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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.

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