In the 1970s, Roseann Dueñas González began investigating language in the courtroom as part of her dissertation work, finding that interpreters needed at least a college-level understanding of legal and court terminology to adequately serve.
Eventually, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts consulted González based on her groundbreaking research during implementation of the Court Interpreters Act of 1978.
Also, González became the primary consultant regarding court interpretation to the federal court systesm, then went on to serve as principal investigator for the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Project at the University of Arizona for 15 years.
As she led the development and administration of the federal certification exam, González realized the critical need for improving higher order language skills required for court interpretiation and would devote the rest of her career working toward that end.
"You're not talking about an ordinary individual who has learned the language at home and can talk to people in everyday interactions. That is the equivalent of a college degree. You're talking about a language specialist who has the equivalent of a postgraduate degree," said González, director of the UA's National Center for Interpretation Testing, Research & Policy, or NCI.
"You have to have this huge repertoire of language, from the most formal kind of language that a judge would use to the most idiomatic, colorful language to non-referential speech," she added.
After devoting her professional career to advancing language rights, helping to develop an undergraduate program in translation and interpretation and leading the Agnese Haury Institute, González is retiring.
"I have really loved my time here, and I believe so passionately in this work," González said. "I feel very confident that the University will be able to carry on the work."
In 1979, González also established the Writing Skills Improvement Program with assitance from the then-UA President John Schaefer to improve chances of graduation for students whose writing abilities did not meet their intellectual potential. Donna Rabuck is currently the program's director.
NCI also provides interpreter training and testing for those working in the legal and medical field. The center's staff provide customized language-access plans for hospitals and schools, valid and reliable interpreter and language specialist testing and study materials for interpreters.
With the support of Agnese Haury, González founded UA Agnese Haury Institute for Court Interpretation in 1983, and since then, more than 2,500 individuals have been trained toward becoming federally certified court interpreters.
González and her team have persistently advocated for improvements in language and interpreter training for people of a broad range of languages and also certification for translators and interpreters. Her goal, and that of the center, has been to eliminate barriers to justice, health care and education, opening up opportunities for people who have traditionally been excluded.
"González really has engaged the social justice piece of language and language understanding," said Mary Wildner-Bassett, dean of the UA's College of Humanities, which houses NCI.
"Moving our form of understanding of how people learn and understand languages to helping them with language rights is a key point in a university of our context and, especially, our time and place," Wildner-Bassett said, adding that González's contributions to the center and beyond campus have been hugely important to the field.
"In a lot of ways, she is the center," she added. "We thank Dr. González for her many years of wonderful service and leadership and pledge that we will maintain the quality she has brought to the center. That is the foundation for what the future will bring."
Suzanne Panferov, director of the UA's Center for English as a Second Language, known as CESL, has been named NCI's interim director until a successor can be appointed. Panferov's expertise is in literacy acquisition and teacher training, education and programming around languages, and she serves as president of the TESOL International Association Board of Directors for a term extending through 2014.
"Panferov has great experience in a similar kind of center and has high qualifications for this position," said Wildner-Bassett said. "The center will continue under excellent and highly skilled leadership, and Panferov has been and continues to be an excellent director for CESL."
González has invested her career helping to professionalizing the work of translators and interpreter, especially those who work in the medical field and in courts, while also helping to spearhead national initiatives to institute federal certification.
It was about 33 years ago that she earned the contract to develop and administer the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination – which is currently the standard model for all interpreter testing – from 1985 to 2000.
Also, González served as lead author on the seminal text in the field.
Titled "Fundamentals of Court Interpretation Theory, Policy and Practice," the text is considered the seminal text in the field and has shaped the standards of interpreter performance and practice. It also has guided the judiciary and the legal bar in incorporating the interpreter into the justice process.
The second edition was published this fall with co-authors Victoria F. Vasquez, who directs the Arizona Superior Court's Office of the Court Interpreter, and Holly Mikkelson, a faculty member at the Monterey Institute of International Studies at Middlebury College.
In the second edition, González and her collaborators provide guidance for how to appropriatly engage interpreters, offering advice specific to judges, lawyers and law enforcement agents in addition to the interpreters themselves.
The volume also provides enhanced explanation about Civil Rights Act and Title V regulations as well as language policies throughout the U.S. It also includes new chapters on topics such as the use of technology inside and outside of the courtroom, technical terminology, legally grounded responsibilities for law enforcement agencies.
And it includes recently published U.S. Department of Justice guidelines for all agencies that receive any form of federal funding to ensure meaningful access to benefits and services for its limited and non-English speaking clients.
"The court interpreting field is really new and has just reached its juvenile status," González said. "The interpreter is the newest courtroom actor, and they still have not been able to completely understand their roles or what norms and standards there should be."
González and her colleagues advance a number of recommendations, such as recording interpretations in both languages and improving training of law enforcement agents to ensure that non-English speakers and English learners accused of criminal offenses receive due process.
"One of the great advantages in the last 20 years is the growth of telephone interpreting, but it leaves out the visual expression, context, body language and para-language of people," González said. "Still, it solves access problems you wouldn't be able to otherwise address. But there is still a long way to go, and one of the things that has constantly been on the agenda at the center is creating a kind of universal certification."
Panferov noted that the center's efforts in testing and training interpreters and translators have helped to greatly expand the number of qualified specialists available, especially in the medical and legal fields.
"Certainly NCI is an extremely important center, and the work over the years has been really forward thinking with regard to language access for people who don't necessarily have access," Panferov said. "That is key because it's one thing to be an interpreter at a restaurant, but it is another thing all together for legal situations or in medical situations. The work is so priceless, and that NCI has been developing these areas is really very important."
Another dimension exists to the importance of training skilled professionals. The nationwide dearth of skilled translators and interpreters, along with the need to expand language instruction, came to the fore after Sept. 11, González said.
"We realized we do not have enough talented people to gain valuable information in the world interact with other countries and to also collect information that we may need for security purposes," González said.
While Spanish comprises the vast majority of language demand in the nation's courts and hospitals, other languages are increasingly in demand, González said, adding that they include Arabic, Chinese, Cantonese, Mandarian, Russian, Vietnamese and a number of other languages, all depending on the U.S. region and community.
Among other things, demands for improved language education and language services are largely due to refugee relocations, demographic shifts, globally focused business transactions as well as the need to cultivate skills in native speakers.
"These are gifts that people have; these cultural and linguistic assets people are born with must be developed," González said. "You have many of heritage speakers who cannot speak their home language beyond the level of an 8 or 9-year-old in terms of production ability. The language becomes fossilized, and without formal education in their heritage language, we are wasting those talents.
Because she remains invested in the UA center and the field, González said she intends to remain involved with her language rights research and the Agnese Haury Institute beyond her retirement.
"The work of the center has always been to advance the best language policies for the country, the region and the state, especially in interpretation," González said. "We also recognize that other languages are truly in demand, and by having a high standard for certification, we can ensure that individuals have true access."