Oct 28

WITLife is a periodic post by Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken, 2000-03).

Since becoming a freelance translator/interpreter/writer, one of the new opportunities that I have enjoyed the most has been interpreting for the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP: http://exchanges.state.gov/ivlp/ivlp.html).

The IVLP is an exchange program designed to build mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries through carefully designed visits that reflect the participants’ professional interests and support U.S. foreign policy goals. For participants, it involves meeting and conferring with professional counterparts and gaining an appreciation of the ethnic, cultural, political and socio-economic diversity of the U.S.

Participants are established or potential foreign opinion makers in government, public policy, media, education, labor, the arts and other key fields, and they are selected by American embassies abroad. Since its inception in 1940, over 135,000 people have participated in the program, and in 2007 over 4000 IVs came over on 900 projects of various themes. 65 IVLP alumni are current Chiefs of State/Heads of Government, including Taiwan President Ma Ying-Jeou. However, while they are here all IVs are considered “honorary Americans.” This means that no matter how highly ranked they are back home, during this program in our egalitarian country everyone is of equal status. This certainly takes a bit of pressure off the lowly interpreter!

My first assignment was in September for two Japanese men studying the theme of Planning for Crises: Disasters and Pandemics. The duration of each program is three weeks, kicking off with a week in D.C. followed by stops in 2-3 cities in other regions and a final stay on the West Coast. Geographical diversity of the participants is incorporated as well, and one participant worked for the local government in Kobe while one worked for the Tokyo Cabinet Office. They both had backgrounds in disaster prevention, so in a way it was perfect timing as they were coming during hurricane season. In fact, nature derailed our schedule as our planned destination of New Orleans became impossible due to Gustav. We were then redirected to Houston, but Ike prevented us from going there. Finally, in place of these two cities we were rerouted to Dallas. The other stops on our trip besides DC were New York (staying in Newark, NJ), Kansas City and San Diego.

During their three weeks, the men were able to meet with government agencies at the federal, state and local levels, NPOs, etc., as well as visit with average Americans. One interesting aspect of the program is something called Home Hospitality, which allows IVs to have a meal at someone’s house (Homestays can also be part of the program, but we didn’t happen to have any on this trip). We had the chance to experience Home Hospitality in both Dallas and Kansas City. They provided an interesting contrast of what constitutes “Americans,” as the former was with an older couple whose children were grown and out of the house. We had a sit-down dinner served without alcohol, and it was a lovely evening. The visit in Kansas City, however, was at the loft apartment of a young teacher who invited a bunch of his friends over for a more casual potluck party. The guests ranged in age and profession and as the wine flowed freely the IVs got to interact with a variety of people, often without needing any language assistance from me!

As an interpreter, this job was one of the most fulfilling I have ever had. Though three weeks on the road is admittedly a long haul, I was fortunate in that I got to go home as NY happened to be part of the itinerary, so this broke up the trip a bit. This is a job where there are no weekends and you have to be on-call for the IVs round-the-clock. That having been said, they are encouraged to get out and explore on their own, as sometimes the best discoveries can be made without the interpreter’s help. For someone who loves traveling as much as I do, this kind of assignment is ideal! I felt so lucky to be able to go all around the country and meet many kinds of people and see new places that I would not have had the opportunity to be exposed to otherwise. In particular, the Home Hospitality visits were also insightful for me to see how different parts of the country live.

Professionally, I was able to develop a solid base of disaster relief vocabulary which was unfamiliar to me at the start but was like second nature by the end. The first week of the program I spent every night cramming to prepare for the next day’s meetings, leading me to feel like I was back in school! However, this time around the payoff was greater than a high test grade; I was facilitating communication and professional as well as informal exchange to enhance the IVs’ time on the program. An additional bonus was that I came away with a significant awareness regarding a field that I was previously unfamiliar with. One of my favorite aspects of my profession is the chance to learn about a wide variety of topics and meet many types of people. I have a diverse range of clients and I like that as new challenges are what stimulate me, and I really feel that I’m a perfect fit for the IVLP!

Shortly after returning from my travels, I was happy to learn that I was being asked to take a new assignment in November. Beginning early this month I will be interpreting for a female entrepreneur from Hokkaido who was selected to study American economic development and employment issues, particularly those relating to women and business development. Some of her interests are telecommuting, flex time and returning to the workforce after taking time off, issues that are personally relevant to me. I’m looking forward to another exciting trip and the chance to delve into a completely different field!

Stacy Smith


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