Interpreter certification: A fight against the establishment.

May 1, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Many of us have devoted years to the struggle to achieve recognition towards the professionalization of what we do. In most countries, interpreters need not have a college degree, the occupation is highly unregulated, and society lacks the knowledge to demand a high-quality professional service. An important number of countries have exercised to a degree some control over who can interpret in certain fields: legal and healthcare interpreting now requires of a certification in several countries. Whether it is called certification, patent, license, or anything else, this is an important step towards professionalization. It is a way to compensate the lack of formal education by giving individuals a chance to demonstrate that they have the minimum skills to practice as interpreters. It reminds me of the beginnings of other now well-established professions. Two centuries ago, people in the United States could become lawyers by passing the State Bar without having to attend Law School.

Although certification does not guarantee the quality of a rendition, it allows the user to decide if an individual is at least minimally qualified to provide the service. This quality-control becomes very valuable to society, but we must be very careful as it is not always what it should.

All professions certify, admit to practice, or something to that effect, their members in one of two legitimate ways: By an administrative act sanctioned by a government because of passing a knowledge and skills test, or, by an administrative act sanctioned by the individual’s peers through a professional association because of passing a knowledge and skills test.

In the United States, and other countries, court interpreters acquire their certification through the former system, while healthcare interpreters get their credential through the latter.

Both systems work fine because they meet the requirements that guarantee an unbiased decision solely based on merit, not self-serving reasons. Besides meeting certain moral and legal requirements, this is achieved by passing a scientifically developed exam rated by an impartial qualified jury. Certifications can only be universally accepted and recognized when they come from such a process. For this reason court and healthcare certifications have become the standard of the profession in many countries.

Unfortunately, because of the lack of legislation, the high demand for inexpensive interpreter services, lack of knowledge by the potential client, and the existence of paraprofessional interpreters willing to work for next to nothing for their quality-absent services, have created a perfect storm for worthless so-called “certifications” that currently inhabit the market in the darker corners of the ugly face of interpreting, feeding themselves on the ignorance, fear, and cowardice of the pariahs of this profession.

Many language agencies advertise their interpreters as “certified” because they have been tested online or by phone and passed an unscientific exam not developed to learn if an applicant is prepared with the minimum professional skills to do the job. Instead, the motivation behind these “exams” has to do with marketing the service, and protecting the agency if a lawsuit occurs caused by the incompetence of their so-called “certified interpreters”. No data is available on the science behind their exams, and there is no information on the quality and impartiality of those rating the examinees.

It gets even worse: many community interpreting, telephonic interpreting, and supposedly healthcare and legal interpreting agencies advertise as “certified” interpreters individuals who attended a workshop, took a class online, read a manual, or went to a class without even taking an exam! The website of one agency brags about the “training” of their “certified” interpreters taught “national ethics and standards of practice for interpreters” in the United States. The problem is there is not such a thing. Each field has its own code of ethics. It also claims that their “certified” interpreters, who apparently work in legal situations, get “…basic skills pre-session preparation…” and they also get skills on “…closing the session…” These are no doubt important issues in healthcare interpreting, but not even the terminology exists in legal interpreting. I wonder how this knowledge, or learning “information on community systems (K-12 schools…)” will show that an interpreter is ready to work in a courtroom, detention center, or law office. Some brag about the number of training hours they offer to their interpreters, but they do not require that they pass an exam; much less a real scientific exam like the ones real certified interpreters must pass. Most of the training hours are devoted to practices to protect the agency from liability, to make the business plan more profitable. Whether they require an online test or just a bunch of classroom hours on a curriculum they created, they have as their main goal to create this impression that their interpreters are certified. They never disclose that their certifications are not officially recognized, that their exams were not scientifically developed, or that they have a vested interest: to offer the paraprofessional services of these “certified” interpreters at a lower cost so they can profit more.

This is not the only problem, dear friends and colleagues, official government policy can also be the main obstacle faced by interpreter certification. I was contacted some time ago by the government of a country outside the United States.  Mexico’s legal reforms took the country from a written court system to an adversarial oral system similar to the one in the U.S.

I was asked to participate in a training program for the new court interpreters for the oral proceedings. I was told this curriculum was necessary for these interpreters to get ready to pass a (certification) test and get what Mexico’s legislation calls a court interpreter patent (same as the certification in the United States, or the licensing in Texas). I was asked to provide may documents and information, even to develop a prospective curriculum and bibliography for my portion of the training (8 hours a day, Monday through Friday for three weeks). The full program was supposed to have a duration of three months at the same pace, and it was to be taught on the campus of the largest college in that Mexican State (Mexico is divided in States just like the United States of America).

After months of negotiations, where I made many concessions regarding the money I would be paid, and my expense account during the three weeks I would be living in that city, and after agreeing to cover my own airfare, to get these young prospective court interpreters what they needed to have a successful and meaningful career, the government officials continued to ask for more documents and concessions, until I gave them an ultimatum. At the end the answer was the one I feared all along: They would not retain me for the program because I was too expensive, but also, because I was a foreigner. They decided that only locals could teach the program. I have no problem with the local talent, and I know some of the other instructors and I vouch for their skill and expertise. The thing that puzzled me was that out of all the instructors, I was the only one who was both: interpreter and attorney, and I was the only one with experience working as an interpreter in court. The decision from above, taken by people who know little, or nothing, about court interpreters, left the certification program for that Mexican State with no court experienced instructors.

In the present world where a college education for interpreters is still years away in many countries, interpreter certification programs play a huge role in advancing the career and protecting the user of the interpreting services. Society must know of these malicious self-serving “certification programs” that are roaming out there with no supervision or regulation. It is imperative that more colleagues get certified as court and healthcare interpreters in the countries, and languages, that the credential is offered. On June 1, of this year, my colleague Javier Castillo Jr. and I have prepared a four-day workshop to prepare those who will be taking the oral portion of the court interpreter federal exam in the United States at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte this summer. The workshop will also help those taking court interpreter oral exams at the State-level, as we will dissect the test, explain what matters to get a passing score, and will practice with tailor-made exercises designed for these workshops you will find nowhere else, so that when the four-day program ends, those who took the course can get a personalized evaluation and know exactly what to do to pass the test. (You can get more information by going to www.fciceprep.com)

As you can see, the road to professionalization is full of obstacles, and some need to be eliminated to get the needed recognition to those legitimate certifications. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your comments on this issue.

How to study for the federal court interpreter exam.

June 5, 2015 § 14 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

This is the time when every two years many court interpreters in the United States, and abroad, are getting ready to take the federal court interpreter certification exam. This test is only offered every two years to those candidates who have previously passed the written portion of the exam.  The test is relevant mainly for two reasons: (1) those who have this certification can work as interpreters in all federal courts in the United States (all fifty states and all territories) where work conditions are usually better and the pay is slightly higher compared to the state-level courts; and (2) For better or worse, this certification is by far the best-known and universally recognized interpreter credential in the United States, even for work that has nothing to do with court proceedings.  In other words, passing the exam improves the credibility of an interpreter and boosts his resume.

This blog is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of the certification being used as a reference for other non-legal interpreting assignments in the United States, it is just a statement of fact that it is a test widely known by agencies, promoters, and direct clients. It is also a fact that, unlike many other certification exams, the passing rate is very low because the test is really difficult.  Add this to the fact that many interpreters in the U.S. do not have an academic background, and the test turns into a useful tool to decide who to hire for a job. Finally, we must keep in mind that the exam only exists for Spanish, Navajo and Haitian-Creole.

My only goal in writing this post is to contribute to the success of those taking the test some six weeks from now.  I am not going to talk about what to study from the academic perspective. I will not discuss terminology either. Those things should be learned in school and attending workshops and seminars to improve the interpreting skills of the candidate, and to learn how to study for the test in order to pass.

Today, I will limit to those things that are important, and a candidate must do when the exam is a few weeks away. In this case: about six weeks from now.

The first thing that a candidate needs is honesty. Be honest about what you know and what you can do as a court interpreter.  This is the time to work on your weaknesses while at the same time taking care of your strengths as an interpreter. Do a self-examination of everything that will be tested and rank your strengths:  At least you need to know where you rank in:

  • Sight translation of a paralegal document from English into the target language;
  • Sight translation of a legal document from the foreign language into English;
  • Consecutive interpreting of a testimony under very strict time limitations;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a monologue;
  • Simultaneous interpreting of a dialogue at a relatively fast rate of speech;
  • Legal terminology and procedure; and
  • General vocabulary in both languages.

You can add other categories if you feel they are needed, but you should at least consider the ones mentioned above.  Once you have ranked your skill and knowledge, you have to develop a study plan that will emphasize your weakest points without forgetting about your strengths. Let me explain:

Let’s say that you concluded that simultaneous interpreting is your strongest mode because you practice it daily in your state court or community interpreting assignments. This does not mean that you are going to ignore or neglect simultaneous interpreting for the next six weeks. All it means is that you will dedicate less time to simultaneous than consecutive and sight.  In the same example, you decided that sight translating a legal document from the foreign language into English is your weakest point, but consecutive interpreting, especially under the time constraints of the exam, is something you feel less confident about.  In those circumstances, your study plan for the first two weeks could look similar to this:

  • Sight translation 40% of study time (60 percent of this time for legal documents written in the foreign language)
  • Consecutive interpreting 30% of study time (working on concentration, visualization, memory, and very brief note taking with a rendition starting almost as soon as the speaker stops talking)
  • Simultaneous interpreting 10% (with special attention to expert witness testimony, opening and closing statements)
  • Legal terminology and procedure 10% (making sure to learn the federal jurisdiction terminology and procedure, not the state level vocabulary)
  • General vocabulary 10% (paying attention to “laundry lists”, regional expressions, bad words and slang)

Two weeks later, you self-assess your work and reorganize your study schedule to reflect the newest results. You may decide that you need more time for the consecutive and less for vocabulary and sight translation for example.  From this point on, I would do this self-evaluation every week and adjust my plan accordingly.  It is important to remember that you cannot ignore any of the sections of the test, even if you are very good at consecutive interpreting. It is like playing the piano: you must practice every day to keep your skills sharp.

Because you will be studying a lot, you have to make it fun and interesting. Variety is the key to success and consistency when you study. To increase my vocabulary, I would try to learn 10 new words every day, picking words from the same theme of course; let’s say that today I decided to learn 10 words for items found in a lawyer’s office: desk, chair, file, briefcase, computer, client, pleadings, paralegals, investigators, and telephone. The next day I pick things found in a courtroom, then things in a hospital emergency room, a crime lab, and so on. If I do this every day, by Friday I will have worked with 50 new words; Of course, I will probably remember about 20 of them. That is 20 words I did not know on Monday.

To practice my sight translation from English into the foreign language, I would look for documents that are about the same size as the test to be sight translated during the exam, that are of some quasi-legal content. Letters from your bank, utility company, mortgage creditor and other similar communications usually work pretty well.  For the legal sight translation from the foreign language into English I would look for documents on line or from attorney friends in the country of origin. In the case of Spanish, I know that many of the big law offices in Mexico carry “sample” documents in their websites. You can download and use leases, wills, powers of attorney, court orders and decisions, etc.   Just remember to divide large documents into several exercises so that you are always practicing with a document the size of the one that you will find when you take the test.  Remember to always practice with the same rules as the exam regarding time to review the document and time to provide the rendition. Finally, please record every single exercise you do so you can grade yourself afterwards. You will not be able to see any progress unless you do this.

To practice simultaneous interpreting, I suggest you do two things: First, go to your local federal courthouse and watch a trial or a motions hearing. It does not matter if there is an interpreter or not. You will be interpreting under your breath and you will be taking vocabulary notes for your glossaries.  Please avoid state courts because it is very difficult to hear what is actually happening due to the noise, and also, keep in mind that you need to practice with federal terminology, not state. In fact, if there are staff court interpreters in your courthouse, try to talk to them and see if they can tell you when the trials or long hearings are taking place between now and the test. Who knows? Some of them may be nice enough to let you use a receiver if a court interpreter is working a hearing.  Now, because interpreting under your breath is always carried without any mistakes, you also need to practice yourself. I suggest you access any of the online sources that exist and provide live coverage of trials. Unfortunately, the viewers’ appetite for live court on TV has declined in the United States, so there is no Court TV anymore. Fortunately, you can find hearings on line. A good place to start is http://cvn.com you can also visit: www.nbcnews.com which is showing the Aurora Colorado movie shooting trial live, www.supremecourt.gov/oral has the United States Supreme Court oral arguments for you to listen whenever you are ready to do it. Many state-level Supreme Court websites do the same. I suggest that you record your rendition, and please make sure that your exercises are similar in length to the ones you will have to render when taking the test.

To practice consecutive interpreting, you can use the same resources listed above for the simultaneous exercises, as long as you stop the recording after each question and answer in order to render your interpretation.  Please do no more than 2 repetitions per exercise, and please observe the exam’s time limit at all times. This is crucial for your rendition and note taking practice. Remember, you do not have a lot of time to review your notes and once the time is up, everything you did not get to cover will be considered wrong in the exam.  This is extremely important. Too many people fail because they run out of time taking great notes.  For the consecutive exercises I suggest you draft a family member or a friend who can help you by reading from a text that you can also download from some of the websites above. This will be a great change of pace and will let you concentrate in your rendition as your assistant will be in charge of timing and repetitions.

For legal terminology and procedure, I suggest you focus on federal matters. Remember: This is the federal test. Terms are very important and as you probably know, we are in the middle of a huge change for many Spanish-speaking countries. It is true that many of the terms we have used in the past will now be obsolete and you should learn the new legal terminology developed by these countries’ legislators, scholars, and judges; but for now, for purposes of passing the federal exam, please continue to use the terminology you feel more comfortable with. For the test all terms will be considered correct if they exist in a recognized publication or dictionary.  Obviously, for those terms you do not know yet, I suggest you learn the correct terminology from the start, and if your combination is EN<>ES I suggest the two volumes of Javier Becerra’s dictionary.

To keep your studying fresh and exciting, I suggest you vary the order of the various subject matters: sometimes start with sight, other with simultaneous, etc. Also, I strongly encourage you to have a study-buddy. Someone else who is taking the test and can benefit from the mutual help and encouragement when you are tired, frustrated, or things are just not going as well as planned. With current telecommunications, your study-buddy can be anywhere in the world.  Just remember: You are getting together to study.

Please never study when you are tired, angry or frustrated. You will learn nothing and you will waste your time and energy. Be wise and know when to quit. For that same reason, until the last 2 weeks, have a day off every week, and on that day do not study or even think of the exam. During the last 2 weeks you will need to study every single day. Sorry: No social engagements during those last 14 days.  You will need to end your study at least 24 hours before the test. In other words: please abstain from studying the day before the exam. By now you will know everything you could learn. Let your brain (and body) rest so you can be sharp on the day of the test. If you have to travel to a city to take the exam, try to get there at least one day earlier so you can find the venue ahead of time.

Finally, on the day of the test, wake up early, have a good nutritious breakfast, and do whatever you enjoy doing: listen to music, workout, read a book, watch TV, anything but interpreting. Do not talk to any interpreter friends, especially if they are also taking the test. We know they are showing their support, but this is not the time for you to talk. Get to the test site early, you need to plan for traffic, parking, and public transportation.  Once you arrive at the venue, avoid all others who are taking the test. Do not even acknowledge them. You will have plenty of time to explain why after the exam.  You do not need to think of any term, word, phrase, or anything at this point. Keep your brain rested and stress-free.

During the test, do not start any section of the exam unless you are ready to do it. Adjust the headphones, the volume, and the chair; make sure you have your favorite pens handy, remember to time yourself, especially during the consecutive rendition. Use your time wisely during the two sight translation exercises, make sure you use your repetitions during the consecutive only if you really need them, and please, do not stop any exercise because you will not be able to restart it. Do not stress out if you do not know one word, remember, nobody fails for missing one word, but many people flunk the test for losing concentration and missing many scoring units after losing concentration because of a single word.

Now go out there and start studying very hard. You have been working for this certification for at least one year since you took the written portion of the test. Believe in yourself and do your best to pass the exam.  In the meantime, keeping in mind that we cannot talk about the contents of the exam, I invite other colleagues who have passed the federal court certification test to share their study tips with the rest of us.

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