Becoming a Certified Interpreter
by Holly Mikkelson
What is a certified interpreter? By common agreement, a certified interpreter is an interpreter who has passed a valid and reliable certification exam administered by an independent entity such as the National Center for State Courts. Private companies that give tests to their contract interpreters may then call those interpreters certified, but most people outside those companies do not recognize such credentials. Individuals who complete certificate programs in interpreting may be qualified, but they are not certified.
How does one become a certified interpreter? As of this writing (March, 2013), certification is available in the United States for court interpreters and medical interpreters, as well as translators.
Interpreters providing services in the state courts are generally required to be certified or qualified by their state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. The majority of the states have pooled their resources by joining the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts, sponsored by the National Center for State Courts. Once a state joins the Consortium, it has access to a bank of tests in 20 different languages.
Note that not all states administer all exams, and some exams have been developed only in abbreviated form. Click here for a list of states that belong to the Consortium.
Click here for a list of contacts in each state.
Federal certification is available only in Spanish (exams were developed previously in Navajo and Haitian-Creole, but are not given regularly). Interpreters in other languages are qualified individually by the district courts where they work. Click here for more information about federal certification.
Certification for medical or healthcare interpreters is available through two different organizations, the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters and the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters. At this point, it is not yet clear what the difference between these exams is and whether one will be more widely accepted than the other.
Translators may become certified through the American Translators Association, which currently offers exams in 16 different languages.
Preparing for Certification Exams
Most certification exams have a written component, which is used primarily as a screening device. In other words, all candidates must pass the written exam to be eligible to take the oral exam. The written exam is usually a multiple-choice test taken on a computer, with questions on grammar and usage, general college-level vocabulary, specialized technical terms, reading comprehension, and subject-specific knowledge. Sometimes there is also a translation component, either set up as a series of multiple-choice questions about possible translations, or as short passages to be translated by the candidate. In many cases the written exam is given in English only, but there may be portions in both English and the other language.
To prepare for the English grammar and usage, general vocabulary, and reading comprehension sections of a written exam, the most useful tools are study guides for standardized tests such as the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), which can be found at any bookstore or public library. The certification exams for state court interpreters and those for medical interpreters tend to be at the college level, so the SAT exam is a good benchmark for the level of difficulty; whereas the GRE is a better yardstick for measuring language abilities at the level tested in the federal written exam. Resources in other languages are harder to come by, but any materials designed to develop college-level vocabulary and reading comprehension are appropriate. In addition, reading widely is always advisable (fiction and non-fiction works on a variety of subjects).
To prepare for the specialized sections on terminology and subject knowledge, courses or textbooks on the criminal justice system and criminal procedure are helpful for aspiring court interpreters; candidates for medical interpreter certification should take courses or study textbooks on anatomy, medical terminology and related topics.
It is very important to read the candidates’ manual that is provided for those who register for each of these exams, because it contains valuable information not only on exactly what the exam consists of, but also on recommended resources for preparation. If a practice test is available, it is highly recommended that candidates take that test well in advance of the actual exam so that they can assess their strengths and weaknesses and study appropriately.
Most oral exams for interpreter certification consist of simulated interpreting situations in which candidates must demonstrate proficiency interpreting in the three tested modes (simultaneous and consecutive interpreting and sight translation) between English and the other language. Recorded source texts are played by a proctor, and the candidate’s interpretation of each section is in turn recorded by the proctor so that it can be scored later on by a team of raters. The raters tend to be certified interpreters who have been trained in scoring the specific exam, and who evaluate each candidate’s recorded interpretations independently. The standard procedure is for two raters to score each exam, and if there is a disagreement between them, the recording will be evaluated by a third rater. The raters could be located anywhere in the country, and they do not know the identity of the candidate they are evaluating.
ACEBO materials are specifically designed to help candidates prepare for oral certification exams. Read the front matter in each manual carefully, as it provides important information about how to use the materials most effectively. Also, follow the instructions given for each lesson, and be prepared to repeat lessons many times for full mastery of the skills presented. Set aside a period of time (an hour or two) every day to practice your interpreting skills. It is impossible to cram for this type of exam, given that these skills need to be assimilated gradually and perfected over time. It is also a good idea to read as much as you can in both English and the other language in a wide variety of fields. The texts that appear in ACEBO's manuals are representative of the types of materials used in interpreter exams, but it is impossible to predict exactly what subjects will come up in the one you take. Therefore, you must be prepared for anything and everything.
Practicing with a study partner or small study group is particularly useful, because your colleagues can give you good feedback and keep you motivated. It is also extremely helpful to record yourself (whether you practice on your own or with others) and then listen to the recordings so you can correct errors when you repeat the lesson.
Test anxiety is a common problem that may prevent otherwise qualified candidates from passing oral exams. Here are some suggestions for overcoming test anxiety when taking oral exams:
- On the day you take your exam, don't do any studying or practicing; the time for that is past. If you try to do some last-minute cramming and you come across a word you don't know or you stumble on a phrase, it will undermine your confidence, and self-assurance is one of your most potent weapons in an oral exam. At this point, the best thing for you to do is clear your mind and get ready to give a masterful performance.
- Arrive early at the test site and park your car in a long-term parking lot so you won't have to worry about getting a ticket. On your way to the test site, you may want to shadow recordings to get your mind working on the right channels and warm up your tongue, or you can listen to inspiring music. Be aware, however, that you will not be allowed to take your player into the examination room. Whatever you do, don't listen to other candidates waiting to take their exams; fear is contagious.
When you go into the exam itself, you may want to bear in mind these additional tips for taking an oral exam:
- You do not have to be perfect to pass an interpreter certification exam—you just have to be excellent. If you make a mistake, don't let it get to you, just keep going. Maintaining your momentum and composure is of the utmost importance.
- If you realize you have made a serious mistake, fix it at the earliest opportunity (although on the simultaneous portion of the exam, you won't have time for revisions). If you have made a minor stylistic error, resist the temptation to edit; constant backtracking makes you look indecisive and wastes valuable time.
- Make intelligent guesses, not wild ones. If you are reasonably certain you can interpret a term correctly, give it your best shot. If you have no idea, leave the term in the source language.
- Presentation is extremely important. If you proceed through the exam at a steady pace, exuding confidence every step of the way, the raters (who are busy keeping track of many different things) may overlook small errors or give you the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, if you rush through the exam too fast, you'll make unintended errors. Think before you speak, and keep a moderate but steady pace.
- Don't do the raters' job for them. It is up to them to decide whether or not you have made a mistake; don't signal that fact by making comments such as, "Oh, I've forgotten that term," or "I've blocked on a word," or "I can't think of the exact word for this but it's something like ...."
- Don't let your nerves get the best of you. You will be nervous—don't be shocked when it happens—but you can channel that nervous energy in positive directions, rather than allowing it to interfere with your performance.
- Remember that the raters' job is to judge how well you interpret, not to fail you. Contrary to what you've probably heard from other candidates, the raters want you to pass. They feel better at the end of the day when they are able to report that they passed several candidates instead of saying that they had to fail everyone.
- Use your common sense, just as you do when you interpret in real life. Many candidates find the artificial setting of the testing room disconcerting, because they are not interpreting for real people. It may help to imagine the defendant/patient or the judge/doctor sitting next to you, depending on your words to understand what's going on. The bottom line is your ability to interpret meaning accurately from the source language to the target language. Bear in mind that if the passing score is 80%, for example, that means you can miss 20% of the scoring units and still pass the exam. Another way of looking at it is that you can afford to make an error every minute, and you will still not fail. This means you don't have to be perfect; so don't get flustered and lose your composure over a single error—just keep going. Keep your cool and convey the meaning as best you can. On the other hand, you don't want to take any chances; you want to do as well as possible. That's why it's so important that you practice every day between now and when you take the test. If you keep pushing yourself to do better and tackle increasingly challenging material, you will be able to meet the exacting standards of this exam.