Category Archives: language training

Deck the Halls With Bows to Holly

holly_mikkelsonFor those who may not know her, Professor Holly Mikkelson at the Monterrey School of International Studies, is a state and federally certified court interpreter, and is accredited by the American Translators Association. She has been a consultant to court interpreter regulatory and training entities such as the California Judicial Council and the National Center for State Courts, and has published extensively on court and community interpreting. She is a member of the American Translators Association, the National Association of Judiciary Translators and Interpreters, and the Conference of Interpreter Trainers. She has spoken at conferences and presented workshops throughout the country as well as internationally and was the recipient of the Alexander Gode Medal from the American Translators Asscociation in  2011, its most prestigious award, for outstanding services to the Interpreting and Translating professions. She has graciously agreed to share her thoughts about the industry with us.

How does the field of Interpreting you’ve come to know over the years compare to your understanding of what it was when you first became involved with it, in 1976?

It has been revolutionized! Although my training at the Monterey Institute had focused on conference interpreting, I started my professional career as a court interpreter because it was what was available for someone whose only working languages were Spanish and English and who wanted to stay in California. Pay was determined by each court locally, negotiating with individual interpreters. We worked trials alone, all day; even though I knew standards were different for conference interpreters, being a submissive sort I accepted the working conditions without protest.

I found out about the California Court Interpreters Association (CCIA) in about 1978 when they started holding conferences to help people prepare for the new certification exams that California was starting to give. The standards for those exams were abysmal, but over the years they were revised to better reflect the quality requirements of the actual job. The Federal Court Interpreter Certification Exam was developed shortly after California’s, and I took the first one without realizing what a big deal it would turn out to be (otherwise I would have been a lot more nervous!). I managed to pass that exam, though I’ve never worked in federal court.

Since I joined the CCIA, scores of new professional organizations have been founded to represent the interests of interpreters in different sectors, and I have joined just about every one except for those catering to specific regions. Thanks to the efforts of these organizations, interpreters’ working conditions have improved considerably. There has also been a proliferation of publications and training programs for interpreters, though much still remains to be done in that regard. Partly because of the civil rights movement and partly thanks to the advocacy of our professional organizations. New laws and regulations to enforce language access policies have changed the landscape in this country, and have incidentally expanded employment opportunities in our field.

Today I would say that our profession has matured tremendously, and higher standards are being imposed all over the country (again, much still remains to be done). As someone who started out doing  translations on a typewriter and interpreting without the benefit of portable simultaneous equipment, I am in awe at the progress we’ve made.

What is the most significant advance you’ve seen in the profession in the last 10 years? What do you think we will see in the next five?

As I mentioned above, the proliferation of research publications and textbooks and the growing influence of professional associations such as the ATA, NAJIT and the IMIA have propelled our profession forward at a rate that is only possible with the concerted efforts of many, many colleagues. I am grateful to all of them for their sacrifice and hard work.      The other area that has revolutionized our field is technology, not only with respect to the communicative interactions for which we interpret (video conferencing, etc.), but also in the applications we have available to enhance our own productivity. I have to say, though, that I’m something of a dinosaur when it comes to adopting new gadgets in my day-to-day work. I think the next five years will bring even more astounding innovations that will make our jobs easier.

Do you see any interaction in the horizon with professional associations or institutions abroad?  What do you think we can teach them and what could they teach us?

I do see a lot of collaboration ahead. Court and medical interpreting are receiving more and more attention around the world, and we can teach our colleagues in other countries a lot based on the hard lessons we’ve learned (such as setting standards for exams, implementing legislation, etc.). In particular, Directive 2010/64/EU of the European Union has spurred many countries into raising the bar for ensuring language access and quality interpreting in these sectors. Some of our European colleagues have reached out to their counterparts here to learn more about how to proceed.

Here in the U.S. we can learn a lot from colleagues in countries such as Australia, Sweden, Norway and Canada that have relatively long histories in the area of public service interpreting, and from the traditional conference interpreting organizations and programs in Europe. As countries in Asia become increasingly aware of needs in foreign and indigenous languages and develop new systems to accommodate them, we can learn from their innovations as well.

The best way to keep up with what is going on in the world is to read the myriad professional journals devoted to various aspects of interpreting and to attend conferences in other countries. Even if we can’t attend in person, the proceedings of those conferences are often available on the Internet.

As an educator, what qualities, in addition to professional attributes, do you think are important for an interpreter to cultivate?

It’s hard to think of any quality that I wouldn’t characterize as a professional attribute: integrity, concern for accuracy, continuing professional development, and strong interpersonal relations are all qualities that interpreters should cultivate.

Do you have any new projects in the works that you can share with us?

My son and daughter-in-law have taken over the customer service and new product development departments of our Acebo publishing business. I’ll still be involved in everything, but I’m hoping they’ll add some fresh ideas to help the business grow in the future. He’s a federally certified court interpreter and she’s a project manager who has degrees in translation and business administration, so they have lots of relevant experience to bring to the table. They’re also digital natives, so when we finally finish the next edition of The Interpreter’s Companion (still a work in progress), we’ll have it available in formats people can use on electronic devices.

No Longer Just a Voice in the Wilderness

Roseann Dueñas Gonzalez

Roseann Dueñas González

Dr. Roseann Dueñas González is a 21st century luminary in the field of language access in the U.S. She was the founder and  long-standing Director of the University of Arizona National Center for Interpretation, Testing, Research and Policy.  I took the opportunity of her stepping down to ask her to share her thoughts on the status of our industry.

MCV: To give those readers not acquainted with you an idea of the influence you have had on the legal interpreting profession is the U.S., give us a brief summary of the salient points in your career. 

RDG: As a linguist, I specialized in language policy, registers of English, and language proficiency testing. I was hired by the courts in AZ in 1976 to identify defendants who truly needed an interpreter.  That led to my study of courtroom English, which became the basis of my 1977 doctoral dissertation, and a lifetime of work:

  • The Administrative Office of the U. S. Courts consulted my research for the implementation of the 1978 Court Interpreters Act.
  • I led the  development of the model, which became the Federal Court Interpreter Certification exam, (SPA<>ENG).
  • In 1983,  I founded the Agnese Haury Institute at the University of Arizona to provide training for court interpretation and to meet standards set by the federal testing model.
  • From 2000-2012, I was the Principal Investigator for  projects that resulted in the development of curricula for the major in translation and interpretation at the University of Arizona, and onsite and online education to improve the registers of Spanish teachers to teach translation and interpretation in high schools, funded by the Department of Education. That in turn brought about:

(a) The publication of Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, Policy and Practice in 1991, in collaboration with Victoria Vasquez, J.D. and Holly Mikkelson. It is the most often cited work in law review articles and other scholarly work on court interpretation. This text provided the foundation for the profession’s stabilization, growth, and emergence as a professional field.  The 2012 revision offers further refinement of interpreter practice, protocol, and ethics.

(b) The expansion of the Agnese Haury Institute for  the training of interpreters in healthcare.

(c) Nationwide short courses in test preparation, and introduction to court interpretation, or advanced court interpretation, hybrid online/onsite training and testing options that will provide opportunities for interpreters seeking to better their skills.

MCV: Why were you selected in 1976 by the Pima County Superior Court to assist in identifying defendants needing an interpreter, which led to your seminal doctorate dissertation?

RDG: The court called the English Department at the University of Arizona and asked for a testing specialist. Judge Ben Birdsall wanted a systematic way to determine whether or not a defendant needed an interpreter. I explained that the language of the courtroom constituted a particular variety that was different from ordinary English, and that for this reason, I would have to devise a language test particularly for this purpose. The judge provided me access to cases, some research support, and a pilot population.  That was the beginning of the rest of my life.

MCV: What is the most significant change you have observed in the U.S. interpreting profession after the revolutionary implementation of the Federal Certification Program?

RDG: To see a profession grow out of out of the federal courts’ recognition of its duty to guarantee constitutional rights and to carry out the mandate of the Court Interpreters Act (1978)—that is the transformation of a lifetime.  With federal certification came the introduction of a professional language intermediary who made the courts accessible to limited and non-English speakers   Because federal certification testing was founded on a valid empirical analysis of courtroom language and the complex job of the court interpreter in this setting, it set the performance criteria and standards for the entire profession.  This tool has identified a cadre of extremely talented persons, thus launching the birth of a profession.

MCV: What is the best measure of the growth the Agnese Haury Institute at the University of Arizona and the National Institute for Interpretation have experienced since their inception in 1983?  Approximately how many interpreters have received training?

RDG: The Agnese Haury Institute can best be measured by its influence on the growth and development of the court interpreting profession.  Its commitment to sharing knowledge and experience is foremost.  The Institute was created out of a willingness of master court interpreters (of which there were few in 1983) to share their knowledge and to create a continuing platform where not only linguistic and interpreting skills could be honed, but where all of the content knowledge required of a court interpreters could be presented. Approximately 2,500 interpreters have taken courses there to date.

MCV: I see the short certificate courses offered by the NCI as a robust measure to fill the tremendous need for training that we are experiencing.  Do you believe that as recognition for the profession increases, and remuneration merits it, that it will create more traditional educational opportunities through conventional degree programs that are so needed to support this goal?

RDG: As I stated in the 1991 Fundamentals of Court Interpretation and reiterated 20 years later in the 2012 edition, the quality of court interpretation, the growth of the profession, and the quality of language access depends upon the establishment of an academic national infrastructure of translation and interpretation undergraduate and graduate degree programs with an emphasis on interpretation, and a focus on judicial settings.  However, consider the fact that it took me 25 years from the founding of the Agnese Haury Institute to the establishment of a T & I major concentration at the University of Arizona, despite my constant efforts.  Higher education has been reluctant to embrace court interpretation as a viable field of study.  Obstacles include the continuing lack of recognition of interpretation versus translation as a formal field of study; recognition of the need of higher education to fulfill the need for capable interpreters for judicial, medical and other critical settings; and the tremendous workforce demands for certified interpreters.  As this need becomes better known through the enforcement of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services, professional interpreters, linguists, lawyers, judges, and other professional groups  will have an increasingly stronger argument to begin creating academic programs.

However, a diversity of educational paths are still needed. the Agnese Haury Institute provides a professional experience unlike the experience gained in an undergraduate or graduate program. Persons who have completed our undergraduate major in translation and interpretation often take the Institute as a capstone experience.  The intensive guided practice with feedback in the three modes of interpretation (consecutive, simultaneous, and sight translation) distinguishes this experience from all others.  Short courses fulfill the need for test preparation, specialized instruction such as advanced simultaneous, consecutive, and forensic transcription/translation, etc.  Short courses also offer persons considering interpretation the opportunity to self- diagnose and consider the practice of court or medical interpretation and contemplate their own linguistic, interpreting, and subject matter skills and knowledge, to find the educational pathway that meets their goal.


MCV: Have you compared the learning curve and the stage of our profession in the U.S. to that of other parts of the world?

RDG: Although other countries (such as Spain) are significantly ahead in terms of educational opportunities at state funded as well as private universities and colleges, the United States court interpreting profession as a whole is light years ahead of its European and other international counterparts in terms of status of the profession, remuneration and the place of certified professional court interpreters in the justice system.  This fact emanates from the rigorous standards set by the federal courts and the enforcement of same through the federal certification examination program and the commensurate remuneration policy established by the federal courts for those who have this unique capability.  Although there may be many court interpreters who are doing outstanding work in the field and are not certified at the federal level, the standards set by federal certification provide an exemplar for all state and local courts as well as for other high stakes settings, such as medical.

MCV: What can interested parties do to lobby governmental and private sources to yield support for programs such as those you have spearheaded to develop language access in the U.S.?

RDG: As private citizens, as members of the court interpreting profession, and of professional interpreting and translation groups such as NAJIT and ATA, interpreters need to consider every horizon in terms of language access.  The question that should always be:  How does this agency, court, system, etc. meet the language access needs of its LEP population.  How can I assist them to understand their language access obligation? State interpreter associations need to plug in to local colleges and universities and make it known that access is a primary aspect of their agenda, working collaboratively with universities to make language access a true part of every facet of these institutions.

What are the next goals for our industry and how can language associations help to achieve them?

As we discuss in Fundamentals, the primary goal for the profession is to strengthen its associations and continue to work towards it broader goal of “language access,” which will in turn lead to greater professionalization.  NAJIT’S new concentration on policy statements and collaboration with the American Bar Association and other agencies is an excellent beginning that should be expanded. The American Bar Association (ABA) recently launched the ABA Standards for Language Access in Courts.  Spurred on by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID), the Standards represent the most comprehensive document to date promoting full language access in courts nationwide. Among other things, it provides detailed guidance for court interpreter conduct and will hopefully contribute to lawyers, judges and court staff gaining a broader appreciation for the crucial role interpreters play.

Professional associations and all court interpreters should concentrate on creating uniform standards of certification among the 50 states and lobby for the establishment of an office within a federal agency to oversee state and local certification of interpreters and ensure that national interpreting telephone and video relay agencies and other providers are employing persons who have passed a rigorous certification examination in legal, or any venue in which laws are applied or where life outcomes are affected. Until there are uniform standards among states and national or international agencies providing interpreting and translation services, the profession of court interpretation will never achieve its potential. Moreover, as it comes of age, the profession must begin to promulgate professional ethical standards that provide more specific guidance for interpreters to follow and some ways of policing itself, instead of being “policed” by an outside nonprofessional agency.

Dr. Dueñas González decided to leave her position in September for health reasons and to spend time with her growing family, after many years of distinguished service.  I invite your comments and ask you to join with me to wish her our best. We look forward to her continuing advice as the fruits of her labor blossom.

Four Issues Interpreters Are Talking About

In my review of social media and conversations I have had with interpreters in the U.S. and abroad, I find the following topics are being followed closely and I would like to submit them to your consideration for feedback

The Capita/Applied Language Solutions Situation in the UK

The latest developments are that, instigated  by Margaret Hodge, Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the powerful  National Audit Office (NAO) will be investigating the matter.  A six week deadline for the investigation has been set which will come due at the end of July.  The scope of same is significant.

On Wednesday, July 18, the Justice Select Committee of the House of Commons which scrutinizes the policy, administration, and spending of the Ministry of Justice also launched a call for written evidence to examine the service provided by Applied Language Solutions and the process by which it was selected.  See an article in the Law Society Gazette dated 18 July 2012 for greater detail.

Furthermore, Gavin Wheeldon, the CEO of Applied Language Solutions, at a time of utmost upheaval during the implementation of the Interpreting Framework Agreement, has suddenly quit his position. Read the circumstances at The Manchester Evening News, Business Section.

What repercussions can this have on the rest of the industry?

The Need for Education/Standardization/Certification In the Interpreting Profession

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Translating and Interpreting sector in the U.S. is expected to grow 42% from 2010 to 2020, much faster than for all occupations, and job opportunities should be best for those who have a professional certificate.

The Glendon College at York University in Canada is one of two institutions in North America whose interpreting curriculums have been vetted by AIIC.  I contacted them to see how their programs were doing. Andrew Clifford, the coordinator for the Master of Conference Interpreting tells me they are expecting the first cohort for  interpreting in September  and although they have experienced some volatility in the existing translation programs, the trend is mostly positive as students seek out second careers during the global economic crisis because the translation industry seems to be somewhat recession-proof.

Karen Borgenheimer, a certified interpreter who teaches at the Professional Translation and Interpreting Program at Florida International University (F.I.U.) confirms that  their program has grown about 56% in the last 2 years. Most of their students are professionals who have either lost their jobs or are looking for an additional source of income given salary cuts and inflation.

F.I.U. also get many women who have left the job force to raise families and either can’t get back into their previous professions due to budget cuts or are looking for more flexible work schedules, with very few “college” age students.  This is consistent with the findings of Common Sense Advisory’s 2010 Review of the Language Services Market, indicating that this profession is not typically embarked upon by high school or college students.  It is of concern because 18.24% percent of interpreters are between the ages of 58-67, or retirement age. Only 5.29% is younger than 28[i], which is why it is very important that we reach out to high schools with programs designed to attract young people to the profession.

Michelle Hoff, a freelance conference interpreter at the European Court of Justice and an interpreter trainer at the University of La Laguna in Tenerife, Spain, reports that their interpreting programs are relatively stable, which may be a trade-off between those who have no money to attend during the economic downturn and those who want to take advantage of the hiatus to improve their skills.

It is interesting to note that ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), a globally recognized leader in the development and delivery of international voluntary consensus standards, has initiated the creation of a standard practice instead of a policy, to accredit an organization to give credentials to individual interpreters.  Visit their website at and become involved.3.

Interconnectivity Through Social Media; Especially YouTube, Blogs, Twitter and FB

There has been a veritable explosion of valuable national/international connections created, far too lengthy to detail, in the last two years.  Just browse for Interpreting and Translating in these forums and you will be amazed at the sheer number of colleagues participating, from which we can all learn.

Major Players Driving Change

In the U.S., in my estimation, the main forums  seeking to lead positive changes in our profession are The American Translators Association, The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators,  AIIC, InterpretAmerica, LLC, The International Federation of Translators, and  Common Sense Advisory.  If you want to make a difference, learn what these organizations do, avail yourself of their expertise and give input on how to shape our future. Only then can we be satisfied with outcomes.

What do you think?  What would you add?


[i]. Kelly, Nataly, Stewart, Robert G., Hegde, Vijayalaxmi, (2010) A Study of Interpreting in North America Commissioned by InterpretAmerica, pp. 9, © 2010 Commonsense Advisory, Inc.

A Linguist Particle?

This week, physicists revealed to the world that they’ve all but confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, called the “God Particle” in layman’s terms. The discovery is said to answer the riddle of how subatomic particles were formed, and what gives them their mass. As an interpreter and translator who’s dabbled in more than one specialty within the scope of being a linguist, and in the shadow of such an exciting moment for mankind, I started exploring what makes us tick, a “Linguist Particle,” if you will.

This week, physicists revealed to the world that they’ve all but confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, called the “God Particle” in layman’s terms. The discovery is said to answer the riddle of how subatomic particles were formed, and what gives them their mass. As an interpreter and translator who’s dabbled in more than one specialty within the scope of being a linguist, and in the shadow of such an exciting moment for mankind, I started exploring what makes us tick, a “Linguist Particle,” if you will.


Beyond the necessary trait of bilingualism and the basic role of bridging communication gaps, I pondered what traits seem to appear in the interpreters and translators I’ve encountered in my career. Commonly, I’ve noticed they have a creative streak that manifests itself in former or second careers as musicians, painters, singers, poets, lyricists, writers and graphic artists, among other right-brained qualities. As a subdivision of these, many are the entrepreneurial, business-minded people, who are very good at marketing their professional services. The academic subgroup’s passion lies in sharing knowledge and developing others. Life experience seems to be a big factor for professional success, providing not only broad knowledge but the maturity needed to excel. Hmm… maybe another line of thinking was in order. By this point it started looking like there was just too much variety to name just one common thread.

Rather than traits, I thought perhaps what was common were principles we have all agreed to abide by. Codes of ethics, standards of practice and good practice recommendations abound, and most generally have the same sort of list ranging from the fundamentals of faithful renditions to the broad-reaching implications of client relations and professional behavior. Still, with the great variety of environments, purposes and subject matters, the ways that professionals apply such guidelines can vary, albeit only slightly in some cases.


My next leg in the journey was to check whether the professions themselves have identified specific traits. Resources abound from a variety of sources that seek to name the ideals, what makes a good interpreter or translator. The more I looked, the more I found, but the “ah-ha” moment came when I found a study by Nancy Schweda Nicholson called Personality Characteristics of Interpreter Trainees: The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)[1]. I encourage you to read it because it’s much more detailed and complex than what I seek to explore here, and it cites many other very interesting sources.

Schweda Nicholson described that the study sought to identify traits of interpreter and translator trainees. She found that the traits that could be elicited from interpreters themselves would be highly subjective, explaining that “…interpreters have often examined their own personalities and attempted to generalize based on their own personal assessments… if one asks an interpreter what he or she believes to be the perfect temperament and personality for a new trainee, the interpreter will, almost without exception, describe his or her own personality.” Because interpreter and translator training programs are often led and taught by practicing industry professionals, it makes sense that some objective data would be an excellent supplement to the anecdotal descriptions that a seasoned trainer might offer.


Work by Henderson (1980) cited in the study says that the “typical” interpreter is “A self-reliant, articulate extrovert, quick and intelligent, a jack of all trades and something of an actor, superficial, arrogant, liking variety and at times anxious and frustrated…” going on to say that these are only major features of a picture that is much more complex. Interesting! Schweda Nicholson concludes that “personality may definitely have an effect on that person’s comfort level in different situations as well as on processing and organizational behavior.” Fascinating, I think, because the only entrance exams I have ever heard of for training programs focus almost exclusively on skills and abilities that tend to be limited to the performance, rather than any predictors for how a trainee might fare in the professional setting. Recognizing work such as that of Schweda Nicholson might assist programs to develop the other characteristics in trainees in conjunction with the specifics of the industry.

Perhaps intuitively, I’ve always been frustrated to hear professionals kindly encourage bilinguals to become linguists without knowing much about them. Research tells us there is so much more to interpreting and translating than language skills and the right vocabulary, and although many of the ideal traits can be developed, I’m not convinced that all of them are necessarily attainable to their fullest. The information contained in the Schweda Nicholson study seems to explain why some perfectly talented bilinguals have difficulty getting into or succeeding in the interpreting and translation industries. As a profession, when linguists seek to prepare for “the next generation” of interpreters and translators, it makes sense that people considering these careers are made aware that research and experience strongly suggests that certain personality traits may be better suited for success.

In the end, perhaps there is no such thing as a “Linguist Particle,” but instead a personality profile that is much more complex and intricate, with features that are both subjective and objective. As Schweda Nicholson puts it, “…the personality profiles of interpreters can be as varied as the topics with which they work.”


For additional background on the Myers-Brigg topic visit: and look for the first session of the Interpreters Journal Club twitter meeting.  Myers-Brigg was discussed and several interpreters from around the world chimed in.

Free-lance Interpreting: The Nitty-Gritty

Kathleen Shelly

Kathleen Shelly is a Delaware translator and interpreter certified by the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts. She has a master’s degree plus doctoral work in Latin American literature from the Ohio State University, and was a college professor for 12 years.  She has been a member of NAJIT since 2005, and currently holds the office of secretary on the board of directors.

As we prepare to soon launch the official blog for the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), I have asked those interested in being part of that blogging team to make guest appearances on my blog to start publishing their views and becoming familiar with the logistics involved in this art form. Kathleen is the first to share her posts from that group. I know you will enjoy her takes- Blogmaster

The following is the first in a series about the practical aspects of being a free-lance interpreter. We will be discussing topics such as car maintenance, managing assignments, record keeping and general protocol. My idea is to help newcomers become acquainted with the nitty-gritty of the profession, and get feedback from those whose experience and knowledge are greater than my own. All comments and ideas are welcome!

About thirteen years ago, I was informed that my state had become a member of the National Center for State Courts, and that an exam for court interpreters was being offered. Trapped in a dead-end job fielding Spanish-language calls at a credit card company, I jumped at the chance, passed the exam and entered the ranks of free-lance interpreters. Work was rather sparse at first; looking back at my records, I see that I made a whopping $4,450.74 my first year. Over time, I developed my business and client-base, and I am now doing a heck of a lot better, although still far from wealthy.

I love my work. Even at its dullest, it beats the 9 to 5 treadmill I had found myself in before. That is not to say there are no drawbacks. There are indeed. Sometimes, as I drive that hundredth mile, I find myself yearning for the security of the staff-interpreter, that lucky soul who enjoys benefits, a short commute, a guaranteed parking space, taxes deducted automatically, etc. Unfortunately, that option is not open to me, but over time I have learned to deal with the exigencies of my trade.

What is a free-lance interpreter? In essence, we are self-employed business persons who must handle our own work schedule, our own taxes, our own benefits, our own marketing, our own record keeping and, just as important as any of these, our own professional development. The money we make must pay not only for the hours we work in court, attorney’s office or medical setting, but also the time we spend attending to business. People who know how much money I make an hour are often shocked and sometimes outraged. They have no idea how much work it has taken to get to this stage in my career, and the ongoing hours of paper work, study and preparation. I have gone through many years of education—high school, college, graduate school, travel abroad to prepare myself for this work. And, since I rarely work eight hours a day, the amount I earn does not even reflect a full day’s pay.

I always feel a little grim when someone says to me, “Well, being a free-lancer must be great! You can name your own hours, work whenever and wherever you want!” Well, yes and no. You can pick and choose assignments as long as you accept the fact that you will make less money if you get too picky. In addition, it is to your advantage to accept certain assignments to get your foot in the door. If an agency calls you repeatedly and you always turn them down, they will eventually stop calling you. I also hate hearing: “Oh, Monday’s a holiday! You won’t have to work!” Unlike a regular employee, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid, period.

So let’s take a look at some of the facets of being a free-lance interpreter. My next entry will be about car maintenance. Gotta go. I have an appointment with the dealership to find out about that pesky engine light that keeps popping on!

In the meantime, I would love to hear  your freelancing stories so please leave your comments below.

Profile of a Talented Interpreter and Administrator at S.D.N.Y.

Nancy Festinger

I am trying to create an awareness in our community about various players in our profession that stand out, whose work differs in some sense from the type of assignments I normally engage in, working for private attorneys, the courts and at conferences for multinational companies. In my world, that is the status quo.

I had heard about Nancy Festinger, the legendary chief interpreter at the Southern District of New York for years through several colleagues in NYC, but I had never had the opportunity to meet her. For those who are not familiar with it, the Southern District is one of the most influential and active federal district courts in the United States, largely because of its jurisdiction over New York’s major financial centers.

Nancy and I finally coincided in Scottsdale, AZ at the NAJIT annual conference a few short years ago.  She was the then editor of Proteus, the NAJIT newsletter. We hit it off at the event and she asked me if I would be interested in writing a regular column for Proteus. It was a great opportunity for me because Nancy is a gifted writer and I learned a lot from having her edit my articles.

When I conceived the idea of writing profiles/interviews of colleagues for my blog, I immediately thought of her because her job is unique. She is in contact with very varied circumstances and interpreters.

Here is her story.

How did you become involved with interpreting?

I became interested in interpreting, as so many of us did, by chance—although any language-oriented person will gravitate toward areas in which linguistic knowledge can be applied.

From a young age, I was fascinated by language, probably because of the many languages in my family history. My grandparents, all of whom had been born in Russia and emigrated to the U.S. at different ages, spoke with heavy accents, in splintered syntax. One grandfather had spoken four or five different languages in his line of work. My mother’s first language was French, though she stopped speaking it at the age of 11. All this was intriguing. I was a bookish kid who loved reading and playing word games. I still remember my amazement at a little pink book I found in the library called You Can Write Chinese. What a great title!

After college, all I knew was that I wanted to work with language. I felt most drawn to literary translation because I knew it would teach me about writing. (A traditional MFA program held no attraction.) I had a thirst for “real life,” so I worked for a few years, then decided to go to Spain for a year. When I came back to NY, I got a contract to translate a book of oral history, which I had read while I was there. While I was working on the translation, I picked up a continuing education catalog from a local college, and saw a class titled “Court Interpreting: An Alternative Career for the Bilingual Individual.”  It piqued my interest, and I signed up. (Lucky for me, since it was the first and only time the course was ever offered.)  I especially liked the word “alternative” since I had been to an alternative college in the 1970s, a time when so many of us were questioning conventional career choices.

In class we had a great student-teacher ratio: five students to two teachers, one of whom was a staff interpreter in state court (David Fellmeth) and the other a freelance interpreter in federal court (Dena Kohn), who shortly thereafter became head of the SDNY interpreters unit.  During our court visit, I was surprised to see the interpreter sitting right next to the defendant! Thanks to the teachers’ encouragement, at the end of the semester, I trotted off to state court to see if they needed summer per diems. Of course I didn’t really interpret yet, I just had some basic notions, a little practice, and high motivation. These were the days before interpreter exams for state court. Street crime was rampant and Spanish interpreters were in demand. I talked to someone for five minutes and was told to come in the following day and report to the interpreters’ room, an L-shaped corridor behind the court security officers’ desk. About 15 interpreters were crammed in there, a combination of staff and per diem. One day turned into a whole year; I learned everything that year– and took the federal certification exam the following year.  My former teachers were the ones who got me involved in CITA, which later became NAJIT. I started out licking envelopes and somehow 25 years went by, there was always something to do!

How did you ultimately get hired as the chief interpreter for the Southern District of NY?

One thing followed another. After becoming federally certified in 1982, I spent 8 years freelancing, sometimes traveling to trials in other districts, but mostly working in the two federal courts in NYC.  In 1990, the SDNY expanded its staff from 2 to 5, and I applied for a full time position. When they offered me the job, I hesitated for a few days, because I wanted to retain the freedom to do books. I’d worked on other book translations during this period, but every time I did, I ended up losing money.  I had no sick days, no vacation days…Finally, I concluded that working full-time would be the best decision. In 1993, our then-chief (Patricia Michelsen) moved to Virginia, the supervisory position opened, and I applied for it. We are now six staff interpreters with two administrative assistants and a large pool of contract interpreters. I enjoy it tremendously, wear a lot of different hats, and still interpret as much as I can. You have to stay active or you lose your skills. The administrative part—coordinating scheduling and billing for contractors— while necessary, is not as exciting.

What is the most interesting aspect of your job?

I’d have to say the variety, which makes it a creative problem to keep actively engaged on all fronts. Having a dependable and talented team around me has enabled me to do a lot of different things. I get to know interpreters of many languages; orienting and coaching newcomers to the field; providing support to interpreters and observing them in action; interacting with courthouse personnel on every level; reading the growing literature in the field; talking directly to judges about interpreter protocol; advisory committee work; special projects such as creating our website or database glossary; working in myriad ways with NAJIT on professional issues;  preparing workshop or conference material; plus the everyday interpreting and translating assignments. I still enjoy interpreting legal arguments and translating letters to the judge, for example. Then there is the challenge of staying organized, so that all the information on hand is well classified and easy to access for the staff, the community of freelancers, researchers, the bench and bar, and the public.

What has been the most demanding assignment of your career?

Here I’d have to say a recent effort to identify Songhai interpreters for a major trial. My office spent the better part of a year tracking down leads, talking to people nationally and internationally. The best candidates we could find  had good command of both English and Songhai but no interpreting experience, so we had to figure out a way to train them. We hoped they would have what it took, but there were no guarantees. Watching candidates build up their skills, from first hesitant stabs to smooth simultaneous, was a real thrill. My staff and I designed and implemented the training program. Convincing the court of the need to do this was another matter.

What are the challenges our profession is facing and how can we strive to meet them?

I think we have the same challenges now as we’ve always had—how to attract high-quality people to the field, especially in languages not frequently needed by the court system. Most courts need interpreters who will continue to provide professional service for decades.  Time marches on and court cases only become more complex linguistically. In languages of lesser diffusion, the Catch-22 is you need highly skilled people on an occasional basis, so there is no incentive for those who interpret languages of lesser diffusion to get training– even if the training were more readily available. The challenge for courthouses is to find ways to provide court-sponsored training for freelancers. We need to develop talent where it exists, create attractive career paths so that people of ability are attracted to the field and can remain in it, and then encourage interpreters to keep honing their skills. How can we strive to meet these challenges? I think NAJIT and other associations are going a long way toward building a corps of committed professionals, and issuing persuasive position papers on professional issues. The court entities who use interpreter services have an obligation to create good working conditions, decent pay, and sufficient, effective support. That seems like a no-brainer, but it takes a huge public relations effort to get that message across to the powers that be.

Administratively, we have a whole other cohort of challenges, having to do with efficient scheduling, trend tracking, and streamlining bureaucratic paperwork.

Tell us how you went about creating the court-sponsored training for Russian, Fuzhou and Arabic interpreters in your court. Has that initiative continued to be developed?

In my experience, most court administrators don’t get involved in the nitty gritty of what interpreters do or what their departments  need. We are a niche unit within the courthouse, because no one else can do what we do, and most people don’t understand the details.  We are like a boutique business. My theory for getting things done in this environment is to take initiative, prepare a convincing report, and try to make it easy for higher-ups to rubber-stamp what I propose. While it is hard to predict what languages will be needed in the future, I looked at usage statistics and saw a need to reinforce our roster in our district’s most-requested languages after Spanish. I thought we needed to have language-specific training, one language at a time. When the first seminar was successful, it was easy to build on it and do the same thing with other languages. We on the staff did all the teaching in English, we got guest speakers from different court units, we hired expert interpreters to coach and supervise practice sessions, and we gave attendees lots of study material to take home. We tested interpreters before and after in short samples of simultaneous, and noted the difference. It was an awful lot of work, but it paid off.  Many of the interpreters who attended those seminars continue to work with us a decade later. The relatively small investment by the court ($5,000) paid off in spades. After these 3 languages, I didn’t continue because there was no other language whose usage statistics warranted a training program.

If you could implement one change in the interpreting dept of the SDNY, what would that be and why?

I would have the court reimburse conference registration fees for staff interpreters, or contribute to travel costs to attend conferences.  Every professional conference we attend is out of our own pockets, when the court has a vested interest in our continuing education.

Tell us about the most funny or satisfying assignment you ever did.

Actually, it wasn’t an assignment except in the sense that I gave it to myself, but it’s had a great effect on the esprit de corps. It turned out to be the best public relations plug for interpreters I ever could have come up with!  To counteract the intense seriousness with which people take their jobs, I decided I needed some comic relief, so I put together a musical comedy revue. It’s been going on now for 17 years. (We did it one year at the NAJIT conference in NY.) The Courthouse Follies started as an interpreters’ show and then spread to the whole courthouse. We make fun of everyone: politicians, judges, attorneys, ourselves. The material emerges from a collaborative process–for the past 10 years my co-writer has been a federal defender, and we also have material submitted by one of our judges. The rehearsals—always difficult because frequently half the cast can’t make it—have to be coordinated and directed, and for lack of anyone else, I do that, too. We hire a pianist, and whoever is willing (including judges and attorneys) can be in the cast, usually about 25 people. It’s expanded to have costumes, dancing, whatever we can think of. Everyone contributes ideas. A lot of improvisation happens on the night of the show. Crazy lot of work to pull it together, but once we’re in front of an audience, it all pays off.  It’s very satisfying because I get to see all these otherwise serious people guffawing at human foibles and the legal system itself. It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy for an interpreter.

Can you give us an example?

Well, you know the song New York, New York from the musical On the Town?

Imagine watching court employees in a chorus line, singing these lyrics:

SDNY, it’s a helluva court

The trials are long and the tempers are short;

We get to keep all the drugs they import

SDNY, it’s a helluva court!

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