By Cristina McDowell
Interview of Melinda González-Hibner by Cristina McDowell
For many of you Melinda does not need an introduction. I first met Melinda at the ATA Conference in Chicago in 2014. She immediately struck me as a person who was open, engaging, and helpful. Melinda is an accomplished interpreter (she is a state and federally certified court interpreter and currently works as the staff interpreter for the U.S. District Court in Plano, Texas) but more importantly, she is truly committed to the profession. She is a member of the Leadership Council of the Interpreters Division, a member of the Interpretation Policy Advisory Committee, and a member of the media spokespeople program for ATA’s Public Relations Committee. And that’s just what she does for ATA. Melinda is also on the Board of Directors of NAJIT. We recently spoke about her background and interests, and this is what she had to say.
Cristina McDowell (CM): Hello, Melinda, can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to become an interpreter?
Melinda González-Hibner (MGH): During the mid-90’s I was trying to complete a dissertation in cultural anthropology without success. I had three young children. And I was recovering from a fairly traumatic fight with cancer and a move to a new state. You could say I was struggling with life and trying to find a way forward. And then, fortuitously, I was invited to attend a Court Interpreter Orientation taught by Holly Mikkelson. I knew nothing about interpreting, but I felt a surge of excitement and energy as I spent a day learning about court interpreting, speaking Spanish, my heart leaping with forgotten joy at the beautiful legal words, thinking, “I can do this!” I left that training determined to take the certification exam and learn more, much more. Court interpreting opened its doors to me, and I have never looked back.
CM: I am sorry to hear about your struggles with your health. You look great now! … So what followed this phase of your life?
MGH: A wonderful, demanding, and intensely rewarding career. Over the next two years I got certified by the state and federal courts, and I embraced my new field. I attended every training that came to town and traveled to other cities whenever I could to learn more. I worked hard to improve my skills and I was lucky to be mentored by more than one great colleague. I helped found the Colorado Association of Professional Interpreters, I started teaching the Court Interpreter Orientation, and in 2004 I became the first full time Court Interpreter Program Administrator for the Colorado Judicial Department. While I was an administrator, I discovered that I truly am an interpreter at heart. I value the administrative side of things, because that is where standards are set, professionalism is promoted or devalued and working conditions are improved or ignored. But my heart is in interpreting.
I came back to interpreting full time and continued to develop my skills and grow professionally. I started working for the Department of State, the Northern Command, and broke into the conference circuit. I kept on taking classes and attending conferences. In 2013, I attended the Graduate Studies in Interpreting and Translation Program at the University of Maryland. I truly love interpreting, and I honestly haven’t stopped trying to improve myself or the profession since I attended that first workshop. I know that I am very fortunate to have been in a position to get training, and also to work in a language that offers steady work in more than one setting. I think that’s part of what drives me—the knowledge that not every interpreter can afford to devote time, energy or money to support or promote our profession. So, those of us who can, should!
CM: Sounds like you got to do all sorts of things as a freelancer. Thinking of a comeback?
MGH: (Laughing) Not for now. I’m very grateful to hold a staff position where I can both enjoy the adrenalin rush of interpreting and utilize my cool-headed administrative skills to provide language access to the courts. And now that I don’t have to travel all the time and all over the place, I can devote more of my energy and passion to the profession at large. Have you heard that I am running for the ATA Board of Directors?
CM: Is there an issue you find particularly detrimental to the profession?
MGH: The general public knows little about professional interpretation, and the vast majority of Limited English Proficient (LEP) people we serve are so grateful to have any language bridge provided at all that they rarely complain. I think this is the issue that is most detrimental to our profession. We need to raise the standards required of interpreters, so the expectations of end users match what is possible when you always have a professional, well trained, and highly skilled interpreter. Diplomats expect good, knowledgeable interpretation. And diplomats typically get good, knowledgeable interpretation. Lawyers, doctors, their clients and patients should likewise expect professional, well-trained and highly skilled interpreters; and know how to recognize them. Currently, this is not the case, and our pay scales are evidence of the general lack of awareness of what it takes to become a good interpreter.
CM: I can relate to that pretty well. So what can we do to be better recognized?
MGH: Mandatory certification would improve our lot. And interpreters working together for the profession as a whole would improve our situation too. Can you mentor new interpreters? Do you educate end-users? Do you promote professional standards with your clients? Do you support your colleagues? What are you doing to help?
We need to be visible in professional organizations like ATA. And I don’t just mean in the Interpreters Division. I mean on the Board of Directors. We need to participate in the setting of interpreting standards at ASTM and ISO. We need to get interpreter positions reclassified on the GSA schedule from clerical to professional. There is so much we can do!
CM: You are a passionate interpreter. What is it about this profession that you find so amazing?
MGH: Interpreting requires you to be fully present – you cannot do it on automatic pilot and do it well. It is intellectually demanding. And you never stop learning. The fact that I facilitate communication and understanding and can make people feel heard or fully present is icing on the cake.
CM: One can translate “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and if it is a good translation it becomes known in other cultures and even popular, but the spoken word evaporates. How do you feel about this?
MGH: Like everything has its place and everyone has their own role to play. I’m very happy to be an interpreter, and for my art to be fleeting. It’s art nonetheless, and intensely rewarding.
CM: What else can we do for this profession?
MGH: We can support research, so that there is empirical data to support our need for good working conditions and training. We provide a much-needed service to society, but somehow we are supposed to acquire the tremendous skills necessary to be a competent interpreter mostly on our own, and to provide accurate and intelligent interpretation in every situation, without regard to mental fatigue, working conditions or background information. We need data to support our arguments for higher pay and professional recognition. We need to make credentials mandatory in every field. And we need to support one another. We are going to float or sink together. We are all in the same boat, whether we like it or not.
CM: Final act. What does a young interpreter need to know from Melinda?
MGH: Work hard. Be a good colleague. Put your best foot forward. You can do it!
CM: Thank you Melinda. I wish you all the best on your future endeavors.
Image: Photo courtesy of Christine Friedlander. Photo word cloud created with Phoetic with Melinda’s picture in the background.