Saturday, August 25, 2012

Aaron, What Exactly is a Historical Interpreter, Anyway?

Excellent question. Most people hear the word interpretation and they picture somebody like a foreign language translator; an employee standing by at a living history museum to explain the meaning behind all of those archaic words that the costumed actors keep using. In reality, there is no employee on standby; the actors themselves are the interpreters. It’s the same basic idea as translating a foreign language for someone who doesn’t speak it; you take strange words and change them into words that the person can understand.  A museum interpreter will take the concepts, religious beliefs, and worldviews of a group of people from the past and interpret them so that people in the present can understand them.

Just as an example, have you ever watched as a member of the “Greatest Generation” tries to explain to a pre-teen how they managed to entertain themselves in the 1940s without television or video games? Or as that same pre-teen tries to explain the appeal of Facebook, or texting? More often than not, both participants in the discussion come out of it more puzzled than before, wondering how the other person managed to get through the 20th century or how kids today manage to get anything done. You have here a disconnect of about 70 years, 3 or 4 generations in which technology, attitudes and social mores have changed dramatically. Imagine if someone from the 17th century could somehow encounter someone from the present day (400 odd years and 20 plus generations) and you have the basic experience that museums like Plimoth Plantation are trying to convey.

The problem here is that, as under-stated by several authors on the subject of history, “the Past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Not only do Americans today have the benefit of 400 years of hindsight that their English predecessors lacked, we live in an entirely different society. The culture is different, the social structure is different, and the world is radically different. An American visiting Hong Kong or Cape Town today would probably find more that was familiar to him than an American visiting 17th century London, or even Boston.

In steps the historical interpreter. Immersed in the documents and letters of the period that they talk about, interpreters attempt to translate the underlying ideas behind often bewildering historical beliefs and attitudes into an easily digestible form for modern people. Interpreters serve as translators for the very foreign languages of the past. And, much like with foreign languages today, you don’t need to speak the language yourself as long as you use all available resources to try to understand it.

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