The Interpreter's Handbook
Methods, Skills, & Techniques


What is Interpretation?

A visitor walked up to the desk in the Visitor Center and said: "Some one said this is an interpretive center, and that I could get my questions answered here. I don't know what an interpretive center is, but I do need some information."

This visitor was not unusual. Many people do not know what is meant by interpretation, and many more do not know what an interpreter is. To some it is simply a fancy new word. However, slowly but surely, this work is becoming better known and appreciated by the public. For that reason, it is important that the person who selects the field of interpretation as a career should become as familiar as possible with the subject, and how it can be successfully accomplished.

The question is often asked: "What is the difference between interpretation and information? Don't they mean the same, with just different words being used?" Unfortunately, this conception is often accepted by the person meeting the public in our parks, before clubs and organizations, or in related situations. Many a guided tour is simply a vocal listing of facts and figures about what is being seen. There may be some minor interpretation accomplished, but it is lost in the maze of details. It is likely that you have gone on a tour through a dam, a power plant, a museum, an important building, or a park, and came away with your head so whirling with facts and figures that your mind could not begin to retain them, let alone understand what they really meant.

Interpretation differs from information in many basic respects. "Interpretation," by contrast with information, conveys the meaning of something, through exposition or explanation. "Information" is the knowledge derived from study, experience, or instruction. It is information that is so often given to a visitor; it is interpretation that should have been accomplished. Good interpretation uses all sorts of information such as facts, figures, etc., but in a way that the listener can understand and appreciate.

If we put into simple words the end results we hope to accomplish through interpretation, they would be: Understand, stimulate and appreciate. Let us examine these words carefully to grasp the meaning of each. A person can be a good listener without understanding a thing. Without understanding, any explanation is sterile from the listener viewpoint.

With understanding may come a desire in the listener to learn more about what is being discussed. If you accomplish this, you have succeeded in another of your objectives, stimulating him to try on his own to enlarge his knowledge of the subject.

With understanding and desire to learn more comes a sense of appreciation of the subject, and what its worth really is. This doesn't mean appreciation cannot be had without understanding and stimulation; simply that it is greatly enhanced in combination with the other two factors. One can appreciate a view of the Grand Canyon and not understand or want to learn a thing about it. However, still greater appreciation is likely to accompany an understanding of how the great canyon came to be, with a desire to learn more of its story.

Anyone can be an interpreter if he is familiar with the story to be told, and with methods and techniques of interpretation that can make the story come alive and meaningful.

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Last Updated: 01-May-2008
Copyrighted by Southwestern Parks and Monuments Association
Western National Parks Association