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!