is to gather many stories, and through our interpretation reveal “something of the beauty and wonder, the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie behind what the visitor can with his senses perceive.” (Tilden, 1957).


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