Category Archives: medical interpreting

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.

Adoption Day


Jennifer de la Cruz

Jennifer De La Cruz holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and is a certified court interpreter for Spanish at both the California and federal levels, as well as an ATA-certified translator for Spanish into English. She has developed and taught interpreting and translation courses for over 10 years and has served on various advisory boards for college certificate programs in the field of interpreting and translation. She has been a professional interpreter and translator for about 15 years, spending a decade in the acute-care setting and now working as a staff interpreter at Riverside Superior Court in Southern California.

Of the many impactful experiences I encountered in my former career as an interpreter for an acute-care hospital, the one that stands out as the most emotional is “Adoption Day”.

            The day started off as any other morning, awaiting my first calls to the inpatient wards and the early-shift surgery center. Soon came the call to the maternity ward, where nursing staff was concerned that a Spanish speaking mom was showing no interest in bonding with her new baby daughter. The nurse asking for my help to interpret their conversation led me to the room.  I didn’t quite know whether to expect a case of the baby blues or perhaps an inexperienced new mother. To my surprise, during the conversation I interpreted, it was neither.

Mom already had several young children at home, and was probably in her thirties or later. She appeared to be struggling emotionally, but her message was clear: she had a busy life already, and this newborn was to be put up for adoption. Of course, this announcement came as a surprise to the nursing staff, who soon involved the ward social worker. It turned out that mom had not spoken to anyone about this decision, much less selected an adoption agency or adoptive parents. In fact, as quick as she recovered from the birth, she was anxious to be discharged home and was ready to leave the baby behind. Needless to say, the social worker’s task was to resolve the adoption, from A to Z, in one work shift.

The first task I was asked to perform was a series of sight translations. The agency that the hospital suggested to mom was accepted, and the representative showed up with some five letters from couples. Each letter had a photograph of the couples and, in some cases, other children. In preparing to sit with mom and do my task, I was touched deeply by the sentiment expressed in each letter and knew that I would have but one chance to transmit its message as heartfelt as it was written so mom could make a selection. No longer was I concerned with the perfect word as much as I was with the emotion behind each. I had to interpret with all the sentiment that each letter expressed, as these anonymous couples tried to put their best foot forward in hopes that a mom, this mom, would literally “pick” them.

Both the social worker and I were deeply moved by everything up to this point, and after the letters had been sight translated into Spanish for her, mom spread the letters out over her meal tray and contemplated the particulars of each couple. It didn’t take long for her to make her selection, and she expressed great relief when she considered her task complete. All that was left was some paperwork regarding known medical history and other things the new parents would want to know.  The representative meanwhile left to try to contact the couple, to see if they could visit the hospital before mom was discharged. An appointment was set for the middle of the afternoon.

As expected, the call to return to the maternity ward finally came. The couple selected didn’t speak Spanish, and they desperately wanted to meet mom before they met their new daughter. I was thrilled to have the privilege of being the conduit for communication between people who would likely remember this conversation for the rest of their lives. It was a young and handsome couple, who were unable to have children of their own. Their voices trembled and their bodies quietly shook as they walked into mom’s room, holding each other tighter than I’ve ever seen.

The conversation was a thing of beauty. A little small talk, a few tears, many things understood without words. Mom was relieved. The couple was immensely grateful, and couldn’t stop thanking mom for giving them a daughter that day. They wanted so badly to get to know mom, just a little, and hung on to every word I interpreted as if they were receiving some divine gift.

The last thing I recall about this couple was after the goodbyes. I was being called to attend to other interpreting encounters, and mom was being discharged. The couple left mom’s room moments after I did. I couldn’t help but turn and look back at them, and I their image is engraved in my mind. New mom collapsed into new dad’s arms just outside the room. They wept silently, almost uncontrollably, just a few feet from the woman who made their dream come true.

As I write these words, tears come to my eyes and I feel warm inside, as it was a moment for me, too, that will last forever. Interpreters in the medical field are likely to encounter everything across the spectrum of  life, but few are the truly beautiful moments that as humans we can hold precious in our hearts. Adoption Day will always be one such moment for me.

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