For Gabriela Muñoz MACI ’23, language has always been part of her story; it is now her profession, too.
Muñoz grew up speaking Spanish. When she was young, she frequently traveled from her home in Birmingham, Alabama, to Lima, Peru, to visit family there and keep up her language skills by speaking with relatives. Once she began high school, she enrolled in more formal language classes: first she studied French, and then she tested into Advanced Spanish. Muñoz majored in Spanish and French at the University of Alabama, studied abroad in both Spain and France, consistently read and listened to podcasts in the two languages, and chatted regularly with Spanish-speaking relatives. She explains, “I just really enjoyed languages.”
Muñoz went on to receive her law degree from George Washington University, with a specific focus on humanitarian and immigration matters. Upon entering the workforce, she quickly realized that being a lawyer was not the path for her. Although she loved her clients, she found the work to be very repetitive, stressful, and highly bureaucratic. She was not passionate about what she was doing, and when she pictured her life 10 years down the line, she was unhappy with the direction this career was taking her. Although it was not an easy decision, she knew she had to make a change. However, her exposure to court interpretation during this time was deeply formative; it was interesting to experience court interpretation as a bilingual attorney. She had her favorite interpreters, but she would also see interpreters who did a poor job rendering information and ideas between one language and another. There was a noticeable disparity of quality at the community interpreting level, and Muñoz thought, “If I got the right training, I could do this. And it seems like really cool work.” Muñoz suspected there had to be a need for quality interpreters. Upon further research, she found there was.
So, when she was thinking about transitioning to interpretation, Muñoz reached out to her cousin, who is a conference interpreter, to discuss the profession. And that’s when things clicked. Muñoz explains, “This was the first time I think anyone has ever presented languages as an actual career and not a complement to other careers, which was the only way that people ever saw it. There is actual work here.”
Muñoz decided she would dip her toe in the water first to see if she had an aptitude for this type of work before fully committing to graduate school. By this point, Muñoz was convinced of her decision to leave the law profession, so court interpretation seemed like a natural place to start. It was smooth for Muñoz to make the switch. It turned out she indeed had a knack for interpreting and she enjoyed this work. She became a certified court interpreter in Alabama, where she was living, pursued further credentials, and started gaining more experience with interpretation. “I had to learn this whole other legal language in Spanish. I had the English from law school but now I had to learn all of it in Spanish; and also learn random things like how to say car parts in Spanish, how to say these everyday things that you don’t get in college. If somebody gets up on the stand and describes the mechanics of a car, I have to know how to say all that stuff in Spanish or understand the terms if somebody who is speaking Spanish gives them to me. I have to know what they mean so I can give them back in English.”
Flexibility is one of the qualities that makes a good interpreter, according to Muñoz. No matter how much interpreters prepare in advance, they will always encounter the unexpected and have to adjust accordingly. That is why training and practice are so important to the profession. Muñoz’s flexibility was further on display when she received the opportunity to take her experiences out of the courtroom, which Muñoz acknowledges is prone to being repetitive, and into the field.
In 2017, This American Life found Muñoz’s name on the list of certified court interpreters in Alabama, and the radio program reached out to her because they needed an interpreter for one of their episodes. After auditioning and being chosen for the position, Muñoz interpreted producers’ Spanish interviews over the course of eight months for a story. Since then, Muñoz has interpreted for a number of episodes of This American Life.
One of the most striking elements for Muñoz in interpreting for the radio program was the different role she played in a journalistic setting when compared to court environments. In court, it was not her purpose to make someone comfortable and to form a connection with them. But when she was interpreting for This American Life, it was part of her work to put the interviewees at ease and ensure their story was told correctly. Oftentimes, Muñoz was the only interpreter for a small team who was relying on her language expertise. She was responsible for making sure the interviewee’s voices were heard and preserved, and she served as a bridge between the languages and cultures. In other words, connection was essential.
For Muñoz, interpretation is about more than just language: it is also about empathy. She has to embody the person for whom she is interpreting and become their voice. However, this is a fine line to walk. She has to find a way to compartmentalize and process, avoiding the temptation to get too emotionally involved. This balance was particularly hard to find with what she saw and experienced at the U.S.-Mexico border. One of the most notable episodes she worked on was about the Trump Administration’s MPP or “Remain in Mexico” policy. Muñoz traveled to the border and interpreted for producers, ensuring the personal stories of the migrants impacted by this policy were faithfully rendered for an English-speaking audience. This episode won the very first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a radio show, and Muñoz can be heard interpreting in the opening sequence.
Balance can also be found in the subtleties of translation and transcription work. When COVID-19 hit, This American Life producers began conducting interviews for episodes over Zoom, and because travel and on-site interpretation was no longer taking place, Spanish speakers on staff were used for these interviews. Muñoz was asked to provide translation and transcription services of these interviews to make them accessible to editors. Muñoz was particularly proud of how she was told that she preserves the voice of interviewees.
An example of this voice is seen in Muñoz’s translation and transcription work for a Washington Post article, for which This American Life produced a companion piece. She was working with interviews of teenage boys who smuggle migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border. Because the United States Justice Department does not prosecute Mexican minors for doing so, these teenagers often do not face any repercussions and can continue smuggling until they turn 18. Muñoz personally found these teenage boys hilarious; their speech was peppered with catch phrases and idiomatic expressions in the lively and rambunctious way teenagers express themselves. They had Muñoz laughing at parts, and she was tasked with the fun challenge of deciding how to capture their voices from an audio recording and put it in print. However, she also had to contend with both this levity and the serious reality of the situation. “A lot of these boys are brilliant, they are very bright kids; it’s just they don’t have any opportunities. It is balancing that somber aspect and the humorous aspect that is going to go into the piece because I think both pieces were very important in this story.” She asks herself, “What can I do to really capture what this person is saying?”
Throughout these experiences, Muñoz had the goal of attending graduate school to pursue conference interpretation, and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) was on her radar. She heard about MIIS a handful of years prior to applying, and she decided to work on her language skills and gain practical experience in the field and make sure she had the competencies that would allow her to excel in interpretation before attending the school. She explains, “It seemed like it would be a really good environment that was going to challenge me to grow professionally, to train me in the field.” Her hope is that MIIS will open new doors for her, and she will be able to continue to have diverse and meaningful experiences. “I want to get more into the conference interpreting world. What This American Life and my experience with journalists really taught me was I love work that touches on different subjects, that is different every day.” Indeed, for someone who really loves languages, a career in interpretation and translation/transcription means that, as Muñoz puts it, “you are always learning.”
At the Human Rights Forum held at the Institute in October, language studies students, speaking in their nonnative languages, presented their research on current human rights issues, while teams of student interpreters relayed the presentations into multiple languages.
The American Translators Association has awarded its highest honor to Middlebury Institute alumni Barry Olsen and Katharine Allen “in recognition of outstanding service to the translation and interpreting professions.”