Marina Waters – “Accompaniment and the Language Provider”
By Tyann Zehms
Among the range of topics and speakers at MATI’s 12th Annual Conference in Merrillville, Indiana, Marina Waters brought to light a topic which escapes the regular scope of linguistic conferences, offering a new perspective on our growing industry. Waters—who holds a Master’s in Public Health and a Juris Doctor of Law, and whose professional experience includes work on civil and indigenous rights—presented on a notion which is intrinsically understood by many interpreters, yet rarely spoken about. In her presentation “Accompaniment and the Language Provider,” Waters touched upon several qualities which are prevalent not only in language providers, but also in the human spirit: qualities such as compassion and empathy. She continued by outlining how these qualities can be applied both professionally and emotionally in interpreting work, using the methodology of “Accompaniment.”
In the beginning of the presentation, I was one of many attendees to be wrapped up in Waters' accounts of the humanitarian missions she embarked on as a college student with the International Public Health Response Team. It was October 1998, and Hurricane Mitch had just devastated areas of Central America. In a small village on the banks of the Rio Coco (which makes up the southern border of Honduras), Waters and her colleagues worked tirelessly to ensure clean drinking water and safe abodes for the villagers after this catastrophe. Charged with interviewing each family to create a census of the damages done, Waters had to ask the impossible: “What did your family lose to the hurricane?” Aside from material items and homes, these families had lost countless loved ones. Her initial interview-style approach to collecting this census data proved unsuccessful. Unsure of how to proceed, Waters heeded the advice of her interpreter and cast aside a direct line of questioning. Instead, she learned to collect the information she needed more organically. At this point, Waters fully embraced the subject matter of her presentation: the theory and methodology of Accompaniment.
“To accompany is to place oneself with another,” Waters explained. This theory is all at once broad and specific. During her time in Central America, Waters learned the fine art of connecting to her interviewees with her compassion and empathy. She understood that being present with someone in their time of need was enough to encourage a relationship that would open lines of communication and build a sense of trust. By the end of her time with hurricane victims, Waters had the census data she needed, but not because villagers had answered her questions directly. Instead, the relationships she had developed meant she knew the answers to her questions in the same way that a friend knows about the life of another; through natural communication and by existing alongside another’s loss without turning away from it.
I was beginning to understand Marina’s point. Accompaniment is a concept that can be found at the heart of the interpreter’s role. As interpreters well know, they have a very special role which is both regulated and yet sometimes unclear. They are the means by which two people, speaking different languages, can connect. And while their professional roles are regulated, their mere presence with the client can change the outcome of the situation; be it a doctor’s appointment, missionary work, legal settings, or any other such meeting. Waters referred to this as the phenomenon of serving as a witness, and her research shows that outcomes of meetings such as these change when another person is in the room. People’s actions and reactions are different, perhaps kinder and more thoughtful, when a third party is present witnessing the communication event. In brief, “the treatment/care of others may change with an interpreter in the room.”
Throughout the presentation, Waters emphasized that even she herself wasn’t sure how to apply the Accompaniment Theory to the role of the language provider. Waters asked: was this something that was already happening on the ground? Was she stating the obvious? Do language providers already naturally and intrinsically incorporate accompaniment in their role? Waters pointed out that ample opportunities for this kind of empathy and awareness to improve the language industry exist – starting with language providers simply talking about their experiences and opening the lines of communication to discuss these grey areas of their work. Conversations such as these can improve industry standards as a whole, and served as the basis for Waters’ activities at the conference. By providing both the professional and humanitarian sides of the Accompaniment Theory, Marina Waters created a presentation which brought a higher sense of awareness to the role of the interpreter; an awareness that interpreters among the conference attendees may or may not have already understood. In either case, this sense of awareness was a welcomed perspective on the interpreting industry.
Tyann Zehms holds a Bachelor’s in French from UW-Milwaukee, which she applies to her roles as a Quality Reviewer at Iverson Languages and as bilingual software support for StrategyBytes, LLC. Coming from a maritime background, Tyann has an eclectic range of interests which are nurtured by her love to travel and to speak the French language. Most recently, Tyann has continued her travels to the Québec province in Canada, where she is involved with French Canadian software installations. Tyann can be reached through LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/tyannzehms