Do we understand what a U.S. federal court interpreter certification really is?

March 12, 2018 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The irregularities on the administration of the United States federal court interpreter certification exam of 2017 prompted a debate among many colleagues, seasoned court interpreters, those who took the test and are still living in the uncertainty this first appearance by Paradigm unexpectedly brought to their lives, and everybody in between. There are many unanswered questions about the way testing was handled, and there will be plenty of them once the results are announced one day. It is unlikely that once the candidates who feel the “sui-generis” administration of the test significantly impacted their performance are told they failed the exam, they will just accept it and move on. Some colleagues in such situation may be lawyering up just in case. Even those who will be told they passed will face situations never faced by any other federally certified court interpreters before. Maybe the results of their exam will be questioned in some spheres. Sure, the federal judiciary will tell them that their certification is as valid as anybody else’s.

That will be true because the certification will be issued by the same Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and they will be retained to interpret in court just like everybody else. Unfortunately, assignments by others, such as law firms and their clients, could bring them some headaches. Everybody other than the federal judiciary is in the private free market where they can hire any interpreter they please. Some potential clients may show reservations, as unfair as it may look to many of us, about the reliability and skill of an interpreter certified on the year of the messy administration of the test.  There will be many potential clients who will not care, but sadly, some will, and a possibility is that some of those who will could be the biggest players, the ones who pay the higher fees and handle the high profile cases. This ugly situation, out of the interpreters’ hands, could punish excellent interpreters able to pass the exam, whose skills would never be questioned but for the careless administration of the exam. I hope this does not happen, but it could.

During this, the darkest hour of the federal court interpreter certification exam’s history, I noticed certain things that led me to believe that besides the exam, there are misconceptions about the U.S. federal court interpreter certification.

Setting the current situation aside, the federal court interpreter certification exam is a prestigious exam that measures, to a high degree of reliability, the knowledge and skill of a candidate by testing them on all modalities of court interpretation, criminal legal proceedings, specialized terminology, and language fluency. The exam shows if a candidate meets the minimum standards to provide interpreting services in federal court. Passing the exam is just the beginning, not the end. It does not take us to the finish line, it is just the first step on the track. It troubles me to read comments by colleagues who claim they have not picked a book since they took the test 5 months ago; it concerns me to see how some believe they already forgot so much they think they would fail the exam if they had to take it again.

I worry when I read we have colleagues waiting for the test results to decide where to move permanently to apply for a job in a federal courthouse.  I also hear how many candidates believe that, because there is a need for court interpreting services at the federal level, they will be getting tons of work as freelancers in the federal system.  First, there are few openings to work full time as a staff court interpreter; to get the job they would have to beat many other more experienced and better known applicants, plus government budgetary concerns which favor a hiring freeze.

They will get work at the federal courthouse, but not as much as they expect. They will soon realize there is a huge difference between the caseload of a federal and a state or county courthouse, next, they will learn that very few cases go to trial in the federal system, that many hearings requiring interpreting services are covered through TIP (Telephone Interpreting Program) with the interpreter working from a courthouse far away. The newly certified court interpreters will be exposed to the strict (compared to most states’) guidelines and policy requiring that the courthouse hire the services of all certified interpreters in the area in a fair and even manner. There is a rotation in several courthouses to meet this policy. Finally, they will come to understand that most assignments given by a courthouse are for half days.

I also get the feeling that some candidates, and even some certified court interpreters, believe the federal court interpreter certification is the panacea. They assume that their certification will get them conference work, electronic media interpreting assignments, and so on. This is false.

A United States federal court interpreter certification in Spanish is proof that the interpreter passed the toughest court interpreter exam in the United States, that she or he has demonstrated to have the minimum qualifications to work in the federal criminal court system, those with the certification can be responsible professionals and reliable individuals who value professional self-improvement to the point they put themselves through the arduous certification process.  That’s it.

It does not mean that the certified interpreter has the knowledge and skill to interpret a criminal trial; that is acquired through practice, experience, and constant study. It does not even mean that the interpreter has the minimum skills and knowledge to interpret a civil proceeding. The exam tests no knowledge of Civil Law.

As cherished as a U.S. federal court interpreter certification is, it means little in the world of conference interpreting, or in any other interpreting field. There are excellent conference interpreters who started (and continue to work) in the courts, but their success outside the court setting does not come from the court interpreter certification, it comes from their individual effort and determination to study and prepare as conference interpreters, understanding that the two disciplines are different. I get scared when an agency offers me a conference assignment and tells me they only hire conference interpreters who are federally certified court interpreters. This tells me they are an agency that provides community interpreting services (including legal and healthcare) and that the assignment offered is probably not very good. I have never known of any reputable agency that works with conference interpreters say such a thing. It is the same for healthcare interpreting, that is why there is a different certification to work in hospitals and physicians’ offices.

I sincerely encourage all those waiting for the conclusion of this 2017 federal court interpreter certification exam soap opera, to look closely at their expectations as interpreters certified to work in federal court, and once they understand what they got, and what they did not, to study, practice, and plan their work as a professional interpreter with an eye on the future and both feet on reality, and make the choices right for each one in order to succeed not only as federally certified, but as professional interpreters. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this subject.

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§ 5 Responses to Do we understand what a U.S. federal court interpreter certification really is?

  • Chica says:

    Tony, I was shocked to read some of those people who just took the exam saying, “they can’t expect us to be prepared to take the exam again five months after we closed our books.” And somehing to the effect of, “There is no way I can pass without having studied for 5 months”

  • Kathleen M. Morris says:

    Tony brings up many valid points in today’s “FCCI certification landscape”. To these, I would like to add the following:

    * Those FCCI oral exam candidates who feel they were unfairly impacted by technical test-taking glitches, or untrained proctors, or both, should seriously consider filing a class action lawsuit for damages against the AOIC and Paradigm Testing, as joint defendants, if it is determined that they cannot be re-tested. Absent such legal action, it is unlikely that Paradigm Testing or the AOIC would ever respond to their legitimate complaints, in any way that would actually address possible harm done to exam candidates in not receiving any concrete, valid resolution of their testing results, long after the specified period for receiving these has come and gone.

    * Successful FCCI exam candidates should be aware that many district courts now preferentially hire interpreters WITHOUT Federal certification, EVEN when FCCI’s are readily available, since it saves them money. This is actually a violation of the Federal Court Interpreters Act. A good way to guard against this, if contacted to interpret in a Federal trial, or for any hearing lasting longer than 1/2 hour (in-person or telephonically) is to respond: “I see. And who is my *Federally Certified partner* for this trial or hearing?”

    An ambiguous answer about a “local bilingual”, “court employee acting as interpreter”, or “state certified interpreter” is not sufficient. Please turn down any Federal trial or longer hearing for which you are not provided with a *Federally certified* partner’s name and contact information. Please do not accept to work “solo” for any such trial or proceeding. A team of 2 FCCI interpreters should always be assigned to a trial or to hearings projected to last over 1/2 hour.

    By insisting on these ethical standards of practice, as outlined in the Federal Court Interpreters Act, you will be upholding the intent of the law, and will not be undercutting yourself or other Federally Certified colleagues.

  • Tony, thanks for expressing much more eloquently the thoughts I tried to express in your other blog post. I believe that if we pretend to be prepared and competent enough to take and pass the test in 2017, there’s no reason to believe any one of us is not “fit” to take the test again, or that an offer to re-test would be a disadvantage, unfair, or “beneath” us.

    If we are professionals and want to prove we can be at the top of the game, why should we think we can move forward and upward without continuous study and improvement?

    The certification is simply a ticket into a world where we can interpret at a higher level. But it is not proof that one is one of the top interpreters in the field (as the real life challenges of interpreting in Federal Court, I am sure, can be much greater than the skill of a recently minted FCCI) or a guarantee to a life of prestige and well-paid assignments, or permission to just coast from this point forward. I guess you could say it certifies that one is “good enough to get started here.” There are no guarantees.

    My brain works by making weird analogies. If you’ll allow: Just because an athlete passes certain tests of physical/athletic ability or skills, it does not mean he’ll be a starter on the national Olympic XYZ (insert favorite team sport here) team. Or even a back-up. He may have passed the tests, but may … or may not … see much action, if any, and there will always bigger/faster/stronger/better competition. And if you want to play, you better be ready to compete, to keep training, starting the day after you tried out, even though you’ve been tagged as “good enough.”

    I know that passing the exam, although it is an honor and sets one apart as a well-qualified interpreter, does nothing to guarantee interpretation assignments. I’d love to work in the Federal Court system (as a freelancer), but if I cannot because I don’t have the certification, my family will not suffer, my career will not be derailed, and my life projects will not be put on hold or suffer any modification. I’d love to be able to say “I’m a FCCI,” but if I can’t… that’s OK. This test/certification is certainly not a fork in the road, a “crossroads” in my life. I’ll continue to hone my skills anyway, study, work the assignments I’m able to (and want to), and I’ll give it a shot again the next time, whether it’s in 2 months, or in 2019.

    Kathleen, I don’t see myself participating in a class-action lawsuit, except maybe to get a refund of my testing fee and travel expenses. I’d be content to be able to take the test again at no cost, and, ideally, locally. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no “damage” to claim. I studied and learned in preparation for this exam. And, whether I passed the test or not, the preparation itself made me a better interpreter. (Also, thanks for the tip on hiring practices.)

  • Jannette Rohtert says:

    Thank you for your latest blog. As always, the topics you cover are very interesting. As you mentioned being federally certified is not the panacea and it doesn’t guarantee getting conference interpretation assignments. My question is: What is the best path to become a Conference interpreter and how to access those conference assignments?

  • Jose M Perez says:

    Perhaps a class action suit should be considered.

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