While most scholars focus on their singular specialty, Sonia Colina has long found herself drawn to both the formal aspects of language structure and the practical work of translating between languages.
The expertise in both fields has earned Colina a reputation as an intellectually ambidextrous scholar, capable of working equally well on the theoretical as well as the applied sides of linguistics. In recognition of the wide-ranging impact of her career, the Arizona Board of Regents in April designated her a Regents Professor, the first ever in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
“She’s managed to establish an extraordinary footprint in two completely separate fields and has done brilliant work in theoretical phonology and also translation studies,” said Provost Liesl Folks, introducing Colina’s nomination to the board. “Her work in translation studies has had the most direct impact on our communities. She’s been recognized widely for this work, which has been very high impact and is particularly relevant to us as an Hispanic Serving Institution and serving people in Southern Arizona.”
Colina’s research in theoretical phonology has scholarly implications, while her research in translation studies extends outward, with significant and immediate medical, social service and justice implications.
“I’ve pretty much spent my entire career thinking I should focus on one thing, because that’s what people do,” she says. “But phonology is something very specialized, that the average person out there doesn’t directly benefit from. Translation has the possibility of more impact.”
Colina said that as a child growing up in Spain, she was drawn to language and languages. Nobody in her family spoke English at that time, though her grandfather had taught himself to read in English, fascinated by Western novels.
“I’ve had a love of language forever,” she said. “For me, it was easy and it was fun. I remember going back to elementary school and having a fascination with languages. Hearing people speak other languages that I didn’t understand was fun and exciting.”
Colina sought out English as her field of study, earning her bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature from the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela.
“In the 1980s in Spain, it was very hard to have anyone to practice English with. I went to England a few times, but there were no videos in English or TV stations to watch, so it was very difficult to be exposed to English,” she said.
For graduate school, she moved to the United States and continued to explore various aspects of language, earning master’s degrees in Applied Linguistics and Translation Studies and Comparative Literature. She completed her Ph.D. in Spanish Linguistics in 1995 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Linguistics really appealed to me because it looked at those formal aspects of language,” Colina said. “It’s not been a straight trajectory, but that interest in language and structure has always been there, in different shapes and forms.”
Colina has published books on both Spanish phonology and translation and before she joined the University of Arizona in 2006, was a faculty member at Arizona State University and Indiana University.
“As one of the world’s leading scholars in the field of Spanish phonology, Dr. Colina was an outstanding nominee for Regents Professor from our college. I was honored to be part of the nomination process that led to the recognition by the Arizona Board of Regents of her many stellar accomplishments,” said College of Humanities Dean Alain-Philippe Durand.
In 2017, Colina was named director of the National Center for Interpretation, which was founded more than 40 years ago at the university to support the growing need for properly trained and certified interpreters and translators, especially in the legal and healthcare fields.
“Language access and justice is of vital importance to our community. As director of the National Center for Interpretation, Dr. Colina has a strong commitment to ensuring and improving language access and is dedicated to making sure service remains core to the University’s mission as a Hispanic Serving Institution,” said College of Humanities Vice Dean Kimberly Jones.
Under Colina’s leadership, NCI has become more active on campus, offering a wide array translation and interpretation services.
“My vision has been to try to get the University to know NCI and know what NCI can do for its faculty, staff, and students. NCI is well positioned to be a local and national leader in the area of university translation services. We’re a Research I institution with a global, multilingual reach,” she said. “The University has a great opportunity to be able to connect with the area’s Hispanic population, especially its students and their parents, through language. And while NCI offers exceptional translation services, we also advance a mission that values the cultures that languages support. Connecting with people through their heritage language isn’t just a matter of communicating. It’s a matter of saying ‘We value you as you are, and welcome the languages and traditions you bring to the campus. This is exactly the kind of wonderful diversity the University wants to embrace.’”
With her multiple skills—and the corresponding demands they place on her time—Colina finds balance in her work. Whether she’s researching, teaching, translating, or overseeing the day-to-day operations of the National Center for Interpretation, there are always new and interesting opportunities to pursue.
“When I get a little stuck on a theoretical problem, I turn to something more practical, something I can see the results of right away and see an impact that helps more people,” she said. “It grounds me in something more concrete, more practical, like working with clients. That’s what’s allowed me to do the things that are more unusual, to bridge the humanities and sciences, or health care, through translation.”
Colina’s work has also found connections in audiology and in an array of research areas across campus, and she uses translation to enable more people with limited English proficiency to become involved in research studies.
“Language is much more complex than people who are not linguists think. A scientific way of thinking about language that doesn’t reflect reality can have important negative consequences,” she said. “When I started, I didn’t think it would be so difficult. I find myself sometimes commenting on certain translations. They might seem mundane, but I find myself amazed at how difficult it is to capture some things in a different language.”
Santa Arias, who started this year as Head of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, said she’s “proud to join the University of Arizona because I get to work with colleagues of national and international reputation such as Regents Professor Sonia Colina.”
“Sonia is truly exceptional for her long-standing dedication and outstanding work in the areas of scholarship, teaching, and service to the University and the academic profession at large. Professor Colina inspires her students and colleagues locally and those who have the opportunity of learning and collaborating with her. At Arizona, she makes a difference as a model of innovation and research excellence,” Arias said.
Melissa Fitch, University Distinguished Professor of Latin American Cultural Studies, was among the faculty who nominated Colina, and said the Regents Professor appointment is a major achievement for a department that was founded in 1895, 17 years before Arizona became a state.
“To have among our faculty one of the most esteemed scholars in the world in our field is truly a high point in that 126-year history,” Fitch said. “Up until now there has been only one Regents Professor in Spanish and Portuguese in Arizona, ASU’s David William Foster, who had held that rank since 1988. Foster, who died just last year, knew about Sonia’s nomination for a Regents Professorship and was exceptionally supportive, offering to support the nomination in any way that he could. I am certain wherever Foster may be, he is taking delight that his baton, in essence, has now been passed.”
Carine Bourget, former interim Department Head of Spanish and Portuguese and current Department Head of French and Italian, said Colina’s accomplishments extend from research to the classroom and beyond.
Colina said she was surprised to hear she’d been named as a Regents Professor, receiving an unexpected phone call from University President Robert C. Robbins.
“I had my own idea of what ‘Regents Professor’ was and I didn’t fit,” she said. “These are awards that are rarely given to professors in the humanities, as in humanities we work differently than in the sciences and other fields. It is important for people to start changing their idea of what a Regents Professor looks like. We’re a diverse, comprehensive, interdisciplinary, and collaborative institution, not just a science university. This award recognizes that.”