Grace under pressure: the field interpreter’s craft

Aline L. Tolosa – Interpreter and translator

Grace under pressure*:

the field interpreter’s craft

The dig

The sun beats mercilessly on my floppy-brimmed straw hat. We have been walking from one agricultural technique demonstration station to the next since morning: it’s Farmer’s Field Day in the outskirts of Bobo Dioulassou, Burkina Faso, which means learning by doing.  This hands-on approach to experience sharing brings local smallholder farmers together to witness innovative farming practices, and our 30-strong group now reaches the soil compaction demo pit. There’s a 2 m deep, 2 x 3 m wide dig where we can discern different underground soil strata. The University Professor who’s guiding the tour blithely jumps in, despite being near retirement age. He turns around and flashes me a smile: he needs me to be there with him to point out what’s important for these farmers. I smile back and jump right in.   





In song

Our day’s work is nearly done. The Brazilian Delegation wraps up a busy visit to a women’s cooperative that grows and processes cassava in Lomé, Togo. These women have come together to strengthen their market participation, and the Brazilian experts must understand their needs to determine how to pitch in with their own experiences from Brazil. Everyone seems to be talking at once, and excitement is in the air. Something good will come out of this, something new this way comes. During the day I have established a special connection with these women, maybe because I’m the only woman in the delegation, maybe because we have won each other’s confidence with hard work during the day. As we head out to our cars in the dusk, Indian file, the women spontaneously burst into song, and escort us out chanting together. The moment is stirring, breathtaking, unique. They stop me before getting to the cars, and every single one comes forward to embrace me whilst singing. I stand rooted to the spot and hug them back as they huddle around, sing, and the sun goes down.

My name is Aline L. Tolosa, and I’m an interpreter. These stories happened to me while doing fieldwork for technical cooperation projects between Brazil and partner countries. 


Fieldwork is to boothwork as infrared and ultraviolet are to a rainbow: you know they are also somewhere out there, but they’re invisible to the naked eye. As a professional interpreter, I’ve done my share of boothwork, some of it visibly routine, some of it conspicuously challenging. Standards are high, and prepping takes time. Our endurance and stamina are put to the test. It’s a whole world of hues and shades that makes for a very exciting and an exacting job to choose, because no matter how hard you prep, you never know for sure what’s coming your way. Flexibility is your greatest ally and time is your greatest foe. And no matter what, you must consistently deliver accurate and context-sensitive information.

The chemistry of our eyes bounds our color vision [1]

Color is a subjective experience of visual perception by an observer. If we turn back to our rainbow analogy, the infrared and ultraviolet wavebands flank the visible spectrum of light (Austin, 2011) The same can be said for fieldwork in interpretation: it’s always lurking out of the corners of our eyes, flanking what we expect to be doing as translators. Whether it’s a scientific mission that needs precise and unfaltering levels of communication, a recently tilled field where a group of smallholder farmers will be learning how to conserve soil and water or an impromptu reception by a Minister of State, the field interpreter should always be on the lookout for the next move and jargon, the next need that must be met. It takes practice and grueling work, but once you find that special balance, the feeling of being a real-time conduit bridging a gap between peoples is worth it. Improvisation with whatever materials you have and dealing with extreme outer circumstances while keeping cool and polite are all in a day’s work: grace under pressure. The hours spent under sun and rain, the grit in your shoes and dusty, far-flung mud brick villages are just part of this real yet curiously ‘invisible’ bandwidth.  To experience the invisible, I invite you all to buy yourselves pairs of red and purple goggles.  All it takes is tuning in and honing on.








* Grace under pressure {}
[1]. Richards Austin A: Infrared and Ultraviolet: The Edges of the Rainbow.  Alien Vision: Exploring the Electromagnetic Spectrum with Imaging Technology. Second Edition. 2011 https://doi. org/10.1117/3.883085.ch1