Throughout 2020, the U.S. Department of State featured the incredible stories of 80 distinguished International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) alumni through the #FacesOfExchange initiative. The initiative highlighted the power of exchanges and virtually connected thousands of people to celebrate the impact of their exchange programs.
Since the first group of foreign leaders came from South America to the United States in 1940, many international visitors have traveled with interpreters who form an integral part of the IVLP and are often themselves transformed by the experience. Participants come from all over the world, speaking a multitude of languages. Interpreters are the Rosetta Stone that not only make the IVLP possible, but serve as the linguistic and cultural bridge between individuals with common goals who are attempting to cultivate meaningful relationships without a shared language.
The Department of State has contract interpreters covering 40 different languages available to work on IVLP exchanges that build bridges between international visitors and American communities while advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives.
Alethea Hanna, a contract Spanish interpreter, recalls one IVLP moment she experienced while interpreting for an IVLP group and the indelible memory it left with her. In 2003, Alethea was interpreting for a project titled “Promotion of Civil Society and Democratic Institutions” when the group unexpectedly encountered a Native American powwow while visiting Tulsa, Oklahoma. An accidental crossing of paths became a memorable encounter for the participants and the interpreters.
When Esther Balboa, a visiting Quechua community organizer and former Vice-minister of Education from Cochabamba, Bolivia, exited her IVLP group’s bus that day, she was able to connect with the leaders of the powwow despite not sharing a language. Esther quickly identified the elders who were in the center of the circle, held their hands, and spoke to them in Quechua. Esther remembers that she had an immediate connection to the group as her words were interpreted for the elders. Through the interpreters, her message was quickly conveyed; and, throughout the celebration, people who spoke vastly different languages were able to share a powerful cultural moment. Interpreters, like Alethea, helped Esther communicate across the language barrier, maximizing her IVLP experience and ensuring both parties understood one another.
What was this powerful connection between Esther and the Native Americans with whom she spoke? According to Alethea, it was a prophecy shared by Esther during the encounter: “when the eagle and the condor meet, there will finally be harmony in our universe.” A chance encounter that could have been misunderstood as an unknown group interrupting a powwow became a moment of connection when the interpreter conveyed the prophecy into English and the elders understood the shared concepts that bridged the two cultures and languages.
It was the interpreter, Alethea, who created the psychological space where trust and understanding could thrive, despite the lack of a shared language. Her awareness of the setting helped avoid any misunderstanding as she facilitated a meaningful cross-cultural interaction. “I am interested in so many different things, so my work with the Department of State is very satisfying to me on many different levels,” says Alethea about the many IVLP projects she has worked on in the past 20 years. She added that becoming an interpreter was the perfect career for her personality.
“In my almost 20 years of involvement with the IVLP, I have experienced many such moments of connection and synergy, and there is always an accompanying feeling of pride and privilege to participate in such a valuable program.” – Alethea Hanna
Listen to Spanish language interpreter Alethea Hanna talk about her experiences working alongside Esther Balboa below.
About the Author: Regina Navarro-Gomez serves as a Virtual Intern in the Office of International Visitors of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.