Upon revealing my identity as a playwright at, let’s say, a dinner party, other people will often cheerfully inquire, “What do you write about?” This question always throws me. Do they want me to recite the plot of a recent play? Do they wish for me to tell them the kind of stories I prefer? And can these very nice dinner party friends of friends ask me a question I’d prefer answering, not what do I write but how do I write?
It’s the first day of my new job on a chilly April morning, and I’m learning how to build a hearth fire. I’m in the barroom of Bump Tavern, one in a collection of turn-of-the-nineteenth century buildings that together make up the historical village housed within the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York. I am not one hundred percent sure what I am doing there, and I have yet to be issued my traditional clothing. My job will be learning the history of these buildings and then recounting it to the visitors of the museum.
As we open up, my fellow employee uses a verb that sets my mind spinning. D—, in the midst of delivering a flurry of information about the tavern, says, “Usually I like to interpret it this way”—and that’s when I stopped listening. To interpret! A building!? Wait, you could just interpret anything? Objects, ideas, buildings, whatever you fancied? Did this change … everything?
Every so often the mind is primed for a new way of thinking, and all it may take is the fresh usage of a familiar word to crack open all the doors in the hallway of the mind. If I happened to be seated next to you at one of those dinner parties, and you politely asked what I did, and I ambiguously replied, “I interpret,” what would be your followup question? Maybe “Oh? And what do you interpret?” Are we any closer than before?
In the case of the museum, it is history that I interpret. It’s in our job title (Historical Interpreter), it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise when D— said it, I had just seldom heard anyone use it as a verb. At the museum, I interpret (and make) brooms, within the context of 1840s rural New York life. If you want to hear the full interpretation, you’ll have to come back to the Farmer’s Museum when they reopen next April, but suffice to say I’ve honed it over a full season and I’ve got the two-minute elevator pitch all the way to a thirty-minute dissertation ready.
Families with kids, for example, need a different interpretation than an old couple who used to come here thirty years ago but hasn’t been back since. I’ve learned a lot about sorghum, the corn-like plant that we use to make the brooms. Sometimes I spend most of the time talking about witches. This versatility highlights a key component of why “to interpret” so intrigues me. An interpretation can be different every time and still be truthful, authentic, and accurate. It can be styled to fit any occasion.
An aspect of my verb-based state of epiphany relies on the unexpected; a word comes at you unbidden and explodes the way you think about your craft. The new verb tends to emerge from a state of disorientation, when the mind is taking in unusual or new information. A previous verb revealed itself in Texas, on day four of an eight-day silent retreat. I had just written a bunch of words about the landscape, so alien to me in Texas, the brush, the hills, the whir of insects, a snake or two, boars roaming about, the dry deadly August heat shimmering. The word “translate” must have been used at some point during our morning meeting, so it was already bouncing around in my head. (Although the writers remain silent for eight days, the leader of the retreat avails us with spoken morning warm-ups and a few encouraging suggestions each day.)
The retreat took place in a sprawling ranch home, within which were several desirable writing locations, including a leather Chesterfield couch. I claimed it and sat adjacent to a coffee table covered with books. Unable to bring myself to flip open my laptop quite yet, I paged through one of the books, which had originally been written in Spanish. On the first page, the Spanish-to-English translator had included a poetic definition of the act of translating, “to carry across.”
Boom. In an instant, I became a translator of exterior to interior states of being. I was a humble translator, no less, no more. As someone who grew up on a farm and was always interested in landscape writing and the natural world (and jealous of how novels/cinema/TV can make more judicious use of these scenic resources), this act of translation felt just right. I carried physical landscapes across the divide and translated them into text-based environments for days.
It strikes me now, though, a bit dazzled by my shiny new verb, that maybe there’s something lacking. A translation doesn’t leave much room for the person translating. It creates the expectation that the thing—the idea, the character, the description—being carried across will arrive intact, unspoiled by the journey. A “bad” translation is perhaps one that does not resemble its previous form closely enough. I’m not sure that translation rises to the challenge of the zeitgeist of the times, in which the carrier—and how the carrier identifies within the context of the larger human ecosystem—has become tantamount. It makes little difference what they carry. It is how they carry that matters. And the story they are telling, whatever that story might hold, will be fundamentally changed from its previous form by the labor of carrying it across, and by that carrier’s idiosyncrasy and experiences. It is the change in the story—not its resemblance to a previous one—that is most notable.
At the museum, we do third-person interpretation, which means I am allowed to step outside of the 1840s and comment as myself, rather than as a character. I find more and more deviations on how to make this work. On slow days, I make four brooms in a row and my mind wanders back to what it is, exactly, that I’m doing. I leave work still dressed in my nineteenth century clothing—suspenders, high-waisted pants, cravat—and sometimes stop in to the grocery store on my way home. I used to take off some of the clothes in order to blend in better, but recently I’ve stopped doing that. How do other shoppers interpret my presence?
Once, at the gas station, I tried to clarify my appearance. “I just work at a museum.” What was I trying to do? Provide context in order to shift the gas station attendant’s perception or opinion? How is interpretation different from opinion? And why do I care what any of these people think of how I’m dressed anyway?
Now that I am an interpreter, I reconsider the other designated interpreters of the world. Sign language interpreters, for example. Why is that considered interpretation? Shouldn’t it be a translation? I looked it up, and according to the American Translator’s Association, a translation works from “the written word” while an interpretation works from “the spoken word.” Additionally, while a translator works in one direction (towards their target language), an interpreter works bi-directionally, back and forth between their target language and their source.
Am I subverting interpretation by reapplying it to the act of writing and the written word? If translation is passive, interpretation is active. The words float freely, like particles. I place them in an order of my choosing. This order is informed by what I like, what I know, how I wish to sound. It is also informed by my learned style of communication, by who I am in the world. I am (probably) not inventing any of these words, so there is always a bit of translation in the act. But it’s my unique sequence, my ability or failure to enliven or refresh them… it’s my interpretation that you dwell upon. Of how my individual effort to communicate something is necessarily and inherently different than any other communication. The piece of writing becomes a record of an act of interpretation. Of almost equal importance, that record then becomes open to the interpretation of others. There’s a sort of infinity effect; fixed yet unfixed. And what is being interpreted? I’m not always sure; maybe just the raw data of the universe, remixed to mine new meaning.
We probably wouldn’t have had time to fully arrive at this conclusion at that dinner party, the conversation would likely have drifted elsewhere by now, but maybe that’s how I write, at least until the next verb comes along.