Remembering Juliet Viola Kniffen – long-time NCTA Administrator

Juliet Viola Kniffen

July 21, 1962 – July 5, 2021

NCTA Administrator 1995–2017

Juliet Viola Kniffen

Juliet among her beloved redwood neighbors

NCTA’s long-time administrator Juliet Viola Kniffen succumbed to cancer on July 5, 2021. We honor her memory here with a portrait of her life from her husband, Jay Kniffen, followed by tributes from some long-time NCTA members who knew and treasured her.

Portrait of Juliet by her husband, Jay Kniffen

Juliet was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1962. The family later moved to St. Louis, where her younger sister Jill was born, before settling in Dallas, Texas. Her father Jack Viola, of Italian ancestry, was a traveling sales rep who eventually launched his own business selling cleaning supplies and also taught others how to start their own businesses cleaning homes and offices. Her mother Janet was an educated homemaker and part of a long line of women involved in the women’s suffrage movement.

Juliet and her family were active members of the Midway Hills Christian Church in Dallas. Her parents were leaders of the Youth Group, and her dad sang in the choir. When Juliet was about 14, her mother died of breast cancer. A few years later, Jack remarried, and that was the beginning of Juliet’s lifelong loving relationship with her stepmother Mary Ann. Juliet now had an extended family that included her dad Jack, stepmother Mary Ann, sister Jill, stepsister Sharon, and stepbrothers Mark and Paul. Spouses, nieces, and nephews (and recently a great-niece) expanded this large extended family full of love and generosity.

Juliet graduated from high school a year early and started college at the University of Dallas before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin. She graduated with a BA in Italian in 1983 and an MA in Modern History with a concentration in Italy in 1985. She studied abroad for a semester in Rome and a semester in Siena.

She did administrative work while in college and also started working as a freelance tutor, translator, and interpreter in Italian. She later worked for an Italian tile manufacturer in Dallas, but she left because she felt they didn’t value her skills or pay her enough. Once they realized their mistake, they begged her to come back and offered her a big raise.

In 1992, Juliet moved to Berkeley, California, and enrolled in their PhD program in Italian Studies. She soon realized that academia wasn’t right for her and left school to pursue her career. She started working part time as an editor and proofreader for Jacki Noh, a Korean interpreter. She also started working part time as the Administrator of the Northern California Translators Association (NCTA). Eventually, she left her job with Jacki and started her own business translating business contracts from Italian into English. She continued her work at NCTA as well, where she helped countless people start their careers as translators and interpreters (see remembrances below).

Juliet also became an active member of the University Christian Church in Berkeley. She eventually became a member of their board, where she worked diligently to help sell the church’s property and close the church down as the congregation dwindled.

Juliet’s friend Sarah, whom Juliet knew from a women’s business luncheon in Dallas, told Juliet in 1996 about a good friend, Jay Kniffen, who was single and living in Berkeley. After waiting a while for Sarah to call back and give her Jay’s number, Juliet took matters into her own hands, looked Jay up in the phone book, and asked him out. Pretty bold action by Juliet!

Jay and Juliet started dating and found that they had a lot in common, including a love of learning, laughing, art, music, travel, and adventure. They also shared a passion for scientific, environmental, and social justice issues, as well as civil rights, the pro-choice movement, and the women’s rights movement. Juliet moved in with Jay in February of 1998, and the two were married on June 3, 2000.

Juliet’s love of travel started at a young age. She remembered long car trips with her dad, as well as visiting ancient ruins in Mexico with her grandparents. When Jay and Juliet first started dating, Jay took her for a weekend trip to visit his friends in Santa Cruz to see how she would handle it. Juliet passed with flying colors, and that started a love of traveling together. Jay and Juliet’s first big trip together was to go on a weeklong ski and snowboard trip to Utah with their friends. They also went on a long trip to visit friends and family and sightsee in London, Scotland, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Menorca. They went on trips with Jay’s beloved sister Fran to Estes Park in the Colorado Rockies and to beach cottages in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and in Carlsbad in Southern California. Jay and Juliet took many train trips across the US to Arizona, Chicago, New York, Texas, and Washington, DC. They visited art museums all along the way, as often as they could, even when there were just a few hours available while changing trains. Juliet also took numerous trips to the Veneto region of Italy to visit her Italian relatives.

In 2013, Jay and Juliet realized that they could finally afford to buy a house in California, which they thought would never happen. After some discussion, they decided they didn’t want to stay in Berkeley anymore and started looking at other options. They fell in love with the redwood forest near the Russian River and bought a small house in Monte Rio. Juliet had a wish list for her ideal house and location, and the house they found checked nearly all the boxes, including an extra room for her office and a deck for lounging outside. It was at the end of the street, surrounded by big trees and without too many close neighbors. In the adjacent Schoolhouse Gulch they could hear the small stream flowing in the winter. Her wish list included living in a forest, hopefully next to a state park, so that the forest would be preserved. Although that last item was a long shot, Sonoma County just recently bought 515 acres near our house for the community’s first regional park. Juliet got her final wish.

She retired from her translation work in 2016 to focus on enjoying life among the redwoods in Monte Rio. She became active in the women’s group SheRises and studied social justice and climate change issues. She also started attending the Guerneville Community Church.

Juliet was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. The doctors finally pronounced her cured in 2009, but her cancer returned in 2016. She spent 20 days in the hospital, where doctors found that her cancer had moved into about 18 different spots in her bone marrow. In 2018, the cancer was discovered in her liver.

Juliet was very active in her cancer treatment. She explored various alternative treatments and used supplements alongside her oncologist-prescribed treatments. One doctor remarked that Juliet was his most educated patient on cancer treatments and his patient most involved in her own cancer treatment. He said that Juliet had even taught him, an oncologist, about some of the latest cancer treatments.

Juliet’s cancer had been stable on her latest scan from May 2021, with no tumor growth. She was doing so well that she and Jay had planned to take a train trip to visit Jay’s family in Tucson and Juliet’s family in Dallas, leaving on July 18. In the weeks before, however, Juliet began to feel worse. Her doctors learned that Juliet’s cancer in the liver had begun growing quickly and that her liver was failing. There were no treatment options at that point. She was moved to the hospital and put into hospice care to keep her pain-free and comfortable. She passed away on July 5, 2021, a few weeks shy of her 59th birthday.

It was a quick and unexpected ending to a full and wonderful life, but Jay and Juliet were grateful for the life and love they shared. Their family and friends were such an important part of it all.

– Jay Kniffen

Juliet Viola Kniffen

Eulogy delivered by Jacki Noh at the celebration of Juliet’s life in Monte Rio on July 24, 2021

My dearest friend Juliet,

Welcome to your memorial service! Jay picked the most beautiful Saturday for you.

Everyone who loved you … no, I should say loves in the present tense, not the past tense. Let me start over.

Everyone who loves your beautiful mind and smile, exceptionally high intelligence, thoughtfulness, inner and outer beauty, and passion for languages and cultures is gathered here today to say goodbye properly and lovingly.

Do you remember when we first met? It was mid-October 1994 in Austin during the ATA’s 35th Annual Conference. We were both volunteers at the NCTA table recruiting new members and answering questions from conference attendees. I liked you immediately and enjoyed our time together so much that I skipped most of the sessions I meant to attend.

I have known you nearly three decades and my love for you grew every time I thought about you and saw you. Soon after we met with then NCTA president Tony Roder, other board members and I thought that NCTA needed an administrative assistant. You became the most trusted and professional face of NCTA. For a time, you even became an integral part of my own company TransKorean Services. I can never thank you enough for all that you did so competently and wonderfully for NCTA and TKS, but mostly just for being you and for being my friend.

Although I spent the first 18 years of my life in Korea, you are the one who introduced me to Korean pop culture like the 2003 Korean period drama, Dae Jang Geum. When I was sick as a dog with the flu, you went to a small Korean market in Berkeley to rent video tapes of all 54 episodes. You took such good care of me. I think I got better soon after that but pretended to be sick just to finish watching all the episodes and continue receiving your TLC.

I vividly remember your wedding day in Berkeley. You were the most beautiful bride I ever saw and so happy standing next to Jay that I shed tears of joy. I think I was as happy as you and Jay. Sounds crazy, right? But I was.

I thoroughly enjoyed our monthly dinner in Berkeley before you and Jay moved to beautiful Monte Rio. Due to the distance, that monthly dinner became a quarterly lunch or dinner until the pandemic came and ended even that. I was always so much looking forward to our get-togethers.

When I saw you last, four days before you left us, I couldn’t stop crying and kept running to the bathroom so you wouldn’t see me crying. For about an hour and a half with you alone, I thanked you profusely for being such a wonderful and beautiful human being and close friend and dear sister. For the 45 days every year between our birthdays, I was your Unni, big sister. Yet it was you who was always much more mature, considerate, thoughtful, smarter, and wiser. You were indeed the sister I always wanted to have. You never even missed a single birthday of mine: I still have all the birthday cards and notes you sent me over the years. They were handwritten and I will always treasure them, like all my fond memories of you.

Thank you for being the person I strive to be. Thank you for all your love and friendship. You knew how to make me feel loved and appreciated, and I’ll always miss you, Juliet. And you were always such a good listener. I will miss our endless conversations but treasure all the beautiful memories.

Juliet, be happy and healthy wherever you are. I will do the same until we meet again.
Your friend forever, Jacki

– Jacki Noh, NCTA member since 1986

Juliet Viola Kniffen

Tributes from other long-time NCTA members

Despite the decades that have passed since Juliet first became a presence in my life, I retain fond memories of the sound support she gave me while I found my way to the role of NCTA President and of the tranquility she instilled as I was fumbling to solve the association’s challenges. She made all the difference.

– Tony Roder, founding member and former President of NCTA

I probably met Juliet around 1995, when I moved to San Francisco and worked as a project manager at a small translation company. I was exploring becoming a translator myself, and every time I showed up to an NCTA event, she was welcoming and made sure that I was comfortable. It quickly became clear that, not only was she the friendly face at the door, she was the person who knew the whole community and how this whole business of becoming a translator worked. At various points in the early stages of my career, I would email Juliet with a question, and she would connect me to just the right person to answer it while providing a wealth of information herself. I’m pretty sure that NCTA’s spirit of generosity owes a great deal to Juliet and the time she took getting to know each member and knitting all those connections.

It wasn’t until I joined the NCTA Board of Directors sometime in the early 2000s that I realized the amount of work Juliet did for the association—including often unglamorous work. She kept the organization’s administration running smoothly behind the scenes, making membership renewal calls to dozens of members and helping countless people through the logistics of renewal each year, sitting in board meetings and carrying so much historical knowledge across the continual rotation of board members. She managed all of this as a half-time employee so that she could continue her own translation work, all the while taking the time and care to personalize every interaction with members and prospective members who reached out. She never failed to deliver on all the information and resources and connections that had accumulated in her head, so that it could be well used by whoever needed it.

It was during my years on the board when I also got to know Juliet a bit more personally, and I’m grateful to have had that time with her. She always had something interesting to discuss, was a curious and engaged person, and quick to share laughter. While I did a poor job of staying in touch regularly after moving away from translation work, I did hear from Juliet in 2018, and she said, “I’m having a wonderful life now that I’m retired. I just enjoy the limitations, or rather focus on what I can do, which nevertheless feels infinite. There’s so much I want to think about, learn about, walks I’d like to take even just out front of the house. Makes me happy. I really never expected to retire, or have time to just enjoy life, ever, and boom, here it is. I mostly read today! Things I wanted to read!” To me, that captures much of her spirit, and brightens the sad news of her passing a little bit, picturing her finding small joys and time to indulge her interests in a beautiful place. I only wish she had many more years to do so.

– Naomi Baer, Board of Directors 2003–2008

In December 2003 I attended my first NCTA General Meeting. I had just moved from Europe, didn’t know anyone, was feeling shy, and reluctantly let my husband convince me to attend this gathering. I was also skeptical about professional organizations in general. Juliet welcomed us with her lovely smile and immediately made me feel comfortable and excited about meeting fellow translators. Within minutes I knew I had found my community. Later, while serving six years on the Board of Directors, I admired Juliet for her role as a pillar of NCTA in guiding new members, solving issues, brainstorming, etc. We could always count on Juliet’s help. When we had questions, she was the organization’s institutional memory. When I think of NCTA, I see Juliet’s friendly smile that made everyone feel at home. Thank you, Juliet, for your friendship and for helping shape our association. You will always be in our hearts.

– Raffaella Buschiazzo, NCTA Events Director 2005–2011

The news of Juliet’s passing has shaken me deeply. Juliet was not just the NCTA Administrator, she was for decades the soul and backbone of the organization, and one of the warmest and most caring persons I’ve ever met. But above all, I owe a very big chunk of my success to Juliet.

Juliet was one of the very first colleagues I met when I started my translator career. As we all experienced at NCTA, she asked me to come to a meeting. She was the best recruiter you could ever find because she would immediately inspire confidence and kindness—and for good reason. She was right about all the virtues of membership and she fostered that positive energy that fuels the board and the whole organization to this day.

I remember her first fight with cancer. She kept the association running all through it and would join the board as soon as she had the energy to drive or ride across the bridge. The idea that this dreadful disease came back and won the fight against Juliet is unbearably unfair. As a cancer survivor myself, I can attest to how unfair and ugly it is.

Juliet was very spiritual, and I can find solace in imagining her beaming among angels and recruiting them into some new positive enterprise she is bolstering.

We miss you very much, Juliet.

– Yves Avérous, NCTA Board of Directors 1999–2010, Vice President 2004–2010, transformative Publications Director for Translorial

Juliet was a crucial part of NCTA while she worked as our Administrator for many years. She didn’t just do her administrative duties, she really went the extra mile/kilometer, constantly looking for ways to benefit the organization and her colleagues. As President, I never had to worry about anything related to NCTA administrative tasks because you could trust that she would take care of them—and usually, she was already a step ahead.

Not only was she efficient, she was also an incredibly kind and warm person. I remember watching her with amazement at NCTA events and ATA conferences talking to potential new members and encouraging them to join the organization, with an amazing success rate. She did it by sharing her pride in the profession and NCTA and by her genuine kindness and desire to help. I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to share so many NCTA years with Juliet and enjoy her camaraderie. I will miss her, but I know her contributions will be part of the NCTA genome forever.

– Tuomas Kostiainen, NCTA President 2005–2011

It’s impossible to describe how special Juliet was in just a few sentences. She ran NCTA so efficiently and had such an encyclopedic knowledge of the association and its history that it was hard to believe NCTA could have existed before she came along. Her dedication was without question. Her wisdom and advice were invaluable. The fact that she was also one of the nicest, kindest, and most thoughtful people you could ever wish to meet makes her loss all the harder to bear.

– Sarah Llewellyn, Director of Continuing Education 2010–2017, Vice President 2013–2017

When I first joined the NCTA out of grad school, Juliet was the first person I encountered. She was so friendly and helpful, which gave me a very positive impression of the organization. I joined the Board of Directors, and when I served as NCTA President, Juliet went out of her way to ensure continuity from the previous President, attending every board meeting even though it was optional for her. She kept us on track as regards decision-making and organizational requirements and was a walking NCTA historian! She was a real treasure.

– Paula Dieli, NCTA President 2011–2013

I first met Juliet at a lunch in Berkeley in 2006—the first NCTA event that I ever attended. I didn’t know much about the association, but Juliet’s welcoming presence and wealth of practical tips at that first lunch quickly convinced me to join. As I became more involved with NCTA, I soon realized that her ability to connect with people was only one of the many invaluable gifts that she brought to NCTA over her many years of service. Juliet was the person who knew our members best, old and new: She had a phenomenal knowledge of the history and inner workings of the association, and she was always ready to tactfully support the board with her insights and sound advice. As Administrator, she was truly the “face” of NCTA, helping members, handling referrals, and capably fielding questions from callers, always graciously and with a sense of humor. It was largely thanks to her that I eventually made it through two terms as NCTA President. To my delight, Juliet and I also turned out to be Berkeley neighbors, and this gave us many opportunities to chat about translation, literature, and life while on the way to meetings or events together. Juliet was a dear friend and colleague, and she will be deeply missed.

– Sonia Wichmann, NCTA President 2013–2017, member since 2006

My first interaction with Juliet beyond her consistent work as NCTA’s Administrator was about 15 years ago: She took over the completion of the Translorial when our son’s critical injury demanded my total attention. Then, when she and her husband moved to Sonoma County, I had the wonderful opportunity to develop a deeper friendship with her. Our eldest daughter lived not far from her, and I put her in touch with Juliet. As NCTA Membership Director, I held meetups in Sebastopol and surrounding towns to keep NCTA members in social contact with each other, and Juliet attended regularly, charming everyone with her ability to involve all those present in the conversations. On other occasions, Juliet and I discussed our efforts to explore our Italian heritage. Her beautiful spirit lives on in my memories.

– Mimi Wessling, NCTA Membership Director 2017–2020, Managing Editor of Translorial 2009–2020

You can honor Juliet’s memory by making a donation in her name to one of the groups she supported: The 19th, Sierra Club Redwood Chapter, Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, Living Beyond Breast Cancer, American Civil Liberties Union, or Midway Hills Christian Church.