Our Featured Interpreter this week is Robin Ragan, a distinguished CMI (Certified Medical Interpreter) and State Court Certified Interpreter. As a professor of Spanish at Knox College in Illinois, Robin’s passion for languages and her expertise in translation and interpreter training have paved the way for a transformative educational program.
With her extensive experience and dedication, Robin has designed a translation and interpreter training program at Knox College, shaping the minds of future language professionals. Her remarkable achievements have not gone unnoticed, as she was awarded the prestigious Global Engagement Initiative Award by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in 2020. Additionally, Robin’s commitment to innovation in the field of humanities earned her a Humanities Innovation Grant from the Modern Languages Association.
As a fervent advocate for language access, Robin actively collaborates with Americans Against Language Barriers. Her work extends beyond the classroom, as she engages in weekly psychosocial evaluations for immigrant populations and asylum seekers, making a significant impact on their lives.
In our Q&A Robin shares her remarkable journey, expertise, and invaluable insights gained through her multifaceted career.
Q: You have a diverse background in both academia and interpreting, can you tell us about how these two areas have influenced each other and how they have contributed to your success?
A: I believe that my teaching career over the last twenty years has given me a huge advantage when it comes to interpreter training. I am comfortable presenting material and have developed a variety of tools for engaging students in person and on screen. Being in academia has also allowed me to maintain and grow my vocabulary since I am lucky enough to get to travel abroad often, getting first-hand exposure to a wide variety of accents, and the chance to spend long periods of time reimmersed in Spanish.
On the other hand, interpreting has really expanded and invigorated my academic life. Not only because I teach several classes on translation and interpreting at Knox, but because interpreting has given me first-hand experience and knowledge of so many worlds! In any one week I’m going from working on a labor trafficking case to a psychological evaluation for asylum to a patient with surfer’s eye. Bringing authentic examples to class has really allowed me to up my game in the classroom.
Q: You’ve been recognized for your work in translation and interpreting by the American Council on Teachers of Foreign Languages Global and the Modern Languages Association. Can you tell us about a particularly meaningful experience or project that led to this recognition?
A: On several occasions I have taken my students to the U.S. border. My first time was at the Dilley Pro Bono Project. We interpreted between women in detention and the legal aid volunteers. The days were long and grueling, full of trauma, tears, and mental exhaustion. That experience changed me and got me going on this path. Now I talk about the border every chance I get. One of my students from that trip went on to become a paralegal at the National Immigrant Justice Center and focused on LGBT cases. A truly full circle moment for me to watch her career take off.
Another project we did was transcribing and translating testimonials from the hunger strike held at Otay Mesa Detention Center during the early days of COVID. The audios were recorded by the group Detention Resistance. My students were very impacted by taking part in that history and knowing that their translations would lead to raising awareness and policy change.
Q: In your work with Americans Against Language Barriers, you teach on the topics of Vicarious Trauma. Can you tell us about a specific example where you had to navigate an emotionally difficult situation as an interpreter?
A: I continue to interpret for asylum seekers on a weekly basis, so I am always needing to control my emotions while I interpret. These testimonials often contain sexual assault, torture, or physical abuse. And in medical settings, it can be so hard on you to deliver bad news.
During COVID I was really impacted by working as a phone interpreter, in the days when folks had to come to terms with dying alone. I remember having to talk to a patient about thinking about how she wanted her potential death to go, and she desperately wanted to consult with her family. The doctor needed her decision urgently and she had to do it alone. It was just awful. That’s why I wish vicarious trauma was taught in every interpreter training course. We need the tools to deal with these emotions.
Q: As an interpreter for psychosocial evaluations for immigrant populations and asylum seekers, what coping mechanisms have you found useful?
A: Creative writing has been helping me process the hundreds of stories I’ve had the privilege to hear. Focusing on vicarious resilience has also meant that I can reflect and grow due to witnessing the strength of survivors.
A: I’ll be sharing my top tips for what to do when you get choked up and the tears start coming while you’re interpreting. Very practical information. I’ll also be encouraging those who want to get involved to sign up with various organizations working with asylum seekers.
You can find Robin on LinkedIn.