| by Jason Warburg

News Stories

Barry Olsen and Katherine Allen standing side by side on a stage in front of a digital screen
Barry Slaughter Olsen MACI ’99 and Katharine Allen MATI ’08 cofounded and led InterpretAmerica for over a decade. They are shown here onstage in the Institute’s Irvine Auditorium for the organization’s 2015 summit.

Celebrating a decade of accomplishments, Middlebury Institute alumni Barry Slaughter Olsen MACI ’99 and Katharine Allen MATI ’08 were recently awarded the American Translators Association’s (ATA) highest honor for service to the translation and interpretation profession, the Alexander Gode Medal.

“This kind of recognition is really humbling,” says Allen. “It’s heartening to know that our peers believe our work was beneficial,” adds Olsen. The Alexander Gode Medal, the ATA’s most prestigious award, is given to an individual or institution “in recognition of outstanding service to the translation and interpreting professions.”

Olsen and Allen were recognized for their roles as cofounders and copresidents of InterpretAmerica, the education and advocacy organization they led through a transformational decade for the profession. InterpretAmerica was established in 2009 “to raise the profile of the interpreting profession,” says Olsen, “and start a conversation that hadn’t been happening before between different sectors within the profession,” which includes community, conference, legal, medical, military, civilian conflict zone, and sign language interpreters.

The organization’s tools included conferences, webinars, virtual events, blogs, public speaking, and publications, and they were inclusive from the start, encouraging dialogue among all types of interpreters as well as interaction with educators, end users, vendors, technology designers, and innovators in the interpreting field. InterpretAmerica wound up operations early this year after Olsen accepted a position as a senior executive with KUDO, a technology vendor offering a cloud-based platform that augments web-based meetings and conferences with live interpretation. Allen continues to both provide and advocate for language services through her new venture Words Across Borders.

InterpretAmerica was born when Olsen, at the time a professor in the MA in Translation and Interpretation degree program at the Institute, asked second-year student Allen—the former president of the California Healthcare Interpreting Association—if she would be interested in collaborating, combining her expertise as a community and medical interpreter with his as a conference interpreter to form a team spanning a substantial portion of the range of subdisciplines within their diverse profession.

I view InterpretAmerica as the original advocacy entity for interpreters. You gave us a forum. And you accomplished your goal of elevating the profile of interpreting.
— Lorena Ortiz Schneider MATI ’92

According to Olsen, “The hope was to create a forum where the many different specializations of interpreting could come together and see that they were part of a much bigger picture. We wanted to create a conference that we wanted to go to, and that would answer the questions that we had and focus on the things that we felt were important.”

“It was a moment when everyone was fighting hard to professionalize and to have professional standing,” says Allen, “but nobody was talking to each other. The heads of the different professional organizations didn’t even know each other.” This changed after InterpretAmerica brought the heads of the various professional organizations—which include the American Translators Association, the Association of Language Companies, the International Association of Conference Interpreters, the National Association for Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, the California Healthcare Interpreting Association, and the International Medical Interpreters Association—together. “After meeting each other at our summits, they created a monthly conference call check-in to coordinate their activities and advocacy,” says Olsen.

The importance of coordination became clear when the livelihood of interpreters—75 percent of whom are freelancers—was threatened in 2018 by California Assembly Bill 5, which aimed to reclassify large swaths of independent contractors in the state as employees. In 2010, InterpretAmerica had commissioned the first, and to date only, comprehensive study of the North American interpreting market. (“And then we gave it away,” notes Allen with pride. “We gave it to everyone and posted it on our website.”) The market study became a key tool in the ensuing fight, explains Olsen. “We were able to go back to that research and show specific tables, graphs, and research saying this (independent contractor status) is what a majority of interpreters want. That was really gratifying.” Allen notes that other organizations replicated and confirmed that research. A bill carving out an exemption for most translators and interpreters was approved by the California Legislature in 2020.

Barry Olsen and Katharine Allen
Katharine Allen and Barry Olsen.

At an online “finale” event celebrating InterpretAmerica earlier this year, several peers in the profession lauded Allen and Olsen’s achievements:

  • “I view InterpretAmerica as the original advocacy entity for interpreters. You gave us a forum. And you accomplished your goal of elevating the profile of interpreting. —Independent interpreter and translator Lorena Ortiz Schneider MATI ’92
  • “You guys brought us out of our silos to talk to each other. … I really believe the profession is a different place now and you guys helped make that happen.” —Marjory Bancroft, founder of Cross-Cultural Communications
  • “Like you I have always believed we are stronger together. … The change over a decade is really stunning. Interpreters know each other, organizations work together.” —Caitlin Walsh, former president, American Translators Association

Timing and Technology Were Among Keys to InterpretAmerica’s Success

Allen and Olsen agree that timing played a significant role in the success of InterpretAmerica. “We timed things extraordinarily well,” says Olsen. “We launched this initiative when social media was still in its infancy, and when other professional associations started to take an interest in social media, we already had an established presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.” It was also an era when technology was beginning to transform the profession, generating considerable angst. At InterpretAmerica’s Third North American Summit on Interpreting in 2011, interpreting technology pioneer Bill Wood made an observation that is quoted widely within the profession to this day: “Interpreters will not be replaced by technology. They will be replaced by interpreters who use technology.”

InterpretAmerica led the way on the technology front as well: “We were probably the first conference in the U.S. to stream our proceedings live to people who could not travel to be there,” says Olsen. “We did that at the third summit in Reston, Virginia, in 2012. What we can now do with three laptops and a few cords cost us $15,000 back then. But what we saw was that suddenly people from other countries were engaging and watching and applying to speak at our conferences.” And their focus on technology was prescient, as Allen notes: “The pandemic validated our focus on technology as an unavoidable, disruptive, yet also transformative force.”

The Middlebury Institute played a small but crucial role in InterpretAmerica’s early successes. “I will be deeply grateful forever to the Institute for the support they put into this,” says Olsen of assistance that included both cosponsorship of the organization’s inaugural summit and in-kind donations of facilities to host subsequent summits. “We started InterpretAmerica when Barry was in his second year teaching at MIIS and I was just graduating,” remembers Allen, “and the Institute supported us from the beginning. For me those 10 years were completely transformational.”

“I hope our legacy will be that we were able to see what was coming and help rally people together to create connection, envisage the future, and then mobilize people and inspire them to move,” concludes Olsen. “We didn’t change the world, but I think we were able to empower people and inspire them to go out and make a difference in the profession.”

The Alexander Gode Medal was previously awarded to Professor Holly Mikkelson MAIC ’76 in 2011.