6 Reasons Interpreters Should Still Get Certified, even if the State Doesn’t Require It

A few weeks ago, I checked my voicemail while leaving one of my first in-court appearances since the pandemic started. It was from a small agency owner looking for someone to cover a medical appointment. Though I rarely do medical work, I’ll still get requests because of the dearth of certified healthcare interpreters in my area and take them whenever I have room in my schedule. This request, like many that come through referral agencies, did not sound very promising. After describing a routine appointment, the owner asked that I provide my quote and, if I wasn’t available, for a referral. The owner ended his message saying that since this was a “basic” appointment, it did not require the skills or services of a certified interpreter. I didn’t bother calling back or insulting my colleagues by referring them to an agency that signaled their value for cheapness over professional qualifications.

More often than not, this is what it’s like to work in professional community interpreting. If I had a nickel for every time an agency told me that certification wasn’t required for a legal or medical assignment, I could probably pay off my student loans in one fell swoop. These experiences are incredibly disheartening to those working in healthcare or at the state court certification level. We are all aware that agencies and some direct clients will justify these “non-certified” assignments in order to save a couple of bucks, get a lower quote from the interpreter and widen their profit margin. Or in the case of my home state court, they’ll allow non-certified individuals to interpret in court in order to say they’re complying with federal law without investing in recruiting and retaining credentialed interpreters. Many colleagues who were interpreting without certification and then go on to get credentialed notice a drop in the number of requests from agencies once they report their certification. In many states, there’s nothing on the books that prevents agencies from building a business by having a revolving door of bargain bin non-credentialed foreign language speakers. This leaves many aspiring healthcare and court interpreters asking if they should even bother putting in the time, money, and effort into certification.

I understand my colleagues’ frustrations. When I switched careers, I always knew that working in state court and the medical field were stops as I worked and studied my way up to federal court certification and conference interpretation. This fall, I will finally be enrolling in MIIS’s Masters in Conference Interpretation, which has always been the goal, and hopefully have a successful second federal oral exam sitting in early 2022. Professional aspirations aside, I would be lying if I failed to mention that one of the reasons this was always my plan was because of the roadblocks I’d face building a robust, satisfying career if I stayed at my current levels of certification in my part of the country. In Alabama, there’s very little payoff for going through the trouble of getting certified. I’m lucky that my circumstances are letting me take advantage of new opportunities to get that federal certification and Masters. But I also know that: 1) not everyone has those same privileges, 2) there are many colleagues who love interpreting for LEPs in healthcare settings and in state court and want to keep working in these sectors, and 3) there will always be LEPs in need of our professional services for local matters. These LEPs have as much right to a professionally qualified interpreter as those LEPs in more prestigious fields.

As I prepare for this next adventure, I want to provide some words of encouragement to my beloved state court and healthcare colleagues, so that they can refer back to them whenever they’re feeling down about the state of community interpreting in the United States. Here are 6 reasons why, if there’s an exam available in your language combination, you should still pursue court and medical certification:

1. Certification is the Only Way to Prove Your Interpreting Abilities

Judiciary and healthcare interpreting are two very important and highly sensitive fields where one wrong interpretation can be the difference between literal life or death. The general public is still relatively ignorant to this fact, but any working interpreter knows this is the case. Like any other professional field, not everyone is cut out to do this job. Right now, the only way we can separate every-day bilinguals from competent interpreters is through the certification tests established by our respective certifying bodies. Just like aspiring doctors and lawyers who must pass their licensing exams in addition to completing their coursework before they’re allowed to practice, nothing else, not even post graduate training programs, are enough to qualify someone to interpret in medical and legal proceedings.

Whenever I get a request for an assignment and am weighing whether or not I’m currently apt to take it on, I pose myself the following question: If I were to be questioned under oath about my qualifications, would they be up to muster? Pose yourself the same question: if you were asked to state what qualifies you to interpret in a legal or medical setting, would simply being bilingual be enough? Would it be enough to have knowledge of specialized terminology? How about past experiences interpreting for friends and family members? The answer is, while these may be desirable qualities in aspiring interpreters, none of these would be enough to qualify someone to interpret professionally. The only thing that can tell the world that we have met the bare minimum requirements to do this job is completing all of the credentialing requirements and passing the available certification assessments. Everything else falls short.

2. Certification Will Open the Door to More Direct Clients

Initially, most of us get our private sector work through referral agencies to pay the bills while we build our professional network. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing what’s necessary to pay the bills, and many long practicing interpreters will still take on agency assignments to fill up any free time in their calendar. But as many of you know, the real money and the best jobs are with direct clients, regardless of your interpreting field. Many clients prefer working with direct providers, because there won’t be any mystery surrounding the interpreter’s identity and they feel more confident having a direct relationship with an expert that can help them solve any problems they may have. Interpreters also like working with direct clients, because there is no middleman when negotiating terms and conditions. If you want to get more direct clients, especially high-profile clients that are familiar with interpreters and willing to pay top dollar to protect their clients’ interests, then you need the goods to be able to sell yourself to the client. Put yourself in the shoes of a senior partner at a renowned regional or national firm: would you be willing to hire an interpreter that has not passed a widely available credentialing exam? As a former attorney, I can tell you that when faced with either hiring an uncredentialled bilingual or a more expensive certified interpreter, I always shelled out the extra cash for the latter.

Another avenue to direct clients is your colleagues. I have a referral list of trusted colleagues that I’ll give clients (free of charge) when I’m unavailable or unable to take on a project. I’ve also gotten a lot of direct work through my colleagues whenever they can’t provide services. In order to get on your colleagues’ radars, you have to have the credentials for them to trust you with their clients. I will only refer my current and prospective clients to colleagues that have the right credentialing and professional experience. While I tell my clients that I’m not responsible for my colleagues’ work, I don’t want to jeopardize my relationship with them by sending them to someone whom I don’t trust to do the job. If, ultimately, you do want to build your private practice, you’re going to have to get certified to open the door to direct clients. And remember: unlike relying on a revolving door of low-paying agencies, once you get well-paying clients, you’ll only need a short list to make a lucrative, professional living.

3. Certification Will Give You More Bargaining Power

In legal and healthcare interpreting, there are certain assignments where agencies can’t get away with sending a bilingual paraprofessional. As you move up the certification ladder in community interpreting, the pool of prospective interpreters who can take on those assignments is going to shrink. (See: federal court cases.) While not completely eliminated (we’re still working on that), there will be less competition from non-credentialed interpreters for these jobs. When agencies, and some direct clients, are backed into a corner and forced only to consider credentialed interpreters, the prospective interpreters will suddenly have a lot more power to get the job on their terms. If the referral agency, which has no (practicing) interpreters on staff, wants its pay cut from that client, it has to find the client a credentialed interpreter for these assignments. No interpreter, no pay day. That means they’ll want you because you hold that certification and will be more willing to accept your fees and job conditions to secure you for their client. Compare this with the non-credentialed bilingual: the only tool at their disposal is to chip away at their rate in the hopes that being the cheapest bid will get them a quick buck. Unless you want undercutting your fees to be the only tool at your disposal, you have to get certified.

4. Certification Will Give You More Liability Protection

There is no such thing as a perfect or flawless interpreter, and anyone claiming as much is lying. Errors on the job are bound to happen, which is why every working professional interpreter has Errors and Omissions insurance. Regardless of whether or not you’re insured (and you should be), there may come a day when someone tries to come after you by questioning your professional qualifications. I hope you never go through this, but if this day comes, being certified is your main form of protection. If you aren’t certified, there isn’t much you’ll be able to use to prove to the accusing party that you are qualified to provide interpreting services and that you did your job within the bounds of the standards of practice interpreters in your field must follow. An adversarial party can easily use your lack of credentials against you, and there may be dire professional and financial consequences. But if you’re certified, you’ll have concrete proof that a body of professional peers assessed your skills and deemed you qualified to provide interpreting services in your field. You can use your certification to also prove that you know and are up to date on the standards of practice and that’s what you were abiding by on that specific assignment. Without those credentials, it will be almost impossible to verify your skills and ethics knowledge.

5. Certification Will Give You Credibility When Advocating for the Profession

Any practicing healthcare or court interpreter will tell you that the state of US community interpreting is far from perfect. We have eons to go before community interpreters are where they need to be in terms of professional acknowledgement by government, agencies, and our peers in other professions. As working interpreters, we are the only ones who truly understand just how behind we are and the implications of not recognizing healthcare and court interpreting as professions. This means that locally, regionally, and nationally, we will need to lobby our lawmakers to get the systemic changes we need to gain this recognition, get the protections to do our jobs properly, and curtail the activities of the shadier entities profiting off of the current system at the expense of the professional interpreters and LEPs.

When advocating for the profession, interpreters will be asked what gives them the authority to do so? How can they trust our knowledge about court and healthcare interpreting? Why should they take what we have to say into consideration? If you’re certified, you’ll be able to point to both all of the training you did to sit the exam and the approval of a professional, unbiased body of peers whose main interest is protecting the profession. This will signal to others that they are talking, not just to any individual who happens to be bilingual, but to a professional who continues to invest time and work into their professional development. They can have faith and turn to us whenever they have questions about our profession. Certification is our ticket to being perceived and treated as the authorities on court and healthcare interpreting in order to educate the public and demand much needed reforms.

6. Obtaining the Minimal Credentials is the Only Ethical Option

At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself if you believe that court and healthcare interpreting are ways to make a quick buck or professions? If you really believe that we are a profession, then that means you have an ethical obligation to approach this field like you would any other career. If you wanted to be a doctor, then you’ll invest in MCAT prep, medical school, passing the license exam, and eventually your boards. If want to be a practicing attorney, then you have to sit the LSATs, go to law school, study for and pass the bar. If you stumble along the way, that means taking a step back and figuring out what you need to do to keep advancing in the field. Same thing goes for dentistry, accounting, engineering, and every other profession out there: you have a responsibility to the profession to meet the standards that they are setting. If you want to be a professional court or healthcare interpreter, then it is up to you to show your commitment and make the investment necessary to meet the minimum credentials set by the profession. Right now, that minimum for certain language combinations is sitting the certification examinations in place.

Moreover, many of us get into the field not just because the career excites us, but because at one point we’ve witnessed just how badly LEPs need language access services. Think of any LEP currently living in the United States and put yourself in their shoes. If you were reliant on the services of an interpreter to access the courts or healthcare, wouldn’t you want to be in the hands of someone who has, at the very least, met the bare minimum credentials to do this job? Wouldn’t you want your interpreter to be someone who can guarantee that your words will be fully communicated to the other parties and that you’ll be able to understand everything that’s being said? How can you, the interpreter, assure the LEP that you can do this without passing the one exam that can confirm your ability to do this job? No matter how good you think you are or have been told you are, you simply can’t. After all, would you want to be treated by a doctor who says he “knows he’s good” but has failed to get his medical license? Would you want to be represented by a law graduate who has given up on passing the bar and blames the examiners instead of trying to find out what they need to work on to pass? I know I wouldn’t.

At the end of the day, even if in your state there isn’t much immediate payoff for the work you’ll need to put in, you need to get certified because it’s the only ethical option court and healthcare interpreters have. By doing the right thing, I think you’ll also find that once you do get this credential, the professional (and monetary) payoff will slowly start trickling in.

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