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Words Across Borders: Going Back in Time to Find My Future

In the inaugural Words Across Borders blog post, Katharine Allen introduces her new professional platform, taking a trip back in time to Chile's ancient temperate rainforests, where her professional journey began and the vision for this endeavor was planted.


Ancient forests, a helicopter and a cultural crash


I am about to go where no humans have been for a very long time.


The journey begins 30 years ago on a grassy field at the edge of Cahuelmo Fjord, a remote finger of ocean reaching into Chile's rugged southern Andes mountains. Next to me is a Chilean Air Force helicopter pilot, here to ferry an unruly group of nature photographers, scientists and expeditionaries from sea level to the top of the jutting, granite peaks rising up almost vertically from the narrow valley floor.


For all anyone knows, this may be the first time in centuries any human has set foot on those pathless summits. The sun is broiling and thick, muggy steam rises from the dense temperate rainforest that carpets the mountainsides.


"You must obey our orders during the helicopter flight. These weather conditions will it make it hard for our helicopters to take off and ascend. Do exactly what we say during the flight or you'll get us killed. And that means absolutely no opening the windows. Do you all understand and agree?"


It has fallen to me to interpret these harsh, military commands to the eclectic mix of American activists impatient to get going. They have been waiting days for the aircraft to arrive and facilitate this critical part of Expedition Chile 1990. Now that it's here, their thoughts have jumped ahead to what they will discover up top.


I am 24, living in Southern Chile and working for various community development projects in Valdivia, hundreds of miles away from this remote, unknown stretch of Chile's "Carretera Austral," or Southern Highway; except that along this stretch, there is no actual road connecting the region of fjords, islands and mountains to the rest of the country. There is only the sea.


The expedition is made up of a mix of sober Chilean academics, forestry experts and students joined by American environmentalists, journalists, photographers and much-less-serious hangers-on. We have somehow landed here together, in this unlikely, long-overlooked place to try and save it. It is beyond all price. A lost Yosemite-by-sea. And it is currently up for sale to the highest bidder.

A hanger-on during the previous year's gathering, this year I am an essential member of the organizational team, tapped most frequently to interpret and translate for this group of more than 100, who otherwise "get by" with various degrees of pigeon English and Spanish.


I have absolutely no training to play this essential role.


After the pilot's stern admonishments, the first expedition members are flown to the top. I go up in the last flight, along with several scientists and a nature photographer. The helicopter blades labor to gain traction in the humid, hot air. Finally we rise up. I am drenched in sweat, exhausted and intimidated, but thrilled too. This is an experience of a lifetime.


As we spin out over the fjord, the vista expands to capture the impossible beauty of where we are. Tall granite cliffs and hanging valleys emerge and the distant, high peaks of the Andes mountains come into view.


Abruptly, the American photographer reaches over, flips open the side window and leans out as far as he can to capture the scene. The pilot reacts aggressively, yelling with quick, angry urgency.


"Close that window!"


The photographer delays, adjusting his lens, taking time to focus and click.


The pilot is almost apoplectic. He is yelling in Spanish and I am near-screaming his words into English.


Fear engulfs me. Didn't the photographer hear what the pilot said? Will we crash? Is he crazy? How can he be so arrogant? His need to get the money-shot picture overrides all other priorities and I am suddenly deeply ashamed for my fellow countryman's behavior.



Camau Fjord in what is now Parque Pumalin, Chile
Credit: https://www.earthtravellers.com/chile

At the top, we once again form a large circle and I stand nervously next to the stern, exasperated pilots, who will be back in several days to return the group to base camp. They give an angry lecture, threatening to leave everyone up top if they don't commit to following their orders.


I am shaking as I do my best to get their message across, fully aligned with their indignation and contempt for our group. I am deeply shocked and embarrassed at how irresponsible and selfish my compatriots are being.


And thus my career in interpreting began, though I did not know it at the time.


I got involved in Expedition Chile to see how I could help, in some small way, to save this achingly, exquisite part of planet Earth I had fallen hopelessly in love with. I was young and struggling to understand what came next, where I fit in.


What I got instead was a masterclass in cross-cultural confusion, misunderstanding and conflict. As is almost always the case, I learned more about my own country and culture by living outside it than I could ever have learned while there.


For the first time I understood that fighting for a progressive cause did not mean that the free-wheeling, "woke" tree-hugging hippies I was with were not also carrying ugly, privileged and deeply entrenched colonial behaviors that threatened to derail the entire expedition over and over again.


For two years I served as the informal language bridge for the two organizations planning the Expeditions (Ancient Forest International and Bosque Antiguo). The seeds of learning planted during that time have propelled me through a 30-year career in interpreting and translation. Now they come to full fruition with the launch of Words Across Borders.


Why Words Across Borders?


...and why not Words without Borders, as I've already been asked? This construct has been adopted by many amazing organizations in their work to eliminate borders blocking the delivery of medicine, teaching, translation and more.


Linguists work across borders, They can never fully eliminate them.


As interpreters, we get up and go to work every day in a never-ending quest to ferry meaning back and forth between people who don't speak the same language, who come from divergent backgrounds and who may or may not value whether they are understood or that they understand those with whom they interact.


So often, the broader world sees what we do as simply plucking out words in two languages that match each other. We put them together, and presto!, people understand each other as if they were speaking the same language.


In reality, what we do goes so much farther.


With every interpreted encounter, we bravely enter a linguistic and cultural labyrinth that takes us through many twists and turns before we, hopefully, come out the other side having successfully helped people achieve understanding.


We cross borders gaining language proficiency and face continuous challenges to learn new terminology each time we interpret. We jump from topic to topic, becoming mini-experts along the way and hoping we've done enough to enter into that new subject arena long enough to interpret successfully.


But we are still just scratching the surface. We have to journey through our own psychology, crossing borders into unconscious bias, the knee-jerk reactions a lifetime of experiences has imbedded in us. We climb up and over our internal mountains of personal filters so we can arrive at some degree of cultural and psychological insight to understand what speakers mean to say.


We peek around the labyrinth's corners in a search for context. What are people talking about? What's the purpose of their communication? Are they engaged with institutions, companies or services we understand? Do they understand the institutions and services or processes they are in? Will they look to us to explain? And if they do, what can we do or not do to help them understand the context they are in?


A judge may not have compassion for the immigrants that come through the courtroom. A presenter may not care how well those in the audience who don't speak his or her native language follow the speech.


Yet, our mandate is to care. This is the sacred core of the profession we have chosen; to capture the most authentic meaning we possibly can to protect the communicative autonomy of those who speak. It is, after all, their conversation, presentation, judgment, diagnosis, testimony, victim's story, sales pitch or speech.


During the act of interpreting, we must strip ourselves of as many layers of our own bias and judgment, reaction or misunderstanding as we can. Our fundamental task is to cross over to the other and perceive the perspective of the person whose voice we are to interpret, setting our own aside. Before and afterwards, we can cater to our own perspective and opinions, but not during.


We speak in words, or capture thoughts in the gestures we sign, and we carry them across borders, where we construct carefully-balanced cairns as signposts that guide us on our way, there and back again. When we deliver our words, their meaning is transported to the other language into something that is clear, understandable and actionable.


My journey as an interpreter began 30 years ago, when I was pulled completely out of my comfort zone and tasked with helping people in difficult circumstances communicate effectively. I remain fascinated, humbled, and ever-more committed to that task with each passing day.



Words Across Borders is a space to explore the complicated nature of what we do, and to help those we serve also understand and value what we do, It is a space to explore our personal journeys and our collective, professional evolution. It is a space, hopefully, that will warm you, inspire you, and maybe even make you laugh.


I look forward to all the ways we will connect and grow in the coming days, months and years. Thank you for accompanying me on this new chapter.



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