I work as a Simultaneous Interpreter (contractor) for the International Visitor Leadership Program in the US State Department. I interpret in Kannada and Telugu, speaking at the same time, using headphones. Language is a challenge when interpreting colloquialisms and giving context – that’s what visitors to the US really value.
Nearly 5,000 visitors come to the US on this program each year.
I’ve accompanied Indian leaders on 21-day trips around the US. My last group had six Telugu-speaking journalists on a mission to learn about US-India trade policy. We met with dairy farmers in Vermont, Boeing executives in Chicago and the PBS station WHYY in Philadelphia.
On another trip with Anganwadi workers – women from rural Karnataka who had never left their villages before – I was struck by their bravery and fight to raise awareness about gender-based violence across Karnataka. They met gender studies faculty at universities and even visited a Navajo reservation to understand traditional gender roles.
The biggest aha moments happen at home hospitality visits when visitors meet families so different from a typical Indian one – a same sex couple with two dogs, a married couple raising kids from different marriages, a family where the couple are partners living together. Different, yet loving.
I often have to explain cultural norms and avert awkward moments. During home visits, visitors don’t know what expect so I go serve myself to get the ball rolling. Or I hold the door open for others, an American custom not obvious to Indian visitors who tend to march through.
Of course, I can’t interpret everything. Try explaining the slogan “Keep Portland Weird” to first-time Indian visitors!
They often come with preconceived notions about American life that are quickly dispelled. Are all Americans rich? They see homelessness everywhere. Do Americans lack family values? They meet different, but contented families. Are Americans patronizing? In everyday interaction at meetings or restaurant they meet Americans who work hard and play harder. They go back to India inspired by civic sense, personal values, respect for life, equality, social status – and yes, cleanliness!
Simultaneous interpreting is taxing so I share the task with another interpreter. But I love the job. It’s work that feels like a vacation! I‘ve visited Portland, Cincinnati, pueblos in Santa Fe, and many other cities, learned about American history and culture, and I enjoy showing the real America to visitors. Their enthusiasm for this intense cultural immersion and how they will use new knowledge to make things better back home, is gratifying.
It’s also given me the confidence to speak to anyone, anywhere.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
Edited by Contributing Editor, Meera Kymal