A new Spanish Federal Court Interpreter Certification exam: Getting it right.

July 6, 2021 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Several weeks ago, federally certified Spanish court interpreters in the United States received a questionnaire from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts asking for opinions and suggestions for a new version of the certification exam. This was a welcomed move for two reasons: The government is thinking of updating the exam so it reflects the present condition of our society, and they thought about asking those who work in that environment: the Spanish interpreters.

I liked the idea of modernizing the test as a positive step by the USAOC, especially during these uncertain days of an almost post-pandemic America, and the confusion among exam candidates about the oral exam dates with an official version on the AOC website indicating December as the month of the exam, and rumors, and perhaps emails, circulating around stating the exam will be early next year. Now back to the exam:

The new version of the exam needs to continue the same proportions and format of the current versions, including two sight translation exercises: one from English into Spanish involving a quasi-legal document, and one from Spanish into English involving a legal document; two simultaneous interpreting exercises: a monologue in English at a normal speed of 140 words per minute in average, and a bi-directional dialogue of a legal or scientific direct examination of an expert witness at a speed of 160 words per minute in average. Finally, the exam should have one 15-minute-long bi-directional consecutive interpretation exercise with at least two somewhat long segments, at least one “laundry list” of items, and some idiomatic expressions and obscenities.

This means leaving the exam as it is in format, but updating its content to reflect the world where we now live. The exercises must mention technology, update situations and circumstances to reflect concepts like internet, computers, globalization. If the old version of the exam included situations involving a telephone or a typewriter, the new version should replace them with a cellular phone and a computer for example.

The exam needs to test beyond criminal law and procedure, exercises must include civil law and procedure, and some international law that falls under the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary, like extradition proceedings and international child abductions.

More important, the exam needs to mirror social changes, reflect gender equality, and include diversity of speech and culture. English dialogues should not be limited to the English spoken by white Americans; it must include the English spoken by African Americans and Hispanic Americans. It needs to expand its Spanish dialogues and idiomatic expressions beyond Mexico, and encompass not only expressions and cultural references to other Latin American countries, but it also needs to incorporate the Spanish spoken in Spain, and the unique Spanish spoken in the United States.

There are certain things the AOC questionnaire included that, although important, must stay out of this exam.

Legal translation is an important subject, but other than sight translation exercises, a court interpreter certification exam must stay away from testing candidates on translation. Translation is a different profession and it requires different skills, experience, and knowledge. A good number of court interpreters translate, but the government needs to develop a separate translation exam if it wants to certify translation skills. Translation needs writing, it needs an exhausting, extensive, comprehensive exam at the same level as the interpretation exam now offered. You cannot certify a translator through a section of an interpreting exam, and you should not expect interpreters to translate. These are two professions and they need two exams. Those of you who have taken translation exams in college or certification exams such as the one offered by the American Translators Association, know it is impossible to test translation skills by adding a section to a different discipline’s exam. This would not be appropriate as it would misguide on the actual skill level of the candidate, and it would not be fair to the interpreters, who have studied and trained as such, not as translators.

Including a section to test interpreters’ transcription skills was also floated around. Even though transcription may not be considered a different profession the way translation is, it also goes beyond the skills that need to be tested to become a certified court interpreter. It is a reality that federal courts require of transcription services, and some interpreters transcribe wiretaps, telephone calls, police interviews, and other voice and video recorded interactions, but most interpreters do not transcribe; they find it boring, time-consuming, poorly remunerated for the work involved, or they simply dislike it. Unlike consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, it is not part of what makes an individual a court interpreter.

Transcription is a specialized service and should be treated as such. If the Administrative Office of the United States Courts wants to certify transcribers, it should develop a separate test to be offered as an additional exam to those already certified as court interpreters who want to specialize. It cannot be part of an interpreter certification exam, and by the way, it should be remunerated in terms of time spent for a recorded minute, nut lumped with the full or half a day pay interpreters receive from interpreting in court.

Updating the certification exam is an excellent idea. Considering a certification for court translators and court transcribers is also a good point, but commingling these other disciplines with court interpreting is a mistake. There is plenty to be tested in a traditional interpreter certification exam; things could be added and improved without expanding to other professions. Let’s fix the exam, but from the beginning, let’s get it right.

I now invite you to share your ideas about the modernization of the court interpreter exam, and those interpreting modalities you believe must be included.

Federal court interpreter exam candidates’ emotional distress continues.

July 10, 2018 § 13 Comments

Dear colleagues:

On June 30 those who took the federal court interpreter exam in the United States last year, and have not received their test results to this date, found an email from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (FCICE@ao.uscourts.gov) in their inbox.

Once again, and after all this time, the email was to “provide an update” on the status of the scores. The email explained how all exams have either been scored and equated, or invalidated. The email then goes into a very detailed explanation of the scoring and review of the exams, but it only addresses the news that candidates care about towards the end of the communication by stating that “…no dates have yet been set for the 2018 re-administration of the oral phase of the… examination…” and it then drops the bomb when it indicates that “…dates will most likely not be determined until after November 2018…” and it gives an “assurance” to those who have been victimized by the credibility of the AO since they took the exam last year, that regardless of when the exam is re-administered, “…it will be administered in time… to qualify for the 2019 administration of the oral phase…”

Once again, the email tells nothing to the candidates, and once again it lacks an apology, by now long due to all of our colleagues who have endured this nightmare for so long. The email does nothing to comfort the candidates. Instead of informing them of their scores, it gives them an unusual explanation about the way these scores will be delivered. First, they will receive an email informing them that their score has been snail-mailed through the U.S. Mail. Can you imagine how much longer those candidates who live outside the United States must wait for the letter to get to their mailbox?

The email speaks of the “re-administration” of the test, but it says nothing about the entity in charge of the task. At this point is not known if there will be a new contractor or if the AO itself will administer the exam.

It concerns me to see how the government does not get it. Once again, they distract the candidates from the fact that nothing relevant has changed since the last time they received a letter from the AO, with a lengthy explanation on how the exams have been scored, equated, and reviewed.

The validity of the exam and the integrity and skill of the raters are the only things never questioned by anybody, yet, they continue to dominate the communication to the candidates. What everybody questions is not the exam nor the examiner; the answers everybody is waiting for concern the decision-making process that resulted in contracting paradigm and the accountability of those who made such decision; the readiness of Paradigm to administer an exam like the federal court interpreter certification test, when there was nothing in their background to suggest they could perform the task; and finally, the way the AO has handled the situation after the exam, from its secrecy and lack of transparency, to the delays, to a full report on what they are now doing to hire a capable contractor and to make sure that another fiasco of this enormity never happens again.

The candidates got another email, and from that, they got:

No apology from the AO for all damages caused to the candidates who took the exam.

NO admission of any wrongdoing or even responsibility for retaining Paradigm and for acting the way they have after the exam was administered.

No word on who will be the new retained contractor, or what they will do to re-administer the test. It is very important to know who the new contractor is because candidates will want to know that the selected corporation can handle the administration of both: written and oral tests in 2019.

No date for the retake, just a hint it will probably be after November. This assures all candidates an awful holiday season full of pain and suffering.

Not a word on reimbursement of the fees paid for the exam “administered” by Paradigm, and nothing on covering travel and other expenses for those who had to travel from far away to take the Paradigm exam.

Another development in this shameful saga happened on the written federal court interpreter certification exam: Even though Paradigm’s website still links to the FCICE webpage; the link has been disabled by the AO, and their website now indicates that at this time there is no date for the “summer” written examination, but from a careful reading on the website you can conclude it will be next year.

To mend the biggest fiasco in court interpreting history, people will take both, written and oral tests on the same year, altering the spirit of the exam as originally conceived, and ending a tradition.

Dear friends and colleagues, candidates who took the exam last year and those studying this year for the written test: it looks like you will continue to suffer emotional distress and enormous tension as you are likely to spend your 2018 holiday season studying for a test you had the right to take this year.

I now invite all candidates who took the oral exam, those studying to take the written test, and those certified interpreters who feel for these colleagues, to share their stories of struggle and frustration during this very dark time for court interpreting in America.

What is going on with the federal court interpreter certification test results?

February 20, 2018 § 73 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The federal court interpreter certification is the highest credential a Spanish court interpreter can have in the United States.  Unfortunately, the exam is not available in other languages, but it has historically separated good court interpreters from mediocrity in the legal arena. Fortunately, the exam has been difficult and very demanding through the years, and the result has been a group of better prepared court interpreters who demonstrated they have the minimum knowledge and skill needed in a courtroom. A test this difficult will always have its detractors and there have been plenty of these disgruntled individuals who attribute their failure to pass the test to everything under the sun but their own lack of skills. This is acceptable, and it reinforces that the content of the exam is the right one.

Unfortunately, recent changes, not to the exam contents, but to the way it is administered and graded, have put into question the reliability of the results.

It started a few years ago when, undoubtedly for budgetary reasons, it was decided to reduce the number of exam graders from three to two. It is hard to understand why any deliberating group would ever go from an odd number of decision-makers to an even number, but that happened. Please notice I am not bringing up an earlier change on the administration of the exam when in-person examiners were substituted by a recording device because I believe that change was positive because all candidates listened to the same recordings, and it allow graders to rewind and listen an utterance as many times as needed. This change resulted in a fair exam.

The biggest irregularities happened last September when the exam was administered for the first time by Paradigm Testing, who presumably outbid the former test administrator. While this newcomer to the court interpreter testing arena brought changes and innovations designed to save money, it also imposed an undue burden on the examination candidates. We have all heard many complaints about practice/training exams arriving late, poorly given instructions on operating the testing equipment, proctors staying outside of the exam room making it impossible for candidates to ask questions or report problems on a time-sensitive examination. We all know about the faulty internet connections that took away precious time needed to complete the test; and we all know stories about the infamous click button during the consecutive rendition where examinees had to click a button twice in a small pop-up window for each utterance, and then quickly pick up the pen or pencil and sort papers to get ready for the next utterance. Even the ergonomics was a big concern since the candidates were forced to keep their writing materials to the side because the laptop was directly in front, sometimes taking over most of the space on the table. I always believe that proctors were not just there to police the examinee, but also to facilitate the process.

No doubt these irregularities resulted in some questionable test results for some, perhaps many, of the candidates. I wonder if this is the reason the results of a test taken in September have not been disclosed yet. The Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination for Spanish/English Examinee Handbook states: “…C. Score Reporting Procedures and Timelines… Oral Examination: Scores will be available approximately three months after the administration of the oral examination, and will be sent to the e-mail address provided during registration. The Director of the AO will confer certification on candidates who pass the oral examination, usually within four months following the examination…” (Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination for Spanish/English Examinee Handbook, updated June 1, 2017. Page 4)

Two very important deadlines were missed by Paradigm Testing: Results must be in the candidate’s e-mail box in approximately three months! The exam was in September 2017. It has been over five months. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts had to issue proof of certification to those who passed the test four months after the exam! The AO is in default also. This is very troubling as we all know that the exams were graded last year.

The grading of the exam is another issue that should concern us all. First the reduction from three to two graders, and now a tendency to bring in as graders more staff interpreters than freelancers. This is a matter to be considered as well.  Staff court interpreters are federally certified, and the ones invited to grade the test are very capable professionals. However, they bring to the table certain perspective and limited experience in many areas of the law when compared to freelancers. Most staff interpreters do a magnificent job interpreting those issues that involve federal legislation. Freelancers contribute a broader knowledge and a different perspective. Does this matter? Are they going to test the examinee on non-federal matters? Of course not, but unlike the staff interpreter, the freelancer may tell if a candidate did not know the subject, or just made the mistake of treating it like a local matter. The real issue is, freelancers are more expensive because they must be paid; staffers are getting the same paycheck they would get anyway. Reality shows that many interpreters are not finding grading the exam attractive anymore because they get paid little for the amount of work.

I hope that last September test results are published soon, and they better be free of controversy for the sake of those who took the exam, and for the future of the once very reliable federal certification program. I now invite you to share your stories and thoughts on this very serious matter.

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