The Assignment of My Dreams

Well, folks, I did it! I got my dream assignment. Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t for the United Nations, or for any other important governmental (or non-governmental) entity you may have heard of. What was it, you ask? Well, can you guess? What would your dream assignment be?

This winter, I got to be…wait for it…drum roll…a circus interpreter!

The whole thing started by accident a couple of years ago while I was on vacation in Central America at a circus camp.

I’m not kidding.

In fairness, I have told you about my enthusiasm for acrobatics before. If you don’t remember, here’s a blog I wrote about Acroyoga back in 2014 which we reposted a couple of years ago. But these two aspects of my life (interpreting and flying through the air on a trapeze) just don’t generally…blend. Until 2022, that is, when I found myself at circus camp attending a workshop. I could see the presenter struggling to find his words in English as he tried to explain how he and his colleagues have created a network of community circus projects that provide support and resources for children.

“Next time, would you like an interpreter?” I offered after the presentation was over. I couldn’t help myself; I blurted it out and then hoped he wouldn’t take offense. Instead, relief flooded his face.

“Please! I like for to speak English, but sometimes, when things get, you know, too complicated, I cannot express myself,” he said. “Please, help.” And just like that, I stepped into the assignment of a lifetime.

I fulfilled the role informally for two years running; I would be attending a class with the aforementioned presenter when he would announce with no warning, “Athena will interpret for me now.” Then he would launch into a rapid-fire speech about how to channel your emotions while clowning, and I was suddenly interpreting long consecutive on the fly. You have to warn the interpreter so she knows to bring her notebook!

This year I returned as a full-fledged member of the team, complete with my simultaneous interpreting equipment and three receivers. (Before you get too excited, I should confess that I was still a paying participant, volunteering my services in exchange for a bit of a discount.)

I interpreted for one gentleman who, as a child growing up in extreme poverty, had fallen in with gangs. His life may have gone in a very different direction if he hadn’t happened upon a charitable circus project, started by a man who wanted children to learn arts and get to see their country. (Many children in their country have never even left their hometown, and art is not taught in school. There are no extracurricular music groups or theater clubs. Until now.)

The project turned this young man’s life around, and he has dedicated his life to paying it forward. He helped build the “casa de las botellas,” the house where he and his colleagues live and perform for the local community. The home was constructed with over 30,000 plastic bottles otherwise destined for the landfill. There, they offer support to local children on a daily basis throughout the year, providing not just free acrobatics classes, but also homework help and a safe space. Their home contains an enormous permanent circus tent (“la palapa”) where they can launch each other high in the air and explore aerial arts with apparatus hanging from the ceiling. They live entirely off donations and grants, and for them there is no separation between work, play, and personal life. They live and breathe social circus.

When they presented, I interpreted into English for the rest of the team. When they participated, I interpreted simultaneously into Spanish.

I interpreted their social-circus presentations in the consecutive mode, barefoot in yoga pants and a tank top, a notebook in my lap. The work got less formal from there! During the opening circle I interpreted tarot-card readings. That vocabulary was definitely the hardest, full of metaphors and ambiguity. I also interpreted for aerial-arts classes, teacher meetings, and show planning sessions. I interpreted jokes and songs. Once, I sight translated a children’s book! My accumulated glossary is hilarious.

The assignment was like a hybrid between conference interpreting, community work, and interpreting for your friend at a party. Not only was I bridging language gaps, I was also supporting the team in navigating systemic challenges. Plus, I was living, working, and collaborating with my “clients” (who were also becoming my friends), so boundaries were certainly a bit blurred.

Because of key power dynamics, the need for systemic navigation, and cultural differences, the ethics of cultural brokerage and advocacy did apply (like when I fought to get them air conditioning in their living quarters like all the other teachers had. I was partially successful.)  As a general rule, I helped make sure that their needs were attended to and their voices were heard.

I also re-learned a few valuable lessons. Similarly, having some kind of pre-session was more important than ever before. I made sure that everybody knew the basics of how to work with an interpreter, and that they stuck to one language when working with me. I made it clear that when I was interpreting, I should be considered an interpreter and not a participant. After one extremely chaotic meeting left me with a pounding headache, I reiterated that I can only interpret for one person speaking at a time. I clarified boundaries and worked hard to maintain the necessary professionalism even when the circus became… well, a circus. Then, at the end, I flew in the circus!

The experience was amazing, and I hope to bridge these two worlds a bit more in the future; I spent the month learning the ins and outs of Nicaraguan slang, and I foresee a workshop in our future. 😊

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