Remembering Nancy Festinger / Esther Allen

Esther Allen writes:

Last December, Nancy Festinger, the Court’s chief interpreter, led me, David Bellos and a group of students on a tour of the United States District Court in Manhattan. Nancy had worked at the courthouse for 28 years and was known and cherished by most of those we crossed paths with: the guards at the front entrance who screened us, the interpreters who shared the enclave of tiny offices where we left our coats (a poster with a passage from Kafka’s The Trial took up most of one wall in Nancy’s office), the law clerks and judges, whose courtrooms she led us into and out of as if showing us around her own home, finally locating a vacant spot where she could perform an example of the chuchotage interpreting technique used by Federal court interpreters. Everyone was happy to see her, bantered with her, and obviously respected her a great deal; as long as we were with Nancy, we could have the run of the place.
She was working hard that week on the next edition of the Courthouse Follies, the annual “Comedy for Legal Eagles” staged every year at holiday time, which starred the judges, clerks, and interpreters who were eagerly querying her about it as she shepherded us around. For 18 years, Nancy wrote, produced, and saw to just about every aspect of the musical comedy revue; as we were retrieving our coats from the interpreters’ office cubby, some gaudily colored jackets, feather boas, and headgear fell out — part of the costume shop. The show sounded like great fun and she invited me to come, but I had plans I couldn’t change and promised I’d be there next year instead.
Nancy’s passion for everything she did — languages, literature, music, theatre, travel —  made her a perennial delight to work with and I tried to do that every chance I got. She was an invaluable asset to the PEN World Voices Festival. Part of her job at the courthouse involved coordinating interpreters for every imaginable language, and she always knew who to call when a Festival author did not speak English. I once sought her out for an interpreter from the Korean, and she gave me a list of names, with a detailed assessment of the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, of each individual. In the end she recommended one woman, in particular, for her skill, flair and literary acumen. For years, we would remind each other of the fabulous denouement of that recommendation, for to our great delight the interpreter in question ended up marrying a writer she met during a panel discussion with the writer she was interpreting for.
Nancy recognized and understood the structural and professional barriers that separate interpreting from translating and saw beyond them. She not only envisaged interpreting and translation as related, but made that a reality in the shape of her career, which began when, after spending a year in Spain, she translated an oral history of the Franco years, The Forgotten Men, by Jesús Torbado and Manuel Leguineche. She was a very active member of professional organizations for both interpreters and literary translators, working close with the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators, and the American Literary Translators Association. She was, for example, ALTA’s representative on the Advisory Board of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, during its formation. She describes how her work as a translator led her into interpreting in a marvelous interview with blogger María Cristina de la Gave done in September of last year. 
When she spoke to my translation workshop at Baruch College this March (it was the first time I’d conversed with her in her perfect, fluent Spanish), Nancy established the instantaneous rapport with my students that must have been a standard feature of her daily working life. After she’d described her career and the nature of her work, one student wanted to know what the hardest part of her job was. She explained that a court interpreter, unlike a literary translator, must remain entirely impartial and emotionally aloof, protecting the integrity of the court’s procedures by refraining from evincing sympathy for any party.
Nancy spoke to me several times about the strain of a recent trial she’d worked on. She described how the defendants, abducted as children by the FARC (the Colombian guerrilla narco-terrorist organization), were forced into its service and ordered, at peril of their lives, to stand guard in the Colombian jungle over an American businessman whom the FARC had kidnapped and held for ransom. Years later, after benefitting from a general amnesty the Colombian government extended to former FARC members, the recovering child soldiers, just beginning the process of a return to normalcy as young adults, were extradited to the United States, a country in which they had never before set foot, to stand trial in lower Manhattan on charges of conspiring with terrorists. In the end, they were sentenced to many years in jail.
 When Nancy announced, over lunch after her stirring presentation to my class, that she was retiring from her work at the court, I thought perhaps her retirement had more to do with that case and others like it than with the fact that the breast cancer that had been in remission for many years had shown signs of recurring. The new bout of cancer was something she mentioned only briefly, with a sigh over the tedium of chemotherapy. She showed no fear of anything worse than that, and was full of plans for the future, now that she would have time to return to literary translation. She had lots of  questions about the best strategy for moving forward with a project she had in mind. Literary translation gave her the opportunity to express her sympathies and allegiances openly; after so many years at the courthouse, she was eager to do that. She also shared her plans for spending another year or so in Spain, doing more theatre and music, singing flamenco.
The last time I heard from her was in May when she wrote me about a scholarship she could make available to any particularly qualified student I might have, for a preparatory course for the federal interpreting exam. She had only met my students once, but kept them in mind and months later was still thinking of what she might do for them. She said nothing about her own health, and I imagined (e-mail is so tragically deceptive) the vibrant Nancy I had always known, perhaps slightly slowed down by treatment, but well on the road to bouncing back. Word of her death on October 31, as her city was reeling from the after-affects of Hurricane Sandy, came as a complete shock.
“Thousands of interpreters work daily in our state and federal courts, and while there may be a few ‘muddles’ along the way, most vital interactions are minor miracles of communication across languages and cultures. And no machine can do what we do,” Nancy had written in a letter to the editor of the New York Times in 2010.  An embodiment of the not-so-minor miracle of communication, Nancy touched innumerable lives and bridged many worlds with rare compassion, commitment, skill and grace.  “The big C teaches one to live in the moment and enjoy to the max — am so happy to be alive, I can hardly stand it!” she wrote me in March.  While the big C may have reinforced the lesson, it was one she already lived by. For as long as I knew her, Nancy was fully in the moment, doing her utmost, caring, communicating, connecting.

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  1. Thanks for posting this, Susan and Esther. It’s great to hear more stories about Nancy. I never knew her personally but I am very familiar with her work as interpreter and translator. Thanks again.

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