Do we understand what a U.S. federal court interpreter certification really is?
March 12, 2018 § 5 Comments
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.