In Memoriam: Nancy Festinger, 1955-2012

On Thursday, November 1, I received this email from a fellow interpreter:

Dear friends and colleagues,

I deeply regret to inform everyone that our dear, beloved friend, mentor, and colleague, Nancy Festinger has just passed away. There is no doubt that her loss will be felt by everyone in the interpreting community. Nancy was an extraordinary professional, colleague, friend and human being who added dimensions to our lives. I cannot find words to express my grief.

Because of the aftermath of the storm, I am not at home and cannot contact all of the interpreters. Please share this with other interpreters of your language and other friends of Nancy’s.

As we find out more information, we will communicate it to everyone.

Paula Gold

Nancy Festinger had been one of my professional heroes for as long as I can remember—although I am sure she would have laughed at that if I had told her. Her official biography reads simply: Chief Interpreter of U.S. District Court, SDNY, since 1993 [until her retirement earlier this year]. Former editor of Proteus. Federally certified Spanish interpreter since 1982. Also a literary translator from French and Spanish.

But she was so much more. As time went by and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with her myself, I found that in addition to her numerous professional accomplishments and her dedication to the interpreting field, she was also kind, funny (her bio omits the tradition she started of a court-wide holiday revue, the Courthouse Follies), down-to-earth, and as Paula said, an extraordinary human being. In short, besides being my professional hero, she became a personal hero to me as well, the type of person I hope I can be in my interactions with others.  There are no words to express the magnitude of loss to the interpreting community of the Southern District of New York and nationwide, nor to everyone whose life Nancy touched as a person. My heart goes out to her family and friends.

I first heard Nancy Festinger’s name when I was an interpreting student at  Rutgers University, circa 2000. My instructors spoke with glowing admiration of the professionalism of the Southern District of New York, of the respect that interpreters there received and the work Nancy did in recruiting and training interpreters of languages other than Spanish [LOTS], for one of the busiest and most diverse federal courts in the country.

I met Nancy for the first time a few years later at a NAJIT regional conference, soon after I had become a staff interpreter in New Jersey myself, and I learned that in person she was pragmatic and focused. She also supervised one of my interns when I was a lecturer in the Rutgers translation and interpreting program, and she was a joy to work with for me as an instructor—her expectations were reasonable, her guidance to the student useful, her evaluations on-point.

When I became a federal staff interpreter, I was at first the only Spanish staff interpreter in my division, and we were woefully short of federally certified interpreters to meet demand. Nancy graciously shared the orientation materials she had developed for use with LOTS interpreters, and I was able to adapt them for use in my district, providing orientation materials to new contract interpreters.

In recent years, I have been blessed to work with Nancy on Proteus and other projects (including, of course, the NAJIT blog), and more, to ask her for advice and to share ideas with her on the challenges we face in this field. I last saw her just over a year ago, when I was visiting family in the New York metro area. Over Thai food, we talked about changes in the field and the perpetual challenges that staff interpreter offices face. Later, she demonstrated for me the “Pecha Kucha” she had been asked to develop to introduce new judges and court administrators to the interpreters office (she later wrote about it for Proteus).

I encourage you to read María Cristina de la Vega’s interview with Nancy last year in her blog, for fascinating insight into Nancy’s professional history and biography; but for myself, my memories of Nancy can be summed up in the title of her last blog post here: The Impossible Will Take a Little While. It epitomizes not only her sense of humor, but also the professionalism, creativity, and sheer determination that made Nancy’s name a synonym for excellence in court interpreting, training, and administration.

When I wished Nancy the best in her retirement this past June 30, she replied, “You young people have to carry the torch now.” Consider it passed, Nancy—I hope I can serve the interpreting community half as well and with half as much grace and style as you did.

Good-bye, Nancy. The more I knew you, the more I liked you; the more I worked with you, the more I admired you. I wish I had known you better and worked with you more.


Edited 11/2/12, 10:00 am. The New York Times has a beautiful obituary for Nancy this morning. I am copying the text below.

FESTINGER–Nancy, aged 57, beloved daughter of Laura and Martin, loving sister of Neal, devoted aunt to Rebecca. Loyal and endearing friend to many who loved her and a dedicated and admired colleague, died on October 31st at home after an illness. There are few who could match Nancy for her energy, zeal, and love of languages, music, poetry, books, self-study, true friendship and family. Recently retired as the Chief Interpreter of the US District Court Southern District of New York, she was also a translator of books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. She loved the outdoors and the wonders she would find all around her, whether in Prospect Park, the Berkshires, or Upstate New York. She loved the inner magic of music, spending hours at the piano singing and improvising. Nancy was a zestful traveler, a Parisian at heart, a troubadour in her soul, a tireless walker, talker, observer and sketcher of everything around her. She knew the importance of great humor, she laughed easily, and she made others laugh often. Her life was a beautiful watercolor, and those lucky enough to know her will miss her dearly.

Published in The New York Times on November 2, 2012

0 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Nancy Festinger, 1955-2012”

  1. Whenever someone like Nancy Festinger crosses over the bar to the other distant shore, a silence that’s almost tactile manifests itself. A keen mind and fine talent had been stilled. The curtain hasdropped, the musical instruments silenced, the auditorium is empty, only the last echoing sound of a door being closed in a distant hallway…the performance is over.

  2. David Mintz says:


    Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful piece.

    Even though we saw it coming, the local interpreting community is reeling. As you point out, it’s not just that she was the very embodiment of professionalism. She was a great person and we loved her dearly.

    One of the many things I admired about her was that she knew how to live, although she herself was no stranger to suffering and loss. Her appreciation of life’s offerings was exemplary. She knew how to enjoy the moment: a good joke, a good book, a well-executed translation, a well-made film or glass of wine, a piece of music, a conversation, a trip to some interesting place whether familiar or new. Of course that attribute was not exclusively her own — most of us human beings know how to have fun — but she had a singular style that I will always remember with love and great admiration.

    I had the pleasure of working with her from 1992 until her retirement. Perhaps the most vivid type of memory is the countless, countless times over the years when I would go into her office to discuss some work-related business or other for a few minutes. Whatever the matter at hand, she could find humor in it. Nearly every one of those conversations ended the same way: with both of us laughing.

    That’s the kind of person you want to have in your life. I am boundlessly grateful to have known her.

    1. Bethany Korp-Edwards says:

      David, I couldn’t agree more. I admire her for what she did; but she is my hero for how she did it. I didn’t know her well on a personal level, which is my loss; but even on a purely professional level, her forthrightness, style, humor, passion, determination, and practicality showed me the sort of person I want to be–in our field and in the rest of my life.

  3. Marylou Selo says:

    What a shock if a younger colleague and friend dies….
    I remember the first weeks of Nancy at the Federal Courthouse, where her father served and how happy and proud she was of being in that Court House!
    I miss you, Nancy.

  4. Loie Feuerle says:

    I first met Nancy when she was a presenter at the conference for legal interpreting and translation held at Montclair State University in 1992. She was the consumate professional and presenter. I, too, was in absolute awe of her. I really got to know her when I was working as the Coordinator of Court Interpreter Services for the NY State Unified Court System. In those days the line of demarcation between federal and state court interpreters was more strictly drawn and working on the state court side was not highly respected by some. Nancy was welcoming, supportive, and generous in sharing her vast expertise. We plotted any number of federal-state court initiatives, t.he highlightof which was the two-week, 70-hour training for Fuzhou interpreters with trainers from the UN. Nancy was a rater for NY’s 1998 new Spanish civil service exam for court interpreters. Nothing has meant more to me than her post-grading statement that the new NY exam compared very favorably with the federal exam. Her last email was so brave and determined, I cannot really believe that the end came so hard on its heels. I grieve for her as a colleague, but especially as a friend.

    1. Ron Earnest says:

      I was much saddened by Nancy’s passing. I saw her a few months ago and regret that I did not see more of her over the years. She was a pleasure to work for when I was a staff interpreter until 1993.

      As others have said, she had a great, contagious laugh and will be sorely missed.

      Best, Ron

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