• Liz Essary

In Her Words: Meet Seven Sisters Partner Laura Vaughn Holcomb

From a very young age I had a natural affinity for my mother tongue, particularly in written form. But I also sensed from an early age that words on paper in the hands of someone else are then subject to commentary and judgement, and in a sense, cease to be mine. So I kept my mother tongue for myself and somewhat instinctively made a grab for whatever language happened to be lying around nearby—Spanish. No one would expect me to be good at it, no one would care if I was bad at it. It was safe language play. (At that time I did not know what awaited me as a student of conference interpreting!)

I see language as the key to and building blocks of all worlds, real and imagined. Though in many ways I envy my colleagues who, since the womb, were immersed in multiple languages, absorbing them like a sponge, the conscious process of learning a language—carefully collecting words, studying their arrangements—is absolutely thrilling. Each new word, each turn of phrase, each cultural reference unlocked a small door to something that didn’t exist before and which only pointed to more doors to be unlocked, and I took up the task with absolute fervor. And when, after years of collecting my building blocks, lying in bed one night in Santiago de los Caballeros, I picked up the novel I was reading by Chilean author Isabel Allende and the arrangement of individual notes turned to song, the feeling was utter bliss.

I can barely conceive of anything until I have the words to wrap around it. I verbalize my way into everything in this world.

Interpreting, as a profession, was simply an effective way to speak Spanish as often as possible. But once inside, I fell in lust with the way it seemed that everything hinged on me showing up with my magical key. How I wasn’t the show, but the show couldn’t happen without me. I had so many naive notions about my role when I first started interpreting in a major medical center in rural Georgia.

I didn’t actually start as an interpreter. I started as a Visitor Information Assistant. A V.I.A., as we were called. I helped visitors find their friends and family members, grabbed ice, fetched blankets, fielded complaints, and attempted to reassure patients who had endured long stretches in the emergency department waiting room.

And then an interpreter position opened up. I nervously performed a language and interpreting test over the phone, I then spent six weeks shadowing the other interpreters, and finally, the hospital paid for me to complete the only training available at the time—the 40-hour Bridging the Gap program.

And then I was off. A beeper on one hip, a small mobile phone on the other, my notebook for documenting my encounters... I was given access to yet more previously secret worlds: midwifery, births, the cusp of death, alcoholism, worried mothers, impossible emergency room bills, crying babies, break room coffee mixed with powdered hot chocolate, doctor crushes, EMT legends, security guard fraternalism. I moved to New York and began working as a freelancer. The specialties became more technical: pediatric cancer, neuropsychological evaluations, intractable epilepsy, dental surgery, speech therapy.

After years in the hospital, my fascination with interpreting as a portal, as a way to serve, gave way to an intellectual desire to engage in high-level linguistic chess: conference interpreting.

This is a chapter unto itself, but suffice to say that I expected to study, learn and fall in love with the art of conference interpreting and then proceed to build a career around it. With many doubts, some tears, and a substantial period in which I essentially refused to speak Spanish aloud to anyone unless absolutely required for a specific class activity, I did learn conference interpreting. I learned to do it well. But the surprise was that it rekindled a passion for the profession I had already been doing: healthcare interpreting. My Master in Conference Interpreting ultimately led me straight back to where I came from, community interpreting, but now as a trainer, with my eyes and heart wide open and many new questions to work through with my colleagues and students.

As most trainers do, I began training the way I was trained. Which worked well, I had been mentored by the best—Katharine Allen, Andrew Clifford, Marjory Bancroft, Michelle Hof, and many other amazing individuals, too many to list here. I leverage many of my mentors’ methodologies. However, quite organically, it has become clear that my own training voice is centered in the belief that those I purport to train already have the ability, have all the answers, and that my role is to accompany them in the process of discovery and uncovering. My training style is uniquely adapted to a, perhaps, underserved constituency: the deep reflecters, the sensitive, the self-directed, the gentle but brave, the voices of reason. I train for those who take things personally, who take it all personally, who bring their person to everything they do and who would like to do so in their work and growth as an interpreter. These learners do not need help identifying their mistakes, they knew them before they were even born.

The space I work in—that we work in at Seven Sisters Training—is not about comfortable space, but it is meant to be safe. It is entirely brave:

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.

We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.

We will not be perfect.

This space will not be perfect.

It will not always be what we wish it to be


It will be our brave space together,


We will work on it side by side.

From a poem, an invitation really, by Micky ScottBey Jones.

If you are interested in interpreting, just getting started, or in the middle of a doubt fog and not sure where to turn, go back to your audience. These are the people you serve, they are the bigger why, the bigger who. You’re doing the work. You’re doing it well. And you’ll continue to get even better at it. Tend to your light at all costs.

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