You Say Potato, I Say Interpreting

What’s the correct way to talk about what we do at Aira? You’ve probably heard us use the terms visual interpreting and visual interpretation interchangeably. It can be argued that the words “interpreting” and “interpretation” mean essentially the same thing, a form of the verb “interpret” or related nouns. I beg to differ and here’s why.

First, let’s define the difference between interpreting and translating. Translating refers to converting the written word from one language to another, either written or oral. It’s as exact a form as possible given the difference in linguistic structure. One forum post on the difference between these two words notes:  “Interpreting refers to the act of interpreting in a very precise sense, i.e. receiving aural input in one language and producing oral output in another.” Whereas “Interpretation refers to the act of interpreting in a much broader sense of the verb, i.e. just coming to a conclusion about what you think something means, or presenting such a conclusion to others.”

The act of converting information from one medium to another, in Aira’s case from visual to oral, is generally referred to as interpreting. Some examples include ASL interpreting or Chinese interpreting. Both of these ways to convey information take one source and convert it into another using not only exact matching phrases but also context from the environment and situational relationships while maintaining as much objectivity as possible. 

I’ve used the example of a wave to describe this significant difference. I will provide a visual interpretation of a wave. Imagine I stand up and move my arms in a flowing up and down motion, maybe while making the sound of surf breaking. I might even put my entire body into it. This is my “visual interpretation” of the wave, me providing you with a representation visually of what I perceive as a wave.

Now I’ll provide visual interpreting for a wave by saying the following:  “There is a large body of water in front of us. It’s a deep greenish blue. The water moved toward the shore by rising and falling in a sort of humped shape. There are lines of white foam at the edges of these humps as the wind increases.”

Aira Agents are charged with supplying objective information about things they see or processes they observe. That objectivity is one thing that separates professional agents from friends, family or volunteers. Let’s take the example of approaching a checkout counter at the store.

An Aira Agent using the trained skill of visual interpreting might sound like:  “There’s a person standing by the cash register about three feet away. They are smiling and looking at the person in front of you in line. They just motioned you to come forward.”

Subjective interpretation might sound like this:  “There’s someone at the register. Oh doesn’t she look happy today? That dude in front of you has a ton of stuff. I think she wants you to move up.”

There’s nothing wrong with subjective relaying of information if that’s what you’re expecting. It’s not, however, visual interpreting, which by its name conveys objectivity as often as possible.

Interestingly enough, even AI-based apps can claim to visually interpret things and not necessarily be wrong. If the app identifies a chair on your right as you walk down a hallway, that’s visually interpreting. If that same app uses different colors to denote how loud sounds in the environment are, based on an arbitrary key, that’s visual interpretation, taking something that’s not visual and representing it in a visual form.

Why am I so exorcised about using the correct term for the amazing skills our Agents demonstrate?  Aira believes that access to visual information is a right. That right should be provided in a number of ways, one of which is the professional discipline of visual interpreting. As this effort is in its very early stages, we want to craft appropriate language to use when identifying both the professionally trained visual interpreters and the service itself.  So as always, words matter, and the words here are visual interpreting.