WILLIAMSBURG — Colonial Williamsburg’s interpreters are the faces of the area’s history, and for the past year they’ve been stepping up their game to bring that story to life even more.
Last September, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which employs Colonial Williamsburg staff, started offering interpreter-certification courses through the National Association of Interpreters, said Colleen Prosser, manager of guest service, groups and sites for the Foundation.
“It’s really wonderful that Colonial Williamsburg has decided to make the commitment to professional development for the interpreters,” Prosser said. “It not only helps them in their career, but helps elevate the experience for guests to Colonial Williamsburg.”
The course runs about five days with about 25 interpreters in each session. Prosser said a few hundred interpreters have been certified so far.
During the course, interpreters learn new skills and techniques through a series of exercises, written tests and projects. By the end, each interpreter has to create their own program and present it to the class.
“Doing exercises like this helps to test engagement tools,” Prosser said. “Because I can teach you the facts, but I can’t teach you that desire to reach out and engage NApeople.”
Colonial Williamsburg had four interpreters become certified interpreter trainers before the course began in order to have in-house trainers for its interpreters. Having trainers from an individual location helps the course because trainers are able to incorporate aspects of colonial history and regional knowledge into the lessons, said NAI Executive Director Margo Carlock.
It also helps keep costs down.
Instructor fees typically are about $220 for a course, Carlock said. But because Colonial Williamsburg has trained its own instructors, it can cut down on that cost. Colonial Williamsburg pays a $10 workbook fee and $160 certification fee for each interpreter who takes the course.
Colonial Williamsburg’s Prosser said that is money that is well spent.
“Having our interpreters certified teaches them how to find new and compelling ways to connect with our guests,” Prosser said. “Whether you’re a first time visitor or you’ve been coming here for years, our interpreters are now trained to offer something new and exciting each visit.”
“People will walk away from their experience in Colonial Williamsburg and know how the story we’re telling applies to their own lives, and hopefully that will make them want to visit again,” she said.
The right interactions with interpreters can also help generate enthusiasm for historic sites, Carlock said.
“When you increase visitor engagement, it usually translates to attendance,” she said. “When you have a good experience, you’ll go home and tell people about it. It makes people excited and usually they’ll come back again.”
Bringing Colonial Williamsburg to an international stage
Earning their certification teaches interpreters new skills and gives them a free year of membership in NAI, which also provides networking and professional development.
“It’s wonderful that Colonial Williamsburg has decided to make that commitment to professional interpreters. it gives them the opportunity to develop their career in anyway they want,” Prosser said.
Nicole Brown, who portrays 18th-century teacher Ann Wager, said she immediately saw the professional benefits of becoming certified through NAI. In April, she attended the organization’s international conference in Reims, France.
“Through being certified, I was able to attend a conference where I could talk about what we do at Colonial Williamsburg to an international audience,” Brown said.
Brown said she was able to use the skills she learned in the course, such as connecting her character to the interests of specific guests, to demonstrate what makes Colonial Williamsburg special to interpreters around the world.
“The certification has been helpful in saying, ‘Not only am I an interpreter, I am a facilitator that takes history performance and education and merges it together to understand the implications of America’s past into your current story,” Brown said.