The Importance of the Often Neglected Forensic Transcription/Translation

In my time working as a court interpreter here in Alabama, there’s one mistake I see attorneys and courts make time and again that can lead (and have led) to miscarriages of justice: failing to get a forensic transcription/translation done of foreign language audio recordings. If you’re not a court interpreter, you may be asking yourself what on earth I’m talking about. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that an attorney is appointed to represent a Limited English Proficient defendant in a criminal trial. During discovery, she receives a copy of the recording of her client’s interrogation, which led to his arrest. The interrogation was done either using a bilingual speaker (usually a friend, family member, or bilingual police staff) as an interpreter or by a bilingual law enforcement officer, which means 50 to 100% of the recording is in a foreign language that the attorney does not understand. Other recordings regularly seen in cases with foreign-language speakers are wiretaps of conversations between a suspect and confidential informant or undercover officer, cellphone footage of police encounters, or conversations between co-conspirators.

When such evidence is in play, as the court interpreter, I see one of two things happen: If there’s someone acting as an interpreter in the recording, it is assumed that that person interpreted competently and no one bothers to have the recording assessed by an expert. If a party does want to call the interpretation in the audio into question or if the recording is strictly in a foreign language, the court will sometimes request that the court interpreters render a live interpretation of the audio being played in the courtroom. Most interpreters, myself included, will refuse to do so for reasons we’ll look at in this post. Other interpreters will try to do a live rendition that, nine times out of ten, won’t meet the high threshold of our oath to render a faithful, complete, and accurate interpretation. At no point does anyone treat this recording as an important piece of forensic evidence or ask if there may be a professional who specializes in working with it.

My hope today is to inform officers of the court that, indeed, there are experts who can provide the exact services needed in these cases. I want court personnel, and court interpreters who may be pressured into doing a live interpretation of a recording, to understand what a transcription/translation is, why it is so important, and the risks of not hiring the right professional to do the job.

What is a transcription/translation?

Transcription/Translation (TT) is a highly specialized discipline that is a hybrid of court interpreting and legal translation. TT differs from transcripts you may see in other audiovisual industries, in that the forensic TT expert must capture all sound elements in the recording: stammering, repetitions, hedges, grammatical errors, incorrect word usage, sounds, background noise, different speakers, swear words, slang, overlapping speakers, etc. Like court interpreters, they cannot clean up what they hear and they must try to capture as much of what is heard on tape as possible. The expert can’t decide what sounds on the tape merit being documented. That dog barking in the background, the speaker stammering, parties whispering, a muted microphone, or the music playing could all be of forensic importance to the case, so all of it must be reflected in the final transcript. The Transcription Translation Expert (TTE) must then take that finalized transcription and provide a written translation into English that best preserves the meaning of the original, including niche (think code words used in the drug or human trafficking trade) or regional/cultural references and meanings. A professional transcription/translation will be formatted so that the parties that are relying on it can follow along with the recording. The end product must be something that the TTE can defend on the witness stand as a qualified expert. It is excruciating, long, and tedious work, even with the help of the best transcription and dictation software available on the market.

How can transcription/translations help in a case involving a foreign language speaker?

As the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators rightly points out in their position paper on transcription/translation, transcripts are considered an “Aid to Understanding”, or alternatively, Opinion Evidence. I couldn’t put it better than they did, so I will quote from their position paper directly: “In either instance, a transcript is produced by the prosecution to aide in processing sound that may not be readily accessible to the unassisted ear of jurors, parties, and the Court…When any portion of the sound file is challenged, in the absence of a transcription/translation, the only source of reference is the official record, which will have to be read every time reference is made to a specific portion of the recording. If someone challenges the use of a specific word, there is no transcription to reference for the word in question. Aside from a reading from the official record, the only other options are to rely on the memory of the interpreter, who may or may not be present in the courtroom during all proceedings, or to listen to the sound file each time a word or phrase is challenged. This method is not expeditious. For this reason, a transcription translation that stands up to scrutiny in the courtroom and meets legal evidentiary standards should always be used.”[1]

Why can’t the court interpreters just do a live interpretation of the recording?

Due to a lack of knowledge about TT and in an effort to cut costs, many officers of the court will erroneously assume that they can deal with foreign language recordings by simply using court interpreters to render live interpretations of the audio, usually in the consecutive mode of interpreting. While I understand how someone could arrive at this conclusion, it is wrong for two reasons. First, while some court interpreters may be trained in TT or have knowledge of what is needed to do produce a good TT, they will not have all of these tools at their disposal to successfully deliver an English rendition of the foreign language recording. In order to successfully produce a good transcription/translation, a professional needs knowledge of the transcription process, time, technology, and research tools, none of which are present when doing a live rendition. As NAJIT, yet again, says beautifully, “A forensic psychiatrist would be remiss, indeed disqualified, if he provided an expert opinion on a patient based on seeing the patient for the first time in the court room. Along the same lines, forensic TT requires expertise, time, and technology to perform the work required to an adequate standard.”[2]

Second, because they do not have these tools at our disposal and, therefore, can only produce a mediocre rendition of the audio at best, court interpreters put themselves in danger of violating their oath to render a complete, full, and faithfully accurate interpretation for the record. We serve at the pleasure of the court and have a duty to protect the record. We simply cannot do that when we’re asked to do an on-site live interpretation of recordings, no matter how crystal clear the audio is. Some may try and argue that we can do on-site interpretations of recordings, comparing it to Sight Translation. The difference here is that sight translation is within our parameters as court interpreters, where interpreting evidentiary recordings is not. We are trained and tested on our sight translation skills, but not on interpreting sound files. The sound file used in the court certification exam is also not comparable, because those are meant to mimic everyday court procedures interpreters encounter on the job. They DO NOT include sound files mimicking audiovisual evidence. Additionally, we have specific limits placed on sight translations. We are limited to only sight translating short documents. We have to decline anything lengthier or more technical and recommend that the court get a professional translation done instead. I would argue that onsite interpretations of recordings are more comparable to sight translations of lengthier documents in that they should not be done and need to be referred to other experts.

I would also argue that by interpreting evidence presented at a hearing or trial, court interpreters are putting their neutrality at stake. This is because, especially in instances where they are asked to interpret audio where someone else served as an interpreter (for example, in a recording of an interrogation), interpreters may be asked to opine on the quality of the interpretation heard in the recording. At that point, we step out of our role as the court interpreter and into the role of an expert witness for the party seeking to admit or dismiss that piece of evidence. When this happens, our neutrality is compromised for the rest of the proceeding. Even in civil litigation, where interpreters are specifically hired by one of the parties, acting as an expert in this capacity could call into question your neutrality. This conflict is easily resolved by bringing in an outside forensic TT expert, leaving the assigned court interpreters’ neutrality intact and free to interpret court proceedings without further complications.

What does the transcription/translation process look like?

You may be asking yourself what this work entails, especially to justify the high cost of these services. Let’s say you have a piece of audio recording that you want transcribed and translated and you’ve located a potential expert. Great! First, the expert must get a sense for what the assignment entails and decide if there’s any conflict of interest. Next, they’ll need a copy of the recording. You, the client, must keep the original to preserve the chain of custody. The copy should be of the highest quality available, which can be difficult since most recording devices used in court cases aren’t top of the line. While it need not be perfect, make sure the copy is as good as possible to lessen the risk of having portions deemed “unintelligible”.

Next, you’ll need to look at the purpose of the transcription/translation. Are you looking for a rough draft/summary of the sound file or do you need a complete TT? It’s fine to request a summary for limited informational purposes, but keep in mind that this won’t be a certified TT for use in court and that the expert will make a note identifying the final product as a draft or summary. Also, keep in mind that “in the case of a summary being requested, the [expert] must advise the client that producing a summary calls for the [expert] to make a judgement call as to what constitutes important information and what does not. This lies outside the [expert’s] area of expertise.”[3] Caveat emptor: you’re requesting a summary at the risk of missing details that would only be available in a complete certified transcription/translation.

Once the client’s request is clear, the main TTE will review the recording to assess how much time he or she will need to complete the project, if the deadline is realistic, or if one or more additional TTE teams will need to be brought in to tackle the project. While the rule of thumb is one audio minute equals one hour of work, this can vary depending on the quality of the recording and complexity of the speech recorded. After assessing the recording, the TTE will outline for the client what time and resources they will need to complete the assignment. The TTE will also reach out to their editor and other teammates (if needed) to make sure they are available for the assignment.

If the client gives the green light, the main TTE will begin transcribing the sound file. Forensic transcription is very tedious, even with technology that helps cut down on work time. Because of the nature of forensic transcription/translations, we cannot just stick an audio file in a transcribing program and rely on the final product. In fact, many encrypted audio file formats typically seen in a court case are not compatible with this type of software, meaning more manual work for the TTE. Even when software can be used, the TTE will still need to go back through the audio and make sure that the transcription is correct and complete. This also means additional research to verify that they are hearing what the speakers are saying correctly, including code words, slang, geographical markers (streets, cities, landmarks, etc.), errors, and misspeaks. When the TTE finishes their first draft of the transcription, they’ll send that draft to the editor for revisions. The editor will send back the draft with their notes, which the TTE will look over. If he or she disagrees with any of the editor’s suggestions, the TTE and editor will work together to resolve the dispute.

When the transcription is finalized, the translation process begins. Before beginning the translation, the TTE will look over the transcription and research any terminology that could prove problematic. For certain niche topics, they may need to consult an outside expert. For example, if in a recording there is a high amount of Nicaraguan gang slang, I would need to consult a colleague familiar with that subsect of terminology. After completing their glossary, the TTE will start the first draft of the translation. Once the first draft is done, the TTE will send it to their editor. The editing process can be just as extensive as translating. The editor will need to make sure that the translation corresponds correctly to that portion of the transcription, that nothing has been omitted, and that the translation accurately reflects the text of the original. The editor will provide edits and notes, and the TTE and editor will send it back and forth, until they have a finalized version of the translation, which the TTE will certify.

The TTE will then turn in the final product to the client: a side-by-side transcription/translation of the audio recording, with an attached glossary and index (if needed). At the top of the Forensic TT, they will identify the recording and also provide a legend so that the reader can easily follow along as they go through it. This, ladies and gentleman, is why one minute of audio can require an hour or more of work.

What should I look for in a prospective forensic TT expert?

Once again, NAJIT does a wonderful job outlining[4] what types of skills and credentials you should look at when hiring a prospective expert. They rightly point out that “not all interpreters are adept at transforming the spoken word into written text with the accuracy required in the legal setting. By the same token, professional translators may lack the training to accurately transform live recorded extemporaneous speech into written form.” Ideally, you’re looking for a professional who is trained and familiar with the nuances of court interpreting, as well as written translation technique. As a former attorney, I would say that practitioners should make sure that they hire someone who can pass the voir dire procedure and be qualified as an expert on the witness stand. Remember: whomever you hire may have to defend their transcription/translation under oath.

The first step in narrowing down potential candidates is looking at their credentials. The National Center for State Courts, the credentialing body of most state court interpreters, requires a credentialed transcription/translation expert for legal transcription/translation work. While there is no specific certification for TT, you’ll need to get an extensive history of the expert’s training and specify who granted them their credentials. There are three existing credentials that you could look for in your potential expert. Translators are certified by the American Translators Association. Keep in mind that the ATA exam tests general translation skills in various English/Foreign Language pairings. Their exams are not bidirectional, meaning that they test specifically from one source language into one target language. For example, if a translator wants to be certified to translate to and from English & Spanish, she will need to sit two separate exams: one testing her skills from Spanish into English and a second testing from English into Spanish.

For court interpreters, there are two types of certification tests. The Administrative Office of US Courts provides a certification exam for Spanish court interpreters only.[5] State courts certify their interpreters either through the National Center for State Courts or through their own internal examination (ex. New York State). The state level certification examination is available in Spanish and Languages Other Than Spanish (LOTS). Unlike the ATA exam, court interpreting exams are bidirectional, as they test court interpreting skills both into and out of English and the foreign language. A potential expert who holds one of these three credentials is a good starting point, but you’ll want to consider their training and work experience extensively. For languages that do not have a certification exam, the process will be even more complicated and you should consult with an expert who provides forensic transcription/translation services on how to approach this situation.

In your search, you must also keep in mind what skills prospective experts must have in addition to credentials. According to NAJIT,[6] some of the skills these experts should have include:

  • Acute hearing
  • Native-quality knowledge of languages
  • Understanding of cultural factors
  • Expertise in recognition of language registers
  • Formal higher education
  • Analytical skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Knowledge of research methodology
  • Ethical expertise
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Neutrality
  • Awareness of forensic testimony requirements
  • Ability to self-monitor and correct
  • Openness to third-party review
  • Knowledge of technical tools
  • Openness to new technology and methods

From this list, I want to highlight the skills mentioned relating to acting as an expert witness in a case. Just like members of other professions, not all interpreters & translators are adept at being expert witnesses. It is important that you hire someone that knows what to expect as a potential expert witness. This should not discourage you from hiring someone newer to TT, since we all have to start somewhere, but it should drive home the point that you can’t just pluck out any court interpreter to do this work. Given all of the credentials, skills, and experience that are required of forensic TT experts, combined with how exhaustive this work is, it should come as no surprise that these services are not cheap. In fact, inexpensive transcription/translation services are a red flag. Remember: this is work usually done in teams of two or more, where one audio minute of recording is equivalent to one hour of work. While some of these experts may be open to negotiating fees for special circumstances or indigent clients, be wary of something that sounds too good to be true. As many civil litigation attorneys will tell you, you get the expert you pay for.

Who benefits from a professional transcription/translation?

Right now, there is not a lot of official policy on the books on using professional qualified interpreters in the investigation phase of a case, be it in criminal or civil court. While there are great position papers providing guidance on this,[7]professional interpreters typically aren’t brought in until the preliminary hearing phase. To put it shortly, you never know what you’re going to get when it comes to language services used to communicate with LEP suspects, witnesses, and victims during an investigation. Once you get to the hearings phase of a case, the window to look at this evidence begins to close and those court interpreters assigned to interpret in proceedings must not be used to interpret and assess what is heard in the recordings. This puts the accusing and defending parties at risk of being both perpetrators and victims of miscarriages of justice.

A well-done forensic TT of audiovisual recordings can help all parties rest assure that they have the necessary facts to proceed with the case. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will have all of the evidence needed to present their best case and uphold their professional duties. Judges will also be able to make more informed rulings. LEPs going through the justice system will also be one step closer to equal access to the courts. It is a win-win for all parties involved. I say this because I don’t want to give the impression that transcription/translations can only be used to dismiss charges or appeal decisions. A lack of forensic TT can also harm the State’s chances of proving a case or a victim’s chances of successfully seeking justice. Remember: when the proper language professionals aren’t used everyone is harmed. The defendant is harmed. Victims are harmed. Families and friends, the community, the courts, taxpayers, and even the State are harmed. Everyone loses. Getting a forensic transcription/translation of audiovisual evidence is going to take more time and require more of a financial investment up front, but in the long run, it can prevent so much unnecessary harm.

Do I provide Forensic Transcription/Translation services?

The short answer is no, not right now.

While there is no hard and fast rule on when a court interpreter is ready to provide these services, it’s important to read the position papers provided by our professional organization and reflect on what you need to be ready to act as an expert. You may arrive at a different conclusion regarding the career milestones you need to meet before working as a TT expert. That’s completely fine. I’m just offering my reflections to help my colleagues.

Even though I am certified in two states as a Spanish court interpreter, I made the call a while back not to provide these services until I was certain that I was in a place professionally to deliver a solid product and defend my work under scrutiny as an expert witness. I have no qualms about testifying as a witness, but I want to have all the goods to back me up under a tough interrogation. First, because I work with Spanish, I want to hold the highest certification standard for Spanish court interpreters: federal certification. Additionally, I’d also like the ATA’s Spanish > English certification to further back up the translation portion of my work product. Second, I needed to take a continuing education course to learn the fundamentals of forensic transcription/translation. I took the one offered by Castillo Language Services, which I highly recommend. Finally, I need to have a reliable network of colleagues that have met the same credentialing standards and are willing to work with me as a part of a forensic transcription/translation team as my editors, collaborators on projects that require multiple transcription/translation teams, and as resources for the different regional variations of Spanish and niche terminology that can pop up in court cases. My professional goal is always to take care of the trust that is being instilled in me by the client, courts, and LEPs. I will only start offering this service once I meet these benchmarks that will allow me to fulfill this goal.

[1] National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators Position Paper: “Onsite Simultaneous Interpretation of a Sound File is Not Recommended”.

[2] See Footnote 1.

[3] National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators Position Paper: “General Guidelines and Requirements for Transcription Translation in a Legal Setting for Users and Practitioners”.

[4]See Footnote 3.

[5] Note: The Administrative Office of US Courts formerly offered the court certification exam in Haitian Creole and Navajo, but those exams have since been retired.

[6]See Footnote 1.

[7] National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators Position Paper: “Language Assistance for Law Enforcement”.

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.

A Retrospective on the University of Arizona’s CITI Course

Last summer, I had the privilege of attending the University of Arizona’s renowned Court Interpreter Training Institute. Registration is now open for the 2021 session, and I wanted to provide my thoughts for anyone considering making the transition to court interpreting or looking for formal training in preparation for either the state or federal certification exams.

What is the CITI?

According to the University of Arizona website, “The ​CITI ​is ​an ​intensive ​professional ​development ​program ​for Spanish/English ​legal ​interpreters. Interpretation is both an art and a science, requiring very specialized training. Our federally certified and highly experienced instructors, combined with our extensive curriculum, offer a level of quality not easily matched. The CITI is committed to providing students with individual attention. The CITI program is also an ideal way to prepare for both the written and oral portions of the State or Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination (FCICE).”

Who is the program for?

As stated in the description, the program is suited for both individuals from any state looking to transition to court interpreting and experienced court interpreters that work in the Spanish < > English combination who are looking polish their skills in preparation for state and federal exams. For those worried that the program will either be too remedial or too advanced, there’s no need to fret. The instructors will divide you into separate groups based on skills level determined by an interpreting diagnostic test. I was in the advanced group, which consisted of experienced court interpreters with state certification or EOIR approval, conference interpreters transitioning to the court room, a newly federally certified interpreter, university professors, and a veteran translator. We all had the goal of passing the federal exam or feeling ready to work in federal court, in the case of our colleague who had just passed that exam. I felt like we were all at a comparable level, had similar professional goals, and that I learned a lot from working with the colleagues in my group.

How has it changed in the past year?

The biggest change to the CITI since the pandemic started is that it is not being held in person, but fully online. Previously, the pre-course prep sessions in June were held online, and the two-week intensive portion was held on-site in Tucson, Arizona.If time and a limited budget kept you from traveling for the course in the past, you may want to take advantage of the fact that the course will be held strictly online for the second year in a row.

Has the course adapted well to the online format?

Yes. The Class of 2020 was the guinea pig class. Despite having to make the format switch relatively quickly, the CITI team was extremely well-prepared. The platforms to access interpreting exercises, materials, and colleague recordings were well chosen. The tutorials provided were informative and user friendly. There were almost no technical snafus, and any tech issues were quickly resolved by the support team, Paul Gatto and Kate, last summer’s student assistant. The instructors also adapted well. Class time was still engaging, and the built-in breaks did help stave off Zoom fatigue. I can only imagine that the 2021 session will improve, based on lessons learned and student feedback.

What should I expect?

What prospective colleagues need to keep in mind is that the CITI is very intensive, and what you get out of the course is fully dependent on your level of time and commitment. Make sure that you’re ready to set aside the time needed to attend the pre-workshop seminars, to do the readings, go to class, and complete the homework assignments.

Before the pre-session officially begins in June, you’ll take a brief, live, interpreting assessment. The support staff will put up the sight translations on the screen and play the audio files for you. The students are in charge of recording their renditions on their devices (phones, computer, etc.) and uploading them. If you’ve taken a court certification exam, then you know what you’re in for. It follows the exact same trajectory: sight translation exercises, consecutive, and then simultaneous exercise in the criminal court context. Because they’re assessing individuals aiming for state and federal certification at different levels, there is only one simultaneous exercise, an attorney’s opening or closing argument. Shortly before the two-week session in July, you’ll receive a score report, with rater feedback. You’ll be able to compare this score report with the diagnostic exam you’ll take at the end of the course.

June will be spent taking different seminars where students learn about the fundamentals of court interpreting, note-taking skills, best practices, and introductions to the main areas of specialized vocabulary that pop up on the job and on the certification exams. These are hybrids of live sessions and pre-recorded videos that students must view to receive their certificate of completion in the program. If you’re already certified and working in the courts, some of it can feel a bit repetitive, but in all honesty, I appreciated going back to basics. In my opinion, it’s never too late to get a refresher. The instructors are all great and experienced in their respective fields. Several of our most renowned federally certified peers lead these seminars.

There is also interpreting homework! You’ll be given certain exercises to complete and will also be asked to provide feedback to two students for each exercise. Be prepared to encounter renditions that vary in levels, as you’re not yet in your groups for the two-week session. These exercises will also help to familiarize you with the platform the CITI uses for uploading renditions and leaving feedback. June is less intensive than July, so you can still work full time, but be prepared to set aside a few hours a week for the assignments and seminars. July is when you need to be ready to buckle down. Classes last all day, so I would advise against working full time during those two weeks. Either take those two weeks off or, if your time zone allows, only work in the morning. I blocked off those two weeks completely, save for one emergency, last-minute assignment from a longtime client.

Classes are divided into three sessions. First, you’ll all meet together with one of the instructors to go over the lesson on best practices for that day. Prepare your questions on the material ahead of time so that the session can be as productive as possible. Then, there’s a quick break before breaking out into your assigned group, where you’ll do two sessions with a lunch break. Once you’re in your group, it’s straight into interpreting practice with the instructor in one of the three modes. How renditions are evaluated is mixed. Sometimes, you’ll be asked to record your rendition of the exercise with the Zoom mic off and then analyze it. Other times, you’ll be picked to do a live rendition that your classmates and instructor will listen to. They’ll then provide feedback. Instructors will also divide you into breakout groups to work in small groups, with the instructors popping in at random to take notes on how you’re performing. Instructors also leave plenty of time aside to analyze passages and discuss vocabulary. Similar to June’s homework, you’ll also be required to upload a rendition of your choice for certain exercises and to provide feedback to your colleagues on their interpretations.

There are two instructors that oversee the course in July. Last summer, the class of 2020 worked with Carmen Patel and Carlos Rodillo, both experienced federally certified interpreters. I enjoyed both of their teaching styles and felt that they really complement each other. One instructor will work with Group A one week and Group B the following, so you’ll get the opportunity to work with both of them.

Aside from the intensive interpreting practice, you’ll also get a 15-minute one-on-one session with each instructor to get their feedback, ask any questions, and help you strategize your next steps to continue developing your skills.

At the end of the two weeks, you’ll take the exit exam and have a “graduation” ceremony to celebrate everyone’s accomplishments. A few weeks later, you’ll receive the results of your exit exam, with stats on how much you’ve improved, and final notes from the instructors.

Is it worth the investment?

The CITI Course costs $2,595. It’s a hefty investment, but overall, I feel that it’s well worth the money. I signed up, because I had achieved state certification on my own but felt that I needed more formal instruction and guidance to know how to prepare for the federal exam. It also gave me a much-needed morale boost after I failed to pass the federal exam on the first try. Having veteran instructors honestly evaluate me and tell me that I do have the aptitude to succeed on the exam has given me the push to keep working. The fact that I boosted my diagnostic score by 35% also didn’t hurt, because it showed that putting in the work does help you improve.

Keep in mind that not everyone who passes a certification exam has attended the CITI. It’s not mandatory to achieve professional success, but for me it’s been invaluable. I believe that the CITI will set you up to best take advantage of the practice material and courses available specifically to prepare for the certification exams. You’ll have a better understanding of how to study smarter so you can reach the professional growth needed not just to pass these exams, but to be prepared to work in state and federal court. There are many state and federally certified interpreters who will tell you that the CITI was instrumental to their successes.

Given the over 100 hours of instruction, top notch materials that I’m still using to prepare for the federal, and amazing instructors, it was worth every penny. I honestly believe that a course like the CITI should be implemented nationally for interpreters who want to work in the legal field. I also hope that, in the future, more courses modeled after the CITI will be developed for other working languages in our court systems.

On top of that, I have to mention the wonderful colleagues and friends I made. We meshed so well, I’m convinced the stars aligned for us to meet. Immediately following the course, we created our own WhatsApp group, which I’m happy to report is still incredibly active. Some colleagues have formed their own study group for their exams, and others have gone on to do other courses together. We regularly consult the chat for terminology and best practices. They’ve also been a great support group as I prepare to go back to graduate school. Getting to meet them was an invaluable part of the CITI, and I’d do it all over again just to meet them.

If you’d like to sign up for the Summer 2021 session, you can use the code “citi-alum” at checkout to receive 10% off.

Note: This is not a sponsored post nor will I make any money off of the code. This is just an overview from one happy alumna.

The Discrepancies Between Professional Standards and Everyday Interpreting Practice

Imagine that you’re a patient going in for a surgical procedure. This is a procedure that isn’t done at the state-run hospital you normally go to.  Instead, you’ll have to go to a private specialist. Everything seems above board. The hospital administration assures you that you’ll be receiving first-rate care from a qualified surgeon. You figure that, because over at the public, state-subsidized hospital, the surgeon is provided a surgical support team, the same protocol will be followed at the private hospital. On the day of the surgery, you arrive, are admitted, and are finally rolled into the operating room.

But something seems off. Instead of the busy noises of a surgical staff — nurses, techs, the anesthesiologist — prepping for procedure, only the surgeon present. He informs you that, at this hospital, he is not permitted a surgical staff. This hospital believes that one surgeon alone should be able to handle all aspects procedure. The surgeon won’t just be focusing on performing the surgery. He’ll be fulfilling the roles of surgeon, anesthesiologist, nurses, and techs at the same time. Who cares if that compromises medical ethics and standards of practice? At the end of the day, this is done to save you, the patient, money and widen the hospital’s profit margin by bending ethics rules.

Now, imagine you’re a defendant being accused of a heinous crime. You and your family decide that it’s worth spending the money on an expensive, experienced, top private attorney to build your defense. Your attorney enters a notice of appearance, and at the next pretrial hearing asks the judge for a continuance so that he can get familiar with the case and uphold his duty as your defense attorney and your constitutional right to a fair trial and competent representation. The judge, however, says that the attorney’s law degree and license are all that he needs to defend a case. There’s no use wasting time with trial prep work. He’s got to keep his docket going, so he denies your attorney his motion and sets the trial to start for the following day.

All of these scenarios seem completely absurd. However, the compromise in professional ethics and standards of practice reflected in the above scenarios are par for the course in the private market sphere of legal interpreting. The sad part is that this harm is coming from within the profession as much as it’s coming from outside of it. I can guarantee that almost every working interpreter, including colleagues whom I admire and respect, are guilty of bending our ethics and standards of practice because we’ve been led to believe that we have no other choice to be marketable.

If you’re still reluctant to believe that you may have broken our standards of practice, answer the following:

  • Have you ever accepted a legal interpreting assignment (deposition, immigration interview, court hearing, trial, etc.) lasting more than 30 minutes as a solo interpreter?
  • Have you ever gone into a private legal assignment without doing prep work and familiarizing yourself with the subject matter of the case?
  • If you’re a translator, have you ever worked on a project without an editor?

My guess is that the majority have answered “yes” to at least one of these questions. I am not trying to shame my colleagues, but I am inviting them to sit with themselves and with the discomfort of knowing that we’ve all done these things even though we know that our standards of practice tell us we shouldn’t. The first important step is accepting that we have all committed these transgressions. It’s time to address the giant elephant in the room, because ignoring it and pretending that everything is fine isn’t going to make things any better for us or those who rely on our services.

While I’m writing from the perspective of a legal interpreter, I believe there are takeaways here for those working in medical and conference interpreting, as well as our translator colleagues. I don’t think there’s a single sphere of interpreting or translating where we have not felt the pressure to bend or break the standards of practice to be “marketable”. I hope that what I write will make my colleagues pause and reflect on how and why we as a profession have allowed the eschewing of the very standards we and our predecessors worked so hard to set.

My post today is not just for my independent contractor colleagues. Today, I’m also reaching out to the parties who hire us in the hopes of helping them understand just how their assignment terms and conditions and search for the cheapest provider are harming the profession and the parties soliciting professional language services.

The Importance of Judiciary Interpreting Standards

Prepare for the assignment. Interpret everything accurately. Don’t omit or change anything. Work in teams of two or more. Correct errors on the record. Decline assignments whose working conditions don’t allow you to uphold the Code of Ethics.

When I first began my coursework in translation and interpretation, it was drilled into me over and over again just how important ethics and standards of practice are to the profession. Following them not only protects the interpreter or translator, it also protects the non-English speaker and the courts. They ensure that everyone’s constitutional rights and professional duties are upheld. As a newbie interpreter, I was constantly referring back to these rules whenever a questionable situation popped up, until I knew them like the back of my hand.

Back then, I was more afraid of putting myself in hot water by accidentally breaking the rules. Now, however, I’m more aware of how these standards are put in place to protect everyone relying on the interpreter. I no longer use them to only justify protecting myself from liability, but to protect the client, attorney, judge, and courts from being harmed. Going back to the surgeon and attorney examples: why are there codes of ethics, practice, and professional responsibility that these professional swear to uphold? Yes, it’s to protect themselves, if they’re ever asked to do something unethical, but they’re also there to protect the patient and the client. The same goes for interpreters and translators. These codes aren’t there so that interpreters and translators can make things difficult for everyone, to be lofty aspirations, or mere suggestions. They are mandatory requirements for us to be able to do our job correctly.

This can be harder to see with foreign language interpreters and translators, because of the assumption that a good language service provider is a walking translation machine. In the eyes of many, we are individuals that work with words, not linguistical concepts and communication, and are just there to serve as a living Google Translate. This is far from the truth. We are human professionals, who are quite skilled at our jobs, but need the proper working conditions in order to perform well. Like the surgeon without a support staff or the attorney without trial prep work, the quality of our services will suffer if we’re not allowed to comply with standards of practice.

Why are they being ignored?

When I look at the current state of legal interpreting on the private market, I see three misconceptions outside of the profession that have contributed to our situation. First, there is the belief that not being able to communicate in English because you speak a foreign language is not a significant barrier. Second, that anyone who speaks a foreign language is a fluent bilingual and that any bilingual can interpret or translate. And lastly, that Limited English Proficiency communities are not as organized or influential as other communities, and don’t have as much power to assert their rights. All three factors contribute to a language service market where bad faith actors can make a profit by contracting professional interpreters without providing the appropriate working conditions. They can always threaten to replace a credentialed interpreter with an untrained individual and present them to their clients as a qualified interpreter. After all, unless you live in a state where mandatory court certification has been codified, what’s to stop language providers from doing just that? And if it’s illegal for them to hire uncredentialled individuals, they can always prey on newly certified individuals just entering the profession. It leaves little room for professionally trained, credential interpreters to assert and protect themselves in the marketplace.

Further aggravating the situation is the sense of isolation and lack of camaraderie surrounding the interpreter from the moment they begin to train in this field. There is not one single pathway to court interpreting, and unless you’ve come out of a more traditional higher education program, chances are you’ve obtained your certification more or less on your own. That was my experience. Although I attended a great written translation program at Georgia State University, I had no idea who the professional interpreters were in my area. I studied on my own for the certification exam, with some guidance from a former professor who was certified in another state. Before I found my network, providers were calling me, so even if I knew an assignment needed to be done as a team or that I needed access to the direct client to do prep work, I felt like I had no ground to ask for these things. I remember an instance where I tried asking the referral agency to find me a teammate and they tried to assure me that working in teams wasn’t “the norm” in private legal interpreting.

This isolation leaves the professional interpreter vulnerable. She could easily be gaslighted into believing that the only way to be competitive on the market is by disregarding the standards of practice. I see this all the time on our social media message boards. Colleagues will post about the struggles of finding a referral agency or client willing to allow team interpreting. They’ll try to rationalize taking on an assignment solo and convince themselves that the norms aren’t really needed outside of the courtroom, or accept a client/referral agency’s incorrect rationale that a deposition or meeting is somehow easier than an in-court proceeding. Other colleagues will try and lift them up and assure them they should hold their ground. But where is the incentive if you’ve never been given the opportunity by the hiring party to actually put these measures into practice?

The same goes for preparing for a deposition or civil trial. One of the reasons I stopped working for third party providers that contract in my state is that not a single one that solicited my business allowed me to contact the party seeking services beforehand so that I could do the studying needed to do the best job possible. I even tried asking the referral agencies to get the information to no avail. If you’re a veteran interpreter serving the upper echelons of the legal community, the big firms with renowned clients, you have more ground to actually implement this practice. These clients either have experience working with professional interpreters or want to avoid any risk to their clients at all costs. But as we trickle down into the everyday legal needs of our local LEP communities and begin to work with more regional and local firms, it’s much harder to get the client to work with us, even though these cases are just as important and impactful on the lives of these LEPs.

Of course, exceptions must be made for emergency cases. Sometimes, an assigned interpreter has to cancel at the last minute and they need to find someone to avoid canceling an important hearing or deposition. Other times, there’s an unplanned emergency hearing that needs an interpreter. Like ER doctors, professional interpreters at every level make sure that they’re ready to handle this type of situation. But for the majority of private market work, there’s no real reason not to work with the interpreter to prepare for the assignment and put the proper working conditions in place.

When an interpreter tries to ask for these conditions, he or she is labeled as “difficult”. They’ll be passed over for someone who will agree to any condition the client or agencies impose. This contributes to a cycle of professional colleagues feeling like they have to give in to these working conditions, which then makes it even harder for the rest of the profession, let alone newcomers, to ask that these standards be met. Even worse, this allows market forces to pit us against one another. Instead of encouraging team work from day one, we’re tricked into believing that we have to compromise our standards of practice in order to protect our sources of income from other interpreters.

We end up in a professional environment where it’s difficult to turn our collective grievances into concrete efforts to protect the professional independent interpreter.

How can I reclaim my power as a professional?

Colleagues who are finally ready to shake off the shackles placed on them may be asking themselves how to reclaim control over their work. First, it’s important for you to find professional interpreting spaces where you are surrounded by colleagues who not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. For me, it was important to see that interpreters and translators with similar credentials could, in fact, find success in the field without having to compromise our standards of practice. This will help to deprogram you from the rhetoric you’ve been fed in the past about it being “the industry standard” to disregard conditions like working in teams and preparing ahead of time for an assignment. This argument is never going to go away from parties seeking your services. It’s important to have a space where you’ll be reminded that we, the professionals, are the ones who know how to do our job best. Join the message boards and organizations, like the Interpreters Guild of America, where independent working interpreters are having these conversations.

The next thing you’ll need to do is take initiative. It’s time to stop placing yourself in a passive role in your professional life. You’ll need that initiative to do take these next steps. First, get to know other professionals in your market. One of the biggest factors third parties use to their advantage is the relative isolation of an independent contractor. Break through that anonymity and get to know your colleagues. Meet with them and take the first step in fostering camaraderie. Let them know that you want colleagues that you can collaborate with on assignments. Many interpreters fear that they’ll encounter unscrupulous colleagues who will try to undermine them and steal clients. These individuals are out there, but they’re much easier to sniff out than you think, and there are more good colleagues than there are bad ones. Believe me when I say the risk is worth it, once you build a great, reliable network.

Second, start educating your current and potential clients. They don’t work in our profession and are probably not familiar with the education, training, and effort that it takes to provide professional interpreting services. You don’t need to lecture them, but you need to be prepared to explain why you’re asking for things like team interpreting, why it’s much better for them to find their interpreters ahead of time, and the importance of giving them the information and materials necessary to prepare for the assignment. Educate them about the mental gymnastics we go through to output that nice sounding interpretation that they hear. When you watch top actors perform after months of rehearsal as a company, you forget that they’re acting. Similarly, the best interpreters are the ones who are so well prepared and know how to work on a team, you’ll forget you’re listening to an interpretation. I promise you, once most clients learn about this, they’ll trust your judgement and work to get you everything you need to do the job.

Third, be firm with clients and referral agencies. I’m familiar with that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that starts when you don’t hear back from a prospective client after giving them a proposal for an assignment. Knowing that they probably went with someone else that gave into their demands is incredibly frustrating. It takes a while, several years in fact, to find and keep good clients, but once you begin to do so, you’ll have much more job satisfaction knowing you’re allowed to work within the standards of practice.

Lastly, as a profession, we need to work hard to make sure that our standards of practice are enforceable. Other professions have oversight bodies in place to make sure that professionals are complying with standards of practice and ethics. We must work together at the state and national level to get our professional standards on the books so that hiring unscrupulous and/or uncredentialled individuals is no longer an option. As a profession made up of mostly independent contractors, this is going to take more effort. But if we don’t do this, we’ll find ourselves facing the exact same issues time and again.

How can you, the client, be our ally?

The fight to close the gap between our standards of practice and real legal interpreting practice is going to be long and hard. Interpreters won’t be able to fix this overnight. This is where you, the client, have the biggest potential to be our allies in the profession.

Educate yourself on interpreting, translating, and the importance of language access. Our two largest professional organizations, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators and the American Translators Association have a wealth of articles and resources that explain how our profession works. Here are a few resources that I recommend you read over before hiring a court interpreter:

Check to see if there’s a local interpreter and translator’s association chapter in your state. Network with them about opportunities to promote education on interpreting and translating in your profession and community.

Many of our colleagues provide client educational resources on their websites and also run blogs where they talk about the current issues in our field from the perspective of a working professional. My personal favorites are run by Helen Eby, a veteran certified translator and interpreter, and Tony Rosado, one of the top conference and legal interpreters in the country.

Reach out to certified interpreters you’ve worked with in the past and ask them about what’s happening in the profession at the local level. Ask how you can support their work.

After educating yourself, the best way you can be our ally is by making some tweaks to how you approach finding a professional court certified interpreter to meet your needs. First, if your firm has a contract with a referral agency, that doesn’t mean you can’t help. Many of our best colleagues work through these agencies. You can take all of these steps, whether you’re contracting through agencies or directly.

When working on private civil matters, set the standard of practice early in the case. Ask that the court and opposing party follow the same standards of practice as they do in state-paid criminal cases: team interpreting, provide the materials for interpreters to prepare for the case, and only use interpreters with the right certification and experience.

Stop requesting interpreting services mere days (or even hours!) before the deposition, civil trial, etc. Make sure that you do so ahead of the event to allow the interpreters enough prep time. My advice: as soon as you have the date, book your interpreting team and start meeting with them to figure out prep and logistics. (Here’s an example of the intricacies of coordinating a complex remote deposition.)

Ask for a team of at least two up front, no matter how long you think the assignment may take. If working with an agency, set the terms for the assignment and the interpreters you want. Insist on using only state or federally certified interpreters (depending on the type of case) and that you won’t accept anyone without those credentials. Let the agency know that you’ll be asking the interpreter to state their credentials on the record. Tell the agency that, once assigned, you want to be able to contact the interpreters directly to arrange any pre-session meetings and delivery of prep materials. Make it a standard of your practice to always have the interpreter state their credentials on the record, even if it’s the interpreter being used by the opposing party. This will also help you protect your client.

Speaking of the opposing party, even in the most contentious cases, coordinating interpreting services is the one area where legal counsel on both sides can work together to make sure the right professionals are hired. This is done in criminal court all of the time. The judge, state, and defense will get together with the interpreters to organize the team and interpreting logistics for trial. That way, the interpreting portion is taken care of and it’s one less thing to worry about during the trial. You’ll feel much more at ease knowing who is coming in to interpret, their credentials, and that they are prepped on the subject matter of the case. The need for “check interpreters” will go out the window, because the latent interpreters on the team will be fulfilling the quality assurance role while the active interpreter colleague is working. It’s one more thing that can make an otherwise tense litigation less stressful.

Don’t go for the cheapest bottom line. Now is not the time to bargain hunt or haggle. You absolutely have every right to call around and get different quotes. But good, high quality legal interpreting services shouldn’t be inexpensive. Believe me when I say you’ll get what you pay for. If you have a strict budget, talk to the interpreters and see what arrangements can be made. If you see that not enough funds were set aside for interpreting services, be prepared to ask for more money.

If you’re already working with a professional, credentialed interpreter or translator, don’t be afraid to consult with him or her on services that you need. We love answering these questions, but are almost never given a seat at the table. A pro is an amazing resource that you shouldn’t let go to waste.

If you work at a larger firm and get a sense that your current language provider isn’t cutting it, talk to your bosses about this. You can explain the risks that come with contracting with a provider that doesn’t adhere to best practices. Take what you’ve learned and shop around for other options. There may be great independent providers sitting right under your nose.

If you end up finding a local professional, certified interpreter that you like working with through an agency, there aren’t any restrictions that keep us from providing you with our contact info. After all, as independent contractors, noncompete clauses don’t apply to us. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission explicitly prohibits customer allocation and agreements to restrict advertising. However, as a courtesy to the referral agency, most interpreters will avoid networking with you at that assignment. But keep in mind that most professionals have their own websites, LinkedIn profiles, and are listed on the state and federal registries of certified interpreters. You’re more than free to look up that interpreter’s contact info and network with them after the assignment. If you encounter us in the wild at professional networking events, you’re also free to approach us then.

Colleagues, I know we have a long and arduous struggle ahead of us, but I also know that we can pull together and get to the point where complying with our standards of practice no longer seems like a dream that’s out of reach. I’d love to hear your thoughts, as well as the perspectives of our medical, conference, and translation colleagues on this topic.

Lessons from the Pandemic: Give Freelance Interpreters a Seat at the Table

Some dear friends and colleagues of mine from Washington State dropped this article from Crosscut, a local publication, into our group chat:

COVID-19 delays justice for King County inmates who need interpreters: Non-English speakers are receiving substandard legal representation because interpreters won’t appear in person, attorney says

As I read the article, I began to feel my colleagues’ indignation over what can only be characterized as a scapegoating of Washington’s freelance court interpreters. This article is timely, as I was preparing my next post about the “Invisible Freelancer”. While this article made me and my colleagues fume, it serves as the perfect example of problems I see time and again when it comes to any state court providing their interpreters with the working conditions they need to practice professionally within a state judicial system.

The problem is rarely the interpreters themselves. Every interpreter worth his or her salt whom I know wants to provide professional grade services and will turn down work when they cannot do that. In state compensated cases, the culprit tends to be the court administration and their tendency to leave out interpreters from the conversation when setting up interpreting services. Those airing their grievances in the article may be surprised to learn that pandemic friendly solutions already exist and are in place across the country so court interpreters can provide a truthful, complete, and accurate rendition without having to risk getting COVID-19.

From the article, there seems to be a huge misunderstanding of how court interpreting works shaping the outside perception of the problem. The two main complaints in King County are: 1) a backlog is being created because interpreters do not want to accept in-person assignments, especially those in jails and prisons; and 2) the remote interpreting set up in King County is faulty, unorganized, and cumbersome to the point of affecting the quality of the legal representation Limited English Proficiency Defendants are receiving.

Those cited in the article are correct in stating that many court interpreters across Washington have assessed the risks and benefits and decided that they cannot risk getting sick by taking these assignments. This is not unique to Washington State and is happening nationally. Unfortunately, as the rising number of cases reflects, even with all the precautions in place you cannot eliminate the contagion factor. Thus, many professional freelancers have opted not to take in person work, knowing that their business will take a financial hit. Remember, most court interpreters are freelancers. Like any other independent professional, they have no safety net or employer to support us if they get sick, can no longer work, and as a result, no longer afford health insurance or our other living expenses. While freelancers can’t work in person, they still want to work and have taken the time to quickly get up to speed on the technologies and protocols we need to put in place on our end to provide professional grade services from home. It’s not ideal, but it works and it works well.

The individuals quoted are also correct in their assessment that Washington’s current ad hoc system for remote interpreting in client meetings is downright awful. Interpreters have also noted these factors and have decided to decline these remote assignments because under those conditions they cannot uphold their duty to provide faithful, complete, and accurate renditions. Again, interpreters aren’t refusing these conditions because they don’t want to work. It’s because we cannot comply with our professional responsibility; when this happens, we have to let you know that we can’t continue in the current conditions and decline the work.

Attorneys need to understand two things. First, there is absolutely no reason for remote interpreting to be this ineffective. As I read through the “make-shift solutions” a defense attorney cited, I asked myself why on earth is it being done this way when there are plenty of acceptable solutions already in existence? The jails and prisons in my home state of Alabama, which is not exactly known for being at the cutting edge of technology or social progress nor for having deep pockets, seem to have figured out how to get an appropriate set up. Between Zoom, WebEx, interpreter/attorney prep sessions, and good ole fashioned 3-way calls, I have had close to no problems providing interpreting services to inmates remotely. Sessions are a bit slower because we’re working remotely, but attorneys and their clients still manage to get in a full session and I feel satisfied with the level of service I provided. These sessions also include going over paperwork, like plea bargains or pre-sentencing reports. Sometimes, the attorney will share the document on their screen in a session. Other times, they’ll send me a copy of the document to be either returned or destroyed after the meeting. And some will go over the document with me in a pre-session so I can have terminology prepared ahead of time. Each jail and attorney’s office have their own system, but so far it seems that the jails have provided the resources needed in order to interpret successfully without risking the attorney or interpreter’s health. I will concede that quality still varies a little, but so far everyone is doing what they need to for me to be able to uphold my oath and professional responsibility as an interpreter.

Second, and most importantly, the freelance interpreter is just one side of the equation and has very limited power in shaping the system the state chooses to adopt for remote interpreting. All a freelancer can do is tell the state, “I have all of my equipment, am now familiar with the platforms, and am ready to go.” It is up to state and local governments to make sure that courthouses, prisons, jails, and any other court facility have the proper equipment and conditions in place to make remote interpreting successful. Believe me, if it were up to freelancers, we would always be included in the conversation. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Rarely are freelancers, as the professionals in the field, asked what they need in order to do their job even though we do have existing solutions. If freelancers were asked, we would immediately shut down holding up a cellphone to thick plexiglass in a room with poor acoustics.

I spoke to my friends and colleagues in Washington, and every single one of them is ready to work with the courts to get the proper set up in place. Washington State need only ask for this. But as is the case in other states, freelance interpreters are rarely given a seat at the table to shape policy and procedure. When we try, we’re usually shut down because, as the interpreter coordinator cited in the article stated, our profession is seen as a mere “side-gig”. As a whole, we are constantly trying to get recognition as working professionals, not gig economy workers. Contrary to the interpreter coordinator’s comments, we actually do this work full time; our respective state courts are just one of our clients. Right now, Washington appears to be acting like a bad client for their interpreters. The bottom line is that, as freelance professionals, all we can do is look at the working conditions any prospective client may offer us and weigh the risks. If they outweigh the benefits, then we have no other option than to decline the offer. As long as our client, the state courts, refuses to consult its interpreters and make the necessary changes, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’ll keep turning down the work.

As an attorney who used to work on the other side of the equation, I sympathize with how the pandemic has upended defendants’ constitutional rights. It’s, quite frankly, disgusting and infuriating that the administrative office of courts in many states have really dropped the ball in terms of language access. I support any action to hold the courts accountable for their lack of consideration that has resulted in a violation of rights. However, suing to get judges to order freelance interpreters to take on work they’ve declined due to dangerous working conditions is not the answer. I’ll even go so far as to say that suing to get judges to order staff interpreters to work in jails also isn’t the solution. It’s not only disrespectful to our profession, it’s a completely baseless request. All this will do is infuriate court interpreters and make them even more reluctant to keep the courthouses as clients, even after the pandemic is over.

Mischaracterizing professionally interpreted legal proceedings as “lost or fragmented” communication based off of a “simulation” also doesn’t help. When done by a trained certified court interpreter, an interpretation is smooth, complete, and pleasant to hear. Yes, there are small aspects that do get lost in translation; that is just the nature of cross-lingual communication. And yes, remote interpreting does complicate things. In past posts I’ve even emphasized how once we’re out of the pandemic, we need to make sure interpreting in person goes back to being the norm. However, we are in an exceptional situation where being there in person is not possible.

Rest assured that certified court interpreters make sure that as little as possible is lost in translation. They cannot pass a certification test if they can’t do this. They work very hard to continue improving their renditions and make sure that they are using the best terminology so that the exact idea being expressed is communicated to the LEP. While I understand how relying on an interpreter in court proceedings can be scary for both the attorney and the LEP client, you must trust certified interpreters to do their job. I understand that this aspect is out of your control, but I promise you that we want to do the best professional quality job possible.

Court interpreters are not the enemy. As professionals, all we want to do is provide faithful and accurate interpretations so that any Limited English Proficiency Speaker going through our justice system can access it as equally as English speakers. We also want the justice system to move as efficiently as possible. Remember: when we can’t accept a state assignment, that also affects our livelihoods. Interpreting is not a “side gig”; it’s our career. However, we also do not want to get COVID-19, risking our lives and those of our loved ones.

Attorneys, the solution to your problems isn’t trying to force an interpreter to work in person against their will; nor is it lamenting perceived interpreters’ reluctance to risk their wellbeing. You have the power to demand that the state consult with its freelance professionals to make sure the proper set-up is in place so that interpreters can start taking these assignments.

Much like this article, the professional freelance court interpreter’s voice is nowhere to be found. The spokesperson of the King County Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention is quoted as saying, “Going forward, we’ll continue to work with public defenders, the courts, and other criminal justice partners to ensure that people in our temporary custody have their rightful access to legal counsel and interpreter services, given the considerable constraints and health concerns we face during the COVID 19 pandemic.” Demand that the state makes their freelance court interpreters a part of that conversation, as they will be your best ally for professional, competent remote interpreting solutions.

Note: Our staff interpreter colleagues in many states also face these problem and are often left out of the conversation when it comes to remote interpreting protocol during the pandemic. Courts everywhere will benefit from consulting both staff and freelance interpreters. They are the only experts that will understand what successful remote court interpreting entails.

Lessons from the Summer of COVID-19: How to Assign Monetary and Professional Value to Your Work

Dear Colleagues,

It’s been a minute since I last posted a blog entry. I apologize for my absence, but despite the current pandemic and being a COVID long-hauler, I have had an incredibly busy and productive summer. I am fortunate enough to be someone who is okay but still coping with lingering and recurring symptoms. I am also lucky that I did not lose a lot of work during the pandemic, despite the state court closures and Alabama dragging their feet in figuring out how to conduct business virtually. I hope all of you are healthy, COVID free, and still earning a good paycheck without having to compromise your health & safety.

Being thrown into a pandemic and seeing how our profession in the States has reacted to it has allowed me to reflect on some important aspects of working as a court interpreter. As we head into a fall season that is already promising, for better or worse, to be eventful, I’d like to share my thoughts in a small series of posts to aid my colleagues as they move through the new (if temporary — hopefully) normal for interpreters.

I’m starting off with a topic that was already in the works pre-COVID but whose relevance has been brought to light by the pandemic: assigning monetary and professional value to your interpreting work, i.e., salary setting. Now, in order to avoid accusations of price-fixing or discouraging market competition, I will not be telling anyone how much to charge. I wouldn’t be able to give you a hard number anyway because, as you’ll see, there are many factors that any certified interpreter should consider when assigning value to their work.

As you go through these recommendations, you may get the sinking feeling that you have been significantly underpricing your work. Do not be ashamed – this is something that almost every working professional interpreter is guilty of doing. It’s also not unexpected since there are practically no guides on how much current interpreters are charging. On top of that, certain actors actively discourage wage transparency amongst interpreters to aid their bottom line. This is why I’m outlining common sense suggestions that any fresh university graduate needs to know when entering the job market. I’m passing these suggestions along to give you the space to evaluate and appreciate your professional worth. If you suspect that you have not been setting your fees correctly, I’ll also share some tips on how to correct course so that you can start to earn the living that you deserve as a professional interpreter.

Stop Thinking in Hourly Wages, Start Thinking in Yearly Salaries

Many, though not everyone, who are starting out as interpreters are entering a true profession for the first time. In past jobs, they’ve been compensated by the hour and are used to thinking about their income in those terms. When transitioning to a professional career, it’s crucial to drop that mentality because it could cause you to underprice yourself. A lot of the numbers that third-party service providers will throw at you will seem incredible, especially in the United States where the Federal Minimum Wage is $7.50/hr. and more progressive living wages are $15/hr. Don’t be fooled by these initial numbers by thinking in terms of hourly work.

An interpreter, like any other professional, is not providing an industrial service that can be valued and calculated by the hour. As many interpreters will tell you, the day of the actual interpretation is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the 10% of our work that clients actually see. The remaining 90 happens before and after the assignment is complete.

Remember: though we can be treated as such, we are not Uber, Lyft, Task Rabbit, or Grub Hub. That’s not how professional interpreting work functions.

Instead, when sitting down to determine what your professional fees will be, ask yourself this: What salary do I need to earn on a monthly and yearly basis to cover the costs of practicing interpretation and provide me the comfortable living of a working professional?

Where working hours come into play is when you are looking at a proposed project or assignment and need to calculate how much time will be dedicated to complete it. This is different from thinking in terms of an hourly wage. Instead, you’re breaking down how much of your workday is being dedicated to the project and calculating your proposal based on that time. Once you’ve set a target for your salary, you can then begin to outline your pricing guide for assignments that can be used when submitting a proposal to a client. Setting a salary will also help you determine whether an assignment pays enough for it to be worth your time.

What to Consider When Calculating Your Salary

But what do you need to think about when setting salary? Being independent can be daunting because in traditional employment, the prospective employer will outline everything that’s included in their offer. Free-styling it, by comparison, is overwhelming.

If it helps, think of this as bringing yourself to the negotiating table. What terms would an employer need to offer you, in additional to your salary, to make the job of professional interpreter worth taking? If, before interpreting, you’ve worked as an employee, you may forget to include these additional benefits provided by an employer. You didn’t have to think about it in the past, but now it’s crucial that you don’t forget them! We have to build these things into our pricing. These are the things interpreters need to consider when building a successful practice:

Overhead Expenses

Even though we don’t work in a brick & mortar office, interpreters still have a lot of overhead that we need to successfully run our businesses. Let’s start with the basics. First, you’re going to need a way for your clients and the courts to contact you. That means a fully equipped smartphone with a solid data & minute plan. You’ll also want a professional website to advertise your services. Remember, you can’t get clients if they don’t know you exist. At an assignment, the average medical or court interpreter will need a writing medium to take notes, which means notepads, pens, or, if you’re tech savvy and environmentally conscious, a reusable tablet like a Boogie Board. You also need access to your corresponding dictionaries, both general and field-specific. These dictionaries will need to be a combination of hard-copy and electronic, because you won’t always be working in a place where you have your cellphone and a reliable signal to access electronic/online sources. For instance, in the legal world I have two main dictionaries I work with: Tomasi’s Law Dictionary (Hard Copy) and Diccionario Javier F. Becerra (online). I always have my hard copy with me because when I’m in jails and prisons, I can’t take a cellphone with me or can’t get any service. Some of the best resources require an annual or monthly membership fee. You’ll also need your own personal interpreting equipment, especially when there’s a pandemic.

If you do telephonic interpreting, you’ll need a landline or an internet to phone converter. In order to successfully provide virtual interpreting services, you’ll need a high-speed Broadband line (not Wi-Fi), up to date computer, and appropriate headset with a noise-cancelling microphone and Acoustic Shock Protection. You’ll also need separate storage space for all client documents to protect their confidentiality. (You can use a cloud, but I’m still not a fan because of the security vulnerabilities. I still prefer an old fashioned external hard drive.) If you provide transcription/translation services, you’ll need to purchase the appropriate software.

The overhead costs don’t end there. Medical and court interpreting mean a lot of commuting, even if it is just within county or state boundaries. In the United States, that means driving for the most part. Driving means you’ll need a reliable car, which will need regular maintenance, car insurance, and money for gas & parking. If you use mass transit, you’ll need to pay for the appropriate metro cards, bus, and train passes.

Do not go into this profession assuming there’s no overhead. There’s a ton of it and we need to make sure we’re making a good enough living to cover all of it without affecting our personal monthly budgets for living expenses.

Health Insurance

You’re going to need to make enough to afford a good health insurance plan. The quality of plans and financial aid to afford insurance vary by state, which is why it’s important to look at what you’ll really need to afford decent healthcare. Interpreting is incredibly taxing on the mind and body. You can’t do the mental gymnastics required of us, not to mention the traveling, if you’re unwell. We are also constantly exposed to people in poor health or less than sanitary conditions. It’s important that we have easy access to a primary care physician and a network of specialists to protect ourselves and others when exposed to sick individuals.

Interpreters are talking more and more about the psychological stresses that come with our job, especially when you’re working in the legal and medical field where we encounter harsh realities and hear difficult stories. As interpreters, we are supposed to be able to compartmentalize these, but we are also human, and sometimes we need to talk to a mental health provider. There is no shame in that and in order to prevent any lasting effects from secondary trauma, we should be able to financially access mental health services.

Professional Liability Insurance

So many wonderful interpreters that I know are currently working without an Errors and Omissions liability insurance. I would encourage you to please protect yourself and get a good E&O plan. Whenever someone files a lawsuit (which is their right), the typical strategy is to sue everyone involved and then eliminate parties to the lawsuit during discovery. This is done so that no potential defendant is missed and the aggrieved party doesn’t lose the opportunity to file suit. If you get caught up in a lawsuit defendant sweep, you want to make sure you’re well protected until you can be eliminated as a prospective defendant.

If you currently contract with agencies, their E&O policy does not usually protect you as an independent contractor, just them. Especially since interpreters aren’t always given the best working conditions by courts and referral agencies, it’s crucial that you buy this to protect yourself in the future. I sleep easier knowing I have this safety net.

Private Disability Insurance and Pensions

Interpreters are at risk for disability, because we rely on our minds, voices, and hearing to do our work. Take one out of the equation and we can no longer work as interpreters. Again, the social security offered in each state varies and is often not enough to cover your living expenses. While this may not be something you immediately invest in, it’s a good idea to consider buying a private disability insurance plan. It will help to supplement your income in the case that you suffer a bodily injury that takes you out of the interpreting field.

A private pension plan, however, is something you need to open right away. It’s virtually impossible to live off of your social security check alone. There are different kinds of plans that available, so explore your options. Once you pick a plan, start contributing a monthly amount. It doesn’t have to be much at first, and you can increase your deposits as you start earning more.

Cost of Certification Exams & Continuing Education

As professional interpreters, we have to pay to get certified in our respective fields. This is not just limited to the exams. You’ll need to study to prepare for the exams, which means several hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars in materials and courses. You’ll also likely travel, sometimes overnight, to take your exams. Like attorneys and physicians, we also need to do continuing education courses and pay our certifying bodies the fees they charge to maintain that certification. You may start out in one field and then pursue another certification to expand your client base.

All of this needs to be something you can afford from what you’re earning. You don’t have a boss, a company, a firm, court, or hospital paying for these things. These come out of your own pocket, so you need to earn a paycheck that can cover them.

Professional Association and Union/Guild Dues

While not required, it’s a good idea to be a part of a professional association, not just because it helps lend you credence as a professional but because it gives you opportunities to network with colleagues from all over the country and the world, as well as access to continuing education classes and additional professional resources. If in your state there’s an established professional union or guild, explore joining one so that you can make sure you have a voice and collective power in legislative matters and in addressing the injustices faced by interpreters every day. These memberships come with fees that you’ll need to pay annually to support their work.

Administrative Work and other Business Expenses

In order to be paid by clients, the courts, and agencies, we need to be able to bill them. Whether you choose to handle the administrative work yourself or hire someone, you’ll need to account for the time and money it takes to do this work. Depending on how you want to get paid, you’ll also need to pay for a payment service or for the fees they charge for fund transfers. Other administrative work includes following up with clients whose payment deadline is coming up, following up with project inquiries and finalizing project contracts. Project contracts mean that you’ll consult with an attorney at some point to make sure the contract language you’re using is up to date and the best for your business. Additionally, you’ll have to do the taxes for your business, whether a corporation or a sole-proprietorship. That means hiring an accountant or accessing the appropriate software to do your taxes.

Speaking of taxes…

Income Taxes

If you’re mainly filing 1099s that means your clients are not taking out all income taxes from your paychecks. An employer, even at restaurants or retail stores, will take these out of their employees’ checks; but you don’t have this employer. This means it’s up to you to set aside enough money to pay these taxes, either quarterly or at the end of the year. If not, you may be slammed with an unforeseen tax bill. Remember, all of the money in the paycheck isn’t yours until the local, state, and federal governments have all gotten their appropriate cut. (Note: This is why I encourage you to look into either becoming an LLC or incorporating to cut your taxes and be able to expense more business costs. Consult with your accountant or tax attorney to see what would be the best fit for you.)

Vacation, Sick Leave, and Family Leave

In the United States, paid time off is seen a luxury and not a necessity to make sure we have a strong, healthy workforce. This does not mean that you should dismiss the importance of taking time off, be it for vacation or out of necessity. In order to take that time off, you’ll need to make sure you have something to live off of, because once you block off that time you won’t be getting any compensation. When determining your salary, make sure you’re making enough to “pay yourself” during that time.

As an independent contractor, you should not have to give up going on vacation, having a family, or taking care of yourself and your loved ones to work as an interpreter.

Cost of Living in Your Area

You have to make sure that you are earning enough to live like a professional wherever you are. If you’re in New York City, make sure you can actually survive on your salary. If you’re in a much more affordable place, like Alabama, you still have living expenses that need to be covered. Interpreting is a unique profession in that we don’t always work where we live. Being conscious of that, we need to make sure that we aren’t unintentionally undercutting the earnings of our colleagues in more costly parts of the country. This means, if you’re a Tennessee interpreter taking a job in Washington DC, make sure you’re paid like a DC interpreter would be for that same job. Make sure your client is hiring you for your skillset, not for being cheap.


Expertise and experience are both bargaining chips at the employee contract negotiation table and should not go unappreciated by us just because we are independent. If you’re someone with the credentials and years of experience, you shouldn’t still be charging like a newbie. If you have a higher certification, get paid like someone who earned that certification. Don’t undervalue what you’re offering your clients.

Emergency Savings Fund

Expect the unexpected. Sometimes, things happen in life that will end up costing you money. In the United States, too many people are one car repair or hospital bill away from not making ends meet. Make sure you’re prepared in case something happens and have enough in a savings account set aside strictly for these emergencies to cover you.

All of these factors, in addition to your credentialing and experience, should be included in your price setting.

Don’t Fear Wage Transparency

Salary transparency is gaining popularity in companies that have a traditional employer/employee model as a way to combat wage disparities because of gender and race. It can be uncomfortable to discuss how much you make with colleagues because of how “gauche” we’re taught it is to discuss money. In the independent contractor world, this is further amplified by our desire to avoid being accused of price fixing. However, just as our colleagues in other fields have discovered the advantages of salary transparency, we too can benefit from talking to our colleagues.

How can we use salary transparency as independent contractors? You can always approach a trusted colleague and ask what they believe would be fair terms for a certain assignment. If you have a concrete example from a recent offer, tell them about it. Get their thoughts. This will allow you to gage whether your fees are appropriate. This is exactly how I realized that I was severely underpricing myself when I first started out. Having this knowledge empowered me to charge fees that I feel meet my professional worth.

This is not the same thing as giving someone full access to your price sheet. There’s this huge fear that any information we provide may be used against us in order to steal a client. I understand this fear and my best recommendation is to talk to someone you really trust. If you fear sharing what you’re currently charging, then get thoughts on concrete offers that were made to you by prospective agencies or clients. It’s enough to hear feedback like, “this looks about right”, “no, they’d need to double it for me consider” or “absolutely not because they’re not compensating x, y, and z”.

Alternatives to Slashing Prices in Order to Attract Clients

You don’t need to market yourself as a Blue Light Special to get clients. Again, you want clients that value the service you’re providing, not your low, low price tag. There are plenty of other ways to sell yourself to the client. One is to explain what services your fee includes. For example, when I do a deposition, I’m not only working for the client on the day of the actual deposition. I spend the days leading up the deposition getting a history of the case, what will be covered by the deposition, preparing terminology, and also make myself available to meet with my client in a pre-session if he or she so desires and after the deposition to follow-up with the client on how things went and if they will need me for further services relating to the case. My clients also know that if something does come up, I will do everything I can to prioritize them and their needs over other work. They know that they are also paying for my availability. 

My clients also know I have a referral network of trusted colleagues if I am unavailable to provide services. In turn, my colleagues will also occasionally refer me to their private clients when there’s something they can’t cover. Whenever we cover assignments for each other, there’s never a referral fee. There’s also never a sense of obligation to take the assignment. Sometimes, they’ll call me about an assignment that I feel doesn’t pay enough or that I’m simply not interested in. In those instances, I turn down the work and there are no hard feelings. We also never purposefully undercut the other’s fee to steal a client. Trust me, when you’re an unscrupulous interpreter, word gets around fast and it will be hard to find colleagues willing to work with you. Don’t be shady.

I also have a set of clients in the non-profit/public interest sector to whom I offer special pricing because of the nature of their work and budgets. This is not something you have to do, but it’s something that I feel comfortable doing. The fees I offer them do not undermine my professional worth, because I’m choosing to offer them. And if the day arrives where I no longer want to do the work or we cannot agree on a fee renegotiation, I have no problem walking away. But for now, they also provide a reliable stream of income as great clients.

Your experience and expertise are also great selling points. When you’re looking for a doctor or an attorney, what do you consider? Typically, you look at credentials, how long they’ve been in the specialty, and patient satisfaction. If I need an important surgery, I’d rather get on the waitlist for the best doctor I can afford with my insurance. Same goes with an attorney. If I find myself in a legal situation, then I want to make sure I have the best, most trusted attorney that I can afford. You’re offering the same as an interpreter.

If you’re new, don’t worry. Your certifications are very much still a selling point in a market where non-credentialed bilinguals are still allowed to interpret. Once someone experiences the difference of working with a professional, credentialed interpreter, they rarely go back to the cheaper alternative. Additionally, if you have other credentials and work experience that complement your interpreting work, do not be afraid to use those to sell yourself.

Troubleshooting Underpricing

After reading all of this, you may be getting the sinking feeling that you’ve been undercharging. Again, do not feel ashamed of this. It’s happened to virtually everyone. You’re also not stuck working as a bargain-priced interpreter. You can still fix this and work towards your salary goal.Once you figure out your pricing guidelines, you’ll need to pick the ideal time to announce these price changes. New clients will be easy, because they’ve never known anything different. Here’s how you can ease breaking the news to your existing clients:

Find the right time to make a price change

A good time to announce fee increases is before the New Year. You want to give your clients enough time to process the news and to possibly come back and negotiate with you. The last time I did a price increase, I let me clients know at the beginning of November. I simply sent an email letting them know about the changes and that they were free to get in touch with me to ask any questions. If you have a contract with a state or federal agency, you may want to do this a few months before the end of the Fiscal Year (October) so that they can have the appropriate budget in place.

Justifying the Increases

There are plenty of reasons you can use to justify the fee increase. First and foremost, you can always use your years of experience. Many professionals who are employees will get opportunities to renegotiate their contracts every one to two years. Use your experience to “renegotiate” a higher fee for yourself.

You can also use any new certifications to up your prices. For court interpreters, if one year you earn federal certification, use that as a reason to bump up your prices because now your clients will be getting the services of a federally certified interpreter, which is a certification that only 5% of test takers achieve. For LOTS languages, you can pursue the accreditation that Federal courts will accept to allow these interpreters to work on their cases. LOTS language speakers that don’t have available credentialing exams need to pursue every step of interpreter training and language testing available to them in order to separate themselves from everyday bilinguals. And if your language is rare but in high demand, use that as a selling point.

And if all else fails, good old fashion inflation and cost of living expenses are more than good enough to justify an increase in prices. What was considered a good living 30, 20, or even 10 years ago wouldn’t cut it today.

Most importantly, you do not need to feel guilty or greedy for increasing your fees. Every business does this. Doctor’s offices, attorneys, and even hair dressers will increase their fees according to these same criteria. There’s no reason for interpreters to be treated differently.

“Special Fees” for Existing/Loyal Clients

Making an offer of a special fee to your most loyal clients is a completely valid tactic. Just make sure you’re not lowballing yourself. This special fee demonstrates that you value them as a client and are interested in keeping their business.

Final Thoughts:

What I covered here is pretty extensive, but it’s by no means exhaustive. Please also keep in mind that it may take a while to meet your salary goals. Just because the results aren’t immediate doesn’t mean you should give up on earning a professional salary. Remember, interpreting isn’t just a job; it’s a professional career. I hope that after reading this, you’ll feel empowered to start working towards this goal.

Feel free to share any tips or experiences in the comments.

In Times of Crisis, Watch Out for Predators

Right now, COVID-19 is touching everyone’s life in one way or another. If any of you or your loved ones have come down with the virus, please know that I’m wishing each and every one of you good health, strength, and a speedy recovery. A lot of us have, luckily, not succumb to the pandemic and have our health intact. For that, I am grateful.

However, as many have felt with the rolling out of social distancing mandates and guidelines, the corona virus is not just affecting our physical health, but our professional health. All freelancers are feeling this right, especially in the interpreting and translating professions. With courts closing, event cancellations, and saturated hospitals, many interpreters are facing an unprecedented situation of having their work schedule vanish into thin air. Here in Alabama, our court system just decided to push back every LEP case indefinitely and has still failed to put a remote interpreting system in place for those of us working here. Understandably, this has sent many of our colleagues into panic mode as they try desperately to adjust to a new financial reality. While all interpreters are facing this, those of us that are new or work with state court certification are most vulnerable.

True to form, when a crisis hits the snake oil salesmen and predators come out of the woodwork to prey on our weakened state. For some, these scammers are people selling magical “cure-alls” against the virus in order to make a quick buck. For interpreters and translators, it’s the familiar actors feeding on our panic to try and denigrate the financial worth of our work. I’m, of course, talking about the bodies that are calling on us to be compensated by the hour, quarter-hour, and even minute, at a “lower rate”, for our services just because they are now being done remotely instead of in person.

We’ve heard calls from many well-known, respected interpreters at the top of our profession pleading for everyone to not succumb to these offers as it hurts both the individual accepting the work and the profession as a whole. But when you’re lower on the food chain, it’s easy to scoff and say that these interpreters are out of touch with what we’re facing down the totem pole. Of course, you can afford to stick by your prices or even ask for more! You’ve got the goods to back it up, but I’m just a lowly state-certified court or healthcare interpreter! I don’t have a leg to stand on!

I completely understand this sentiment. It’s easier to be a stickler about fees when you’re a top conference or federal court interpreter. While they face a lot of competition, we face even more, not just from our fellow certified colleagues but from the organizations that hire and sell the services of untrained, undereducated paraprofessionals. The businesses soliciting our services for dirt cheap, insulting compensation already lay on the guilt trip thickly by saying that they are “graciously offering new opportunities” in order to “give work to interpreters” so we can “do our duty during the crisis”. They want to make you feel guilty for even questioning the terms and conditions of these supposed opportunities.

However, I want to remind everyone working at the bottom of the proverbial certification totem pole that, contrary to these feelings of worthlessness, we absolutely do have just as much of a leg to stand on as the most celebrated members of our profession. If anything, we are the legs of the profession and as such our profession is only as strong as its base. So, as a fellow bottom-dweller and relative interpreting newbie, let me help clear the fog a bit and refresh your memory on why your professional value has not been eradicated by the virus.

1. Remote Interpreting Does Not Eliminate Your Certification and Education

Your level of expertise does not go away just because you’re interpreting over the phone or internet platform. Whether in person or remotely, you are still providing the services of a certified interpreter. Physically being in court or at a hospital is not what qualifies someone to interpret. Imagine if it were! We would not have to spend so much time and money mastering our working languages, training, keeping up with ethics and best practices, and studying for certification exams. For those of us that are doing remote interpreting for the first time, we’re making sure to train quickly so that we can comply with best practices for our new working conditions.

All of this does not magically go away because we’re interpreting from our home office instead of driving down to the courthouse, law office, or hospital. For the newly minted Federal Interpreters, your hard-earned federal certification and the prestige it is afforded did not go away just because this pandemic shut everything down a month after results were posted. We all have every right to remind clients that they are paying for this expertise, not our physical presence.

2. Remote Interpreting Requires Additional Equipment and Multitasking

The biggest misconception amongst laymen that is purposefully promulgated by those who would see our profession turned into an industry for personal profit is that working from home magically makes interpreting easier and more convenient for us. For anyone that has worked as a professional interpreter, you know that this is the furthest thing from the truth. If anything, not being physically present is much harder.

We’re not only coping with all of the challenges that come with interpreting, but adding internet and phone connection management, remote audio tech, echo chambers, and protecting our hearing. All of this is being done while trying to interpret and making sure that all parties speak in a way that allows the interpreter to give a correct rendition. The visual cues we get from body language and facial expressions are also gone (even with video, it’s not as good as in person). And as the cherry on top, we have to make sure we have the right equipment to comply with best practices (USB headsets with audio shock protection, highspeed broadband connection, a land line, the right computer, and software).

If we’re doing more when remote interpreting and having to invest in the right equipment and training, then why on earth should we accept a lower fee?

3. Other Professionals are Receiving the Same Compensation for Remote Services

Attorneys are still billing their same fees for the same services done remotely. If any are offering discounts to their clients, that’s on them.

Insurance companies are still paying doctors the same for in-office services done via telemedicine. (My parents are mental health professionals and are being paid the same. They just have to make sure they’re using the right equipment to comply with regulations.)

Those who are employed in other sectors and are working from home are not having their salary docked just because they’re working remotely.

Again, if interpreters are professionals and other professionals are still being equally compensated for work done via telecommuting, then should it not follow that interpreters also be compensated equally for their remote services?

4. Our Everyday Expenses Aren’t Disappearing

The United States does not have the greatest social safety net and a majority of us are finally feeling this reality. At the end of the day, we still have bills and expenses to pay even in a pandemic. I still have to pay for my healthcare, food, and household expenses. At the same time, I want to make sure that I do not fall behind on student loan or credit card payments, even with the grace periods being offered. The more debt I can take care of now, the less of a financial burden I’ll have once this is all over.

I understand how many of our colleagues look at these financial responsibilities and think they are reasons to accept lower pay. At least these “opportunities” help pay the bills, right? It is absolutely fine to be grateful for work and, at the same time, ask for the right terms, conditions, and compensations for the job you are doing. The two are not mutually exclusive. If a client or agency is truly interested in hiring a professional for professional grade work, then they’ll be willing to listen, negotiate, and compensate accordingly. It takes some extra work and reaching out to your personal clients, but I promise you that good paying work is still out there. You just have to remind your clients that you are here to help them.

When I saw the writing on the wall, the first thing I did was strategize with my colleagues to reach out to our private client network and remind them that we were there to help should they need any of our services remotely. As the stay-home mandates started going out, we started getting emails from them about what we could do to help them during this time. This work is what’s keeping me booked these days. 

I also took this opportunity to remind my clients that, though we are doing everything in our power to make this go as smoothly as possible, remote interpreting is not and should not be the new normal for our profession. I can already see the same predatory actors getting ready to use the COVID crisis to sell remote interpreting to those outside of our profession (and new to our profession) as the new, more affordable normal. Being there in person matters and though remote interpreting offers an avenue to provide services when or where it cannot be done in person, it cannot replace the value of in-person interpreting.

[UPDATE: I want to take a second to clarify my point on remote interpreting not becoming the new normal. This is not an anti-technology stand; on the contrary, I fully believe that as professionals we have a responsibility to be trained and up-to-date on the tools we may be working with. Remote interpreting is a great tool when in-person interpreting is not possible. However, it should not be the first option given to a client for several reasons.

First, non-verbal cues inform very important aspects of our interpreting choices. When I’m interpreting in the courtroom or a law office, I’m paying just as much attention to the nonverbal cues of the speaker as to what they are saying. These become even more crucial as a healthcare interpreter. As previously stated, a video image will never be as good as being there in person to read the room. When non-verbal cues are removed, making the correct interpreting choices become harder, which leaves the client, LEP, and the interpreter more vulnerable to liabilities.

Second, it also still is not clear if liability insurance policies for interpreters covers remote services. Keep in mind that when it comes to new technologies, a lot of the time Silicon Valley’s motto is “roll out the technology first, worry about liability issues later”. Make sure to get in touch with your policy providers to make sure this is covered.

Third, remote interpreting from our home offices means we lose the important teamwork aspect of interpreting in person. In the courtroom, I do a lot of spur of the moment problem solving with my colleagues. Even conference interpreters who do an RSI assignment all work together in a remote studio. If I’m interpreting from my home office, I lose this teamwork aspect. The new technology does allow for communicating via chat with other interpreters when you’re working remotely for an agency or company, but for hearings and the like, it gets a bit more complicated.

Finally, there are very real risks to our hearing because of Acoustic Shock Syndrome. We have to make sure all of the appropriate technological protections are in place to protect our hearing. If you lose your hearing, there goes your interpreting career.

I will encourage everyone to read two important blog posts by Tony Rosado where he explains these issues more in-depth. You can read them here and here.

Remote Interpreting Technologies are great and we should work closely with the tech leaders developing these to make sure they are the best tools for us. However, since we are still in the nascent stages of this technology we cannot yet sell it as the professional default. Maybe one day we’ll get there, but we have to proceed with caution and adapt appropriately as these technologies are rolled out.]

If you are still falling behind on work and these low-paying solicitations are beginning to tempt you, I want to encourage you to remind yourself of everything you are bringing to the table as a professional and play hardball. If someone asks you where you get the “audacity” to demand your regular (or higher) fee, use the points I outlined as a basis for your argument. If longtime clients approach you about discounted services, proceed with caution. Assess each client and assignment carefully in order to decide whether the situation merits a discount. Feel confident and justified in your decision to still charge full price. Do not settle for terms that will leave you feeling dirty and unsatisfied. If we all do this, then we will be stronger as a profession and receive good work opportunities during the crisis.

This new normal is temporary. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Stay strong.

An Autopsy of the Federal Oral Exam, Part 4: Exam Day, Administrative Updates, and Lessons Learned

(Read Part 1 here. Part 2 here. Part 3 here.)

It’s finally here. You’ve spent the last months or year preparing for the Federal Oral Exam and the day has arrived. I don’t think there was a single candidate who wasn’t on edge in the days leading up to their exam appointment. Nerves are to be expected and a little nervous energy is good to have. The adrenaline can help boost your exam performance.

However, there are a lot of people who cope with extreme testing anxiety, especially with this exam. I would hate for any candidate to let fear of this test hinder how they do, so I want to give you my tips for managing testing anxiety and also give you a rundown of administrative experiences to leave you at ease for 2021.

Finally, to wrap up this whole experience, I want to sum up important lessons that I’ll be taking with me into round 2 and what changes I’m making to my prep approach.

How to Best Prepare for Exam Day

1. Work on testing anxiety well in advance of the exam

When talking to study group members and fellow interpreters at training sessions, what astounds me is just how many people deal with crippling testing anxiety. I’m someone who may get nervous before a big exam, but I’ve never experienced the level of panic that some people describe or that I have witnessed in person.

There’s absolutely no rational reason to be this afraid of the federal oral exam, or any exam for that matter. However, anxiety is not rational. While we may be cognizant of the fact that an exam need not produce a panic attack, sometimes it just doesn’t click in our heads.

Depending on how severe your anxiety is, it’s important to acknowledge its existence and figure out how you are going to cope with it well in advance of the exam. If you’re on the lighter end of the spectrum, it may be as simple as implementing mindfulness and meditation techniques. Others ease testing anxiety by simulating a full testing scenario as many times as possible. For those who fall into the panic attack category, however, it may be well worth looking into counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and possibly medication. There is absolutely no shame in doing this, especially if it has plagued you in the past.

In the holistic portion, the examiners want to make sure you sound confident in your renditions. No one is going to feel confident passing an interpreter who renders a correct interpretation but cannot project confidence in the choices they are making. Do whatever you need to do to make sure testing anxiety does not keep you from successfully finishing and passing this test.

2. One month before exam day, dedicate yourself to studying full time and limit your social calendar

This last month before the test should be when most of your work day is dedicated to preparing for this test. Two to four weeks before test week, this exam is your fulltime job. Limit social engagements and put your clients, family, and friends on notice that your availability will be limited until after exam day.

Having said that, one month before the exam is not when the majority of your studying should be done. The last month is for polishing the skills and knowledge you have been building during the months prior.

Think of it this way. In the United States high school system, we have courses that are called “Advanced Placement” subjects. In these courses, high schoolers study at a more advanced level for a year or two and then sit an exam that evaluates what they have learned so that they may be awarded college credit for that subject. These students don’t cram the month before an AP Exam. They spend a year learning the material and then review what they have learned during that last month to apply it to the test. Similarly, you cannot “cram” for an interpretation test, especially this one, and expect to pass.

3. The week of the exam, stop studying new material

Like previously stated, if you didn’t learn the material by now, at this point you won’t learn it well enough in time for the test. Don’t waste your time studying new material.

4. Treat yourself to a relaxing activity

It’s important to reward yourself for all of the hard work you’re doing. Pick a day during that final week before the exam to schedule something relaxing. Whether it’s a hike, an indulgent meal, a trip to the movies, or a massage, giving yourself this reward will put you in a great mental state leading up to the test.

5. Figure out all transportation and exam registration logistics a few days before the test

The last thing we need to do is add more stress on exam day. While the test may be out of our complete control, we can still take steps to eliminate other stressors.

  • Reread the portion of the manual and instructions sent by Prometric on all exam day logistics (accepted forms of ID, what you need to bring, what you need to leave at home, etc.).
  • Lay out everything you’ll need the night before the exam. What I did was put everything I needed right beside my purse alongside a checklist so that I could be triply sure I had everything.
  • Plan how you will arrive to the exam. Most GPS apps will find you alternate routes if you’re driving, but if you’re taking public transportation, make sure you know a couple of ways to get to the test. If you’re taking a rideshare or taxi, reserve it the day before. If you’re driving into a city and have the option, reserve your parking spot in advance.
  • Figure out if there are any local events that could obstruct traffic or parking (more on that later…)

6. Unplug for your sanity

I cannot emphasize this enough. Reading about how people are on the verge of a nervous breakdown on the interpreter forums is not helpful. Neither is reading posts from people bragging about how this year’s version is “not that hard” or “the hardest ever”. If your study group has a WhatsApp chat, make a pact that you’ll limit that space to strictly positive, encouraging messages. If you have a question about a logistical problem or want to confirm a certain test day requirement, it’s also much better to reach out to your group members instead of sifting through the forums.

All of those posts will be waiting for you after the exam, so do yourself a huge favor and shut out the noise.

7. The day before the exam, STOP STUDYING

Yet again, I need to emphasize that if you did not already learn it two weeks before the test, you won’t learn it now. Studying the day before will only send you into a tizzy when you can’t remember how to say “guacamole” in Spanish. Leave all of your books at your desk and force yourself to leave the house, if need be. If you’re traveling to your exam site, leave the study materials at home. Don’t even bother bringing them to review at the airport.

On Exam Day:

1. Do NOT study before your appointment

I know I’ve already touched on this twice, but it bears repeating. Studying before your appointment will only be counterproductive, so don’t do it.

2. If your exam takes place in the late morning or afternoon, pick an activity to keep you calm

I know you’ll be jittery before the test, but do what you can to take your mind off of it. If you exercise regularly, then do your workout. If not, just watch your favorite episodes of a TV show or put on your favorite music.

Whatever you do, make sure it has nothing to do with the exam.

3. Eat a light, protein and nutrient rich breakfast and lunch

There’s no need to starve yourself nor eat an incredibly heavy meal. Keep it light enough to avoid feeling soporific, but substantive and nutritious enough to keep you going through the test.

4. Do NOT over-caffeinate

Story-time: At the bar exam, the guy in front of me brought several bottles of 5-Hour Energy with him. A few hours into the exam, he puked all over the table. He lost all of that exam time and the rest of us had to keep working through the smell of vomit.

Don’t be that guy. We’re still talking about him 7 years later.

5. Do NOT make any major changes to your routine

Now is not the time to try something new. Again, if you want to change one of your habits to better help you, do so well in advance of the test. Deviating from your routine may cause unintended consequences (see the 5-Hour Energy story above), so don’t risk it.

If you work out every day, keep working out. If you’re an omnivore, now’s not the time to switch to a vegan diet. Change is great, but not on test day.

6. Do NOT go onto the interpreter social media forums

Yet again, we all know what kinds of posts we’ll find before, during, and immediately after exam week. Shut out the noise.

7. Do whatever you need to do in order to put yourself in the right mindset

Everyone has a different way of getting into test mode. If you need to dress like you’re going to court in the full suit and tie, do it. If you need to wear something comfortable, opt for something comfortable (but avoid pajamas). If acting like you’re going to work helps, then by all means do it. Maybe you need to listen to heavy metal or a classical concerto. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to do it no matter how silly it may seem.

8. Pick a warmup exercise to prepare your voice for the exam and boost your confidence

While it is not the time to study, a warm-up is a perfectly safe and advisable thing to do before an exam, especially if you’ve gotten into the habit of doing a warm-up before each study session. My recommendation is to use materials not related to the exam (i.e., avoid legal topics).

Some people like doing vocal warmups done by actors or singers. Others like to do light shadowing exercises. Do what you must, but I do advise against actively interpreting to warm up. Again, you risk spiraling if you encounter an unknown term. Instead, do two familiar shadowing warm-ups, one in English and the other in Spanish.

9. Arrive at least 30 minutes before your appointment time.

Going back to eliminating stressors, don’t let traffic be one. I left an hour before my test to make sure Atlanta traffic didn’t keep me from arriving promptly.

10. Use the restroom and drink some water before walking into your test

No need to let a full bladder, bowel discomfort, or dry mouth distract you during the test. (You do get water in the testing room.)

11. Do not interact with Nervous Nellies buzzing around the waiting areas.

I was very fortunate to wait in an empty lobby before my appointment. If you’re at a more popular testing spot, however, you’re bound to run into people nervously (and foolishly) looking over flashcards or people dying to complain about how unfair, terrible, and horrendous this whole thing is. These people are the worst, so try to avoid them.

If your car is close enough, go back and wait there until it’s closer to your testing time. Alternatively, find a quiet corner away from everyone. Bring your headphones or earplugs. Feel free to be rude and just walk away from anyone trying to make conversation or just tell them that you’re not interested in talking before the test.

12. Take notice of how the staff is managing the test-taking space and make a mental note of any irregularities.

Make sure that what the staff is doing seems in order. If something looks suspicious or wrong, politely inquire about it and make a mental note of what happened. This way, if you feel that a Prometric staffer’s action affected the administering of your test, you can document it and report it promptly.

If you have any technical troubleshooting with the equipment during the exam, bring it to the attention of the proctor immediately. Make sure to state the problem out loud so that it is documented in the exam recording.

13. No matter what happens, finish the test.

Even if the first sight translation makes no sense, just keep going. You’re already here, so you may as well finish the test. You may actually be doing much better than you think, so it’s worth doing the whole thing.

14. When the exam finishes, stop thinking about it and RELAX.

Once the test is over, it’s officially out of your hands. Why worry about something you can’t change? Give yourself at least the rest of the day to celebrate the fact that you finished before overanalyzing your performance in your head. In my study group, what we did is picked a day well after the exam to have a Skype call and used that time to debrief about the test so we wouldn’t spend the holidays obsessing over it.

Administrative Updates

The 2017 fiasco left both first-time and returning candidates feeling shaky about the AOUSC contractor’s ability to administer the exam smoothly. Based off of my experience taking the exam in Atlanta, I’m mostly satisfied with the job Prometric has done and believe they can be trusted to administer the exam in the future. My proctors were well organized and very professional. However, there are some things that need to be addressed before the 2021 Oral Examination.

1. There are still errors in the current candidate handbook that must be corrected.

The most recently published version of the exam manual still contains logistics errors. These mostly have to do with the written exam, where they erroneously state that exams that are 200 questions long must be completed in 2.5 hours instead of 3.25. (Exams that are 160 questions long are done in 2.5 hours.) I tried emailing someone about this, but I got no response and it still has not been fixed.

Leaving significant errors in the handbook does not inspire trust.

2. Prometric and AOUSC must be better prepared to handle the increase in e-traffic on exam registration day

Those who signed up to take the 2019 test remember well what a mess day one was. The website was crashing, leaving some people able to sign up and others stuck trying to refresh the page. Even worse, when we tried to call Prometric, the number was not working for some. Those who did manage to get an agent on the phone realized quickly that the agents had no idea how to deal with the influx of calls. There was no protocol put in place to deal with the fact that payments were failing to process, which led to some agents telling people they couldn’t sign up and others that they could sign up and pay later, only to call them back the next day telling them that their original registration was not valid and that they had to reregister.

This caused a lot of confusion and frustration, especially since some people ended up losing the time slot they originally wanted. Given that people need to plan for out of town travel and child care accommodations, this whole situation was pretty unforgivable. There is absolutely no excuse for something like this happening in 2019, let alone 2021. No computer or telephone system should get overwhelmed by 500 users trying to sign up for an exam.

3. Prometric needs to send candidates parking and transportation guides for each testing site

Since most candidates must travel to take the exam, it’s best to give guides on parking and public transportation. Had I not done my research beforehand, I would not have realized that my testing site was at a hotel that had a flat $45/day parking fee. Prometric never got back to me on whether or not the parking fee would be waived for test takers. Luckily, because I looked ahead of time, I was able to reserve a parking spot at a more reasonably priced deck a block from the hotel.

Additionally, in choosing downtown Atlanta as its testing site, Prometric failed to consider that December 7th was also the same day as the SEC College Football Championship. It takes place at the Georgia Dome every December and brings in college football fans from all over.

Again, as someone who lives in the Southeast, I knew this was happening and avoided traffic by testing on a Friday. Saturday test takers weren’t as lucky. Prometric needs to take these things into account when picking a testing site.

4. AOUSC needs to be more transparent with candidates on when test scores will be mailed out

We know from the manual that scores will be ready 12 weeks after the test. As that deadline approaches, people become anxious. As soon as someone posts on the forum that they got a letter, everyone scrambles to check their mailboxes every day and become concerned when their letter is delayed by several days, fearing that it has been lost.

I think AOUSC should take the time to send an email announcing: 1) that scores have been mailed out; 2) a timeframe for how long it could take to receive them; and 3) a designated deadline by which candidates should inquire if they haven’t received their scores. This will put candidates at ease and prevent a flood of phone calls and emails inquiring about letters.

Speaking of which…

5. It’s time AOUSC look into more modern ways for candidates to access test results

Mailing an official letter is fine, but this being the only way to notify candidates of their scores is prehistoric. There is no reason that AOUSC can’t allow test takers to find out their results without having to wait for snail mail. From blogs of years past, I can see that they tried to put up a website at some point, but it was overwhelmed by 500 users logging on at the same time. Again, this is pretty inexcusable given that I was able to access national testing scores online as far back as 2004 without a website crashing, in the early days of DSL.

However, in the hopes of inspiring some creative solutions, here are a couple of ways they could go about sharing scores:

  • Send the scores via a private, encrypted message to the candidates’ Prometric account. This is done by the GRE.
  • Have Prometric email an electronic copy of the letter, just like the Consortium does for many state results. This is how I got my Alabama and Tennessee exam results, followed by the official letter in the mail. You can even make the file password accessible.
  • Post a password accessible, on-line list of successful candidates. If your name isn’t there, you didn’t pass (a lot of states do this for the Bar Exam). If no one passed, put a note up saying as much.
  • Post a similar list where scores are listed next to an individual registration number. This preserves anonymity.
  • Allow candidates to call into Prometric starting on a specific date to receive their individual results via phone. The College Board let students use this method back in the early 2000s for the AP Exams. You could call in on July 1st and then receive your score reports in late July/August. A similar model could be adopted.

As you can see, there are a myriad of ways to do this so that candidates can rest easy knowing they will receive their scores. I have a feeling the anonymous or public lists are not done in order to hide the actual pass rate of the exam – even though it always comes out when candidates freely share their scores on the forums. I don’t think there’s any need or real incentive to keep this a secret. Still, there are other options that would allow AOUSC to inform candidates quickly and keep the pass rate a secret.

6. As a profession, we should push AOUSC to release a full score report to candidates.

I know the AOUSC puts a statement at the bottom of each letter that this exam is not “diagnostic”, so there’s no need to send a score report.

I’m going to respectfully disagree. This exam is being used to determine if a candidate has achieved the minimum interpreting and language skills to work in Federal Court. Considering the different modes tested, the vocabulary evaluated, and the many factors weighed by the raters in the holistic evaluation, this argument does not hold up. This is the very definition of a diagnostic test.

I don’t see why, at a bare minimum, candidates can’t receive a breakdown of how they were scored in each section. Giving this breakdown can help candidates determine whether they need to work on their skills over all or if they need to work on a specific weak area.

I also believe that having access to a summary statement of the holistic evaluation can help out candidates tremendously, especially those that receive a borderline failing score. If the AOUSC so wishes, they could offer this report for a fee.

7. Retired examinations should be released along with passing and failing renditions as preparation tools

This is a no-brainer and something that other exam administrators do all the time. I understand that the AOUSC does not retire exams as frequently, since interpretation exams are so hard and costly to formulate, but eventually some are pulled out of rotation.

Why not make these available to prospective candidates? The AOUSC could release retired exams, along with transcripts of the recordings as well as the notes from the raters evaluating these recordings. These will help guide prospective candidates so that they can better understand the differences between stellar, middling, and failing renditions. If regulations allow, they could sell them, or work with a third party, like the University of Arizona, in order to compile and publish these retired exams as study guides.

I don’t see any real risk in doing this. Making these retired examinations accessible won’t make it any easier for candidates to fenagle the test – it’s virtually impossible to fake an aptitude test, short of a candidate sending in an already federally certified interpreter pretending to be them, especially if these are exams that will never be used again. I don’t even think this will necessarily compromise the prestige of the exam by significantly bumping up the pass rate. I think it would stay about the same or, at most, increase a couple of percentage points. If anything, it will help candidates be more judicious in deciding whether they are ready to take the test and get a better sense of what they need to be evaluating in their own renditions as they prepare.

What I Will Do Differently for 2021

I’ve spent enough time talking about changes the AOUSC and Prometric should consider making. Now, I want to focus inward to changes that are in my control.

What I’m about to share are adjustments that I’m making based off of the feedback I received while studying, common factors I noted among successful candidates, and what I’ve determined my preparation lacked. All of this to say, it’s very tailored to me and should not be taken as a universal guide. Some of it may resonate with you but others may look at what I have to say and think “that doesn’t sound like me”. Instead, I invite all unsuccessful candidates to do the same level of reflection to make the changes that will help them pass.

1. Language Immersion and General Knowledge are Key

The only way to improve a foreign language is by immersing yourself in it. This can be done many different ways on different budgets. Some candidates may choose to spend time abroad in an immersion program to build their skills. If my schedule allows, I would love to do an adult immersion program abroad. Those whose second language is English are lucky to already live in the US. However, it’s really easy to live within your insular expat communities and not really embrace the culture around you. I would push you to embrace the English-language culture instead of sticking to your familiar Hispanic communities and families.

I’m in the opposite situation, but I can still take steps to make sure I’m as immersed as possible while in the US. From now on, I’m going to make sure that part of the daily news I’m hearing and is coming from a Spanish source. I will keep consuming Spanish language novels, film, and television. I’ve also asked my family members to weed out all of the “Spanglish” that plagues our house. My parents, even as professionals, are amazed at how many words are re-entering their lexicon now that we’ve banned Spanglish from the family home.

For current events, what I’ve started doing is reading at least one article on a different topic from a Spanish-language newspaper every morning. I also listen to the weekly episodes from the wonderful El WaPo (El Washington Post), Extra EPS (El País Semanal) and Radio Ambulante podcasts.

2. Never Skimp on the Basics and Warm-Up Exercises

If you are already a seasoned interpreter, it can be easy to let foundational, warm-up exercises fall by the wayside. Memory exercises, chunking, and paraphrasing can seem like a chore, especially when you move up to the harder materials, and you could be tempted to put them off. I know I was, but I now realize that keeping these basics in practice is very important to building the real-time strategizing that interpreters need to have when working in court.

Next time, no matter how tempted I am to skip these, I will make sure that I am doing these warm-ups before each interpreting exercise.

3. Do More Formal Training

I don’t know about you, but my journey as an interpreter has involved a lot of self-training. I used only the ACEBO materials to pass my state exams and though I do attend continuing education workshops, I have not gone through a more formal training since completing the graduate Translation program at Georgia State.

After talking to some of the passing candidates, I believe it is time for me to invest in more formal training. There is only so much growing one can do through self-study. This is why I plan on attending the University of Arizona’s well-known CITI summer program. I have heard nothing but great things about the program and am excited to finally get some classroom training under my belt. I was sad to hear that it is being moved to an all-online course, as I was looking forward to spending two weeks in a real classroom setting. But I’m happy to see that they’re adapting to our current realities and not canceling the course altogether.

4. Use Side-by-Side Comparisons to Improve Interpretation Choices

One of my perpetual goals as an interpreter is to make my interpreting sound smoother and more natural. I don’t just want it to be “passable”; I want it to sound like I am naturally, spontaneously saying these things in the target language. To do this, I want to do more side-by-side comparisons of original legal texts and their official translations, as well as interpreting exercise transcripts and transcripts of my renditions in order to get a better visual of where I can make improvements.

Athena Matilsky blogged about this type of exercise over at the NAJIT Observer. I highly recommend checking it out.

5. Keep Welcoming Critique and Professional Growth

What’s key to achieving any interpreting credential is the humility to accept you always have room for improvement. In the time between now and the exam, I am going to seek as much feedback as I can get from my colleagues, my study group, and possibly a private coach. The more feedback you get, the better you’ll get to know yourself as an interpreter and be able to pinpoint areas that need work.

On that note, I am finally done talking about this exam…for now, at least! I really hope my breakdown and lessons learned help future FCICE candidates on their journey to certification. I’m sure I’ll be checking in regularly as I prepare for this test, but for now I am excited to move on to other topics.

An Autopsy of the Federal Oral Exam, Part 3: Study Materials

When preparing for the oral exam, a major misconception I’ve noticed among candidates is that success is linked to amassing as much material as possible. I’ve also fallen into this trap, so don’t feel ashamed if this is you. When talking to successful candidates, I’ve found that it’s not about how much material you have but how effectively it is used.

This all goes back to the principle of studying smarter, not harder.

On that note, I’m ready to talk about the different materials that I used. Please note, these do not encompass everything available. I can only speak to the materials I’ve used. If there is something missing from my list, I would reach out to our colleagues who used them to get their thoughts.

Please do not think you have to buy everything out there. There are successful candidates out there that worked with one set of study material and used it wisely to pass. Everyone has a different level of income. I am giving out this information so that you can decide how you want to spend your money, not to pressure you into buying materials. I am not affiliated with any of the companies or instructors mentioned in this post.

I. Dictionaries

Dictionaries are the one resource that I would argue all language professionals need. Again, you don’t need everything on the market, but you do need reliable resources so that you can study the proper terminology and work on making your interpretations sound more natural.

1. The Interpreter’s Companion ($30.00)

The Interpreter’s Companion is a glossary that every Spanish speaking state court interpreter has in their arsenal. It covers categories that come up the most in court cases. I especially love the diagrams of cars, weapons, and body parts, as well as the lists of every day slang for drugs, weapons, and the human body. 

It is a good tool to have. However, I prefer the legal terminology suggestions of other glossaries. 

For those that have relied on this for learning Spanish legal vocabulary for the state exams, don’t fret! The examiners are aware that this is a widely used authority by court interpreters. If you use a term from Interpreter’s Companion on the exam, you should be fine.

Pros: Great for terminology related to cars, drugs, weapons, body parts, and slang.

Cons: Not my favorite for legal terminology.

2. Diccionario Javier F. Becerra ($9.99/monthly, $49.00/6-month, or $89.00 annual subscription)

This is the Holy Grail legal database for US-Based Spanish court interpreters. The Becerra team is constantly revising and adding terms, definitions, examples, and explanations to this online database. It’s easy to use and, best of all, since it’s online you can have it on hand easily without literally being weighed down by a heavy book.

It is pricey. However, I’m happy to pay for it every year as a business expense. I use this dictionary almost every day in my real work.

They also have a great (free!) blog where they do deeper analysis of certain terms. If you had to pick only one English/Spanish dictionary, I’d choose this one. $89 may seem steep, but it’s actually cheaper than a Spotify or Netflix subscription and, like the other materials, it can be deduced from your taxes.

The one caveat is that you can only search for terms in English.

3. Tomasi’s Law Dictionary ($35.00)

There are many people who swear by this dictionary and for good reason. It is a phenomenal resource and somewhat affordable. The editorial board is top notch. I really love Tomasi’s offering and have it on hand, since I’m not always allowed to use my iPhone on the job. 

While not as exhaustive as Becerra, it’s still a really rich resource with great legal foundations behind the translation choices. I also enjoy the charts on how criminal cases move through the legal system, federal jurisdictions and federal court procedure. These are immensely helpful for interpreters who do not have an American legal background.

Like Becerra, it is also monodirectional (English to Spanish).

4. Spanish-English Dictionary of Law and Business, 2nd Edition – Thomas L. West ($59.95)

This dictionary is monodirectional, but from Spanish into English. It is used by many translators when translating Spanish legal texts for an US audience. It’s slightly pricier than Tomasi, but also worth the investment. 

The translation suggestions are well founded in legal resources from all over Spanish-speaking countries. They also note where terminology is used more often.

Since texts on the test can technically come from any Spanish speaking country, this is a great resource to have. It will help tremendously when working on your Spanish to English Sight Translation Exercises, which test your ability to understand and interpret Spanish legal language into English legal language.

5. Black’s Law Dictionary, 11th Edition – ($79.42)

While not a bilingual resource, this is something I would suggest every court interpreter have on hand, especially if your professional background is not in the American legal system.

Why use it? Unless you went to a US law school or worked in the American legal field, you’ll need to learn and understand the legal concepts behind the terminology. In here you’ll find every American legal term with a definition and explanation. I still use it when I encounter processes outside my scope of legal practice. Remember, we’re not just interpreting words. We’re interpreting existing legal concepts.

If price is an issue, your local library should have a copy on hand. I would rent or reserve it during exam prep time. You can do the same for general bilingual and English dictionaries.

6. Oxford Spanish Dictionary ($29.49)

If you work as an interpreter or translator, you need a good, general (NOT POCKET SIZED) dictionary. My personal favorite recommended by my translation teachers at Georgia State is Oxford’s Spanish Dictionary. The definitions, usage, and regionalisms are laid out in a clear and easy to understand format. I highly recommend investing in one to verify word choices for general vocabulary that pops up in your exam prep.

An alternative to Oxford is Larousse’s Unabridged Spanish/English English/Spanish dictionary. I prefer the format of the former, but many language professionals swear by it. I’m not sure if it’s been discontinued or if a new version is forthcoming, but I can’t find it through a direct seller online. You can still buy it second hand.

There is a phone app, “Oxford Dictionary and Translator”, free and paid subscription. It’s pretty good to have on the fly so you don’t have to drag the big dictionary everywhere and it is way better than some of the other widely used online dictionaries, but again, not as extensive as the print version.

7. New Oxford American Dictionary ($21.99)

I know the internet has many free dictionaries, but not all dictionaries are created equal. Especially if English is your second language, I highly recommend investing in a comprehensive (NOT POCKET SIZED) monolingual English dictionary. Again, Oxford is my personal favorite. Make sure that it focuses on American English instead of British English.

Oxford also has an app for their monolingual English dictionary (“Oxford Dictionary of English”). There’s a free and paid “premium version”. It’s not as extensive as the print dictionary, but may be something to have on hand.

8. Real Academia Española (Website or App – Free!)

In the same vain, you need a great monolingual Spanish dictionary. Luckily, Real Academia Española not only offers their database for free, but it is now available as a user-friendly app. This is great for verifying word meaning and, of course, they will also include regional nuances with each term.

II. Independent Study Materials

All candidates will need to study on their own in order to prepare for the exam. I want to reiterate that you don’t need to invest in everything out there. You’re much better off picking a couple of things and focusing your time and energy on those. The materials out there have their pros and cons. Take them into consideration alongside cost and your budget to determine how you want to invest your money.

1. ACEBO The Interpreter’s Edge Turbo Edition ($60.00)

What you get: 4 simultaneous, 4 consecutive, and 6 sight translation exercises, with a companion textbook and CD.

If you’ve taken the state court interpreter exam, then you’re already familiar with the materials offered by Holly Mikkelson at ACEBO. I used both Edge and Edge 21 when preparing for the Alabama and Tennessee exams. These are also important to revisit in your prep when you’re getting back into the groove of studying and polishing foundational skills. Edge 21, in particular, has a couple of federal level exercises, but in my opinion, it is worth investing in more challenging materials.

Enter Edge Turbo.

Turbo was specifically designed to address FCICE candidates’ desire for tougher prep materials. These exercises are brutal and throw everything at you in terms of linguistic challenges that can pop up on the exams. The exercises are riddled with idiomatic expressions and slang. The technical language is extremely high register. The grammar is harder to restructure. The simultaneous is much faster. And the consecutive renditions are much longer.

While it was frustrating to do these exercises at the beginning of my exam prep, it helped me identify my weaknesses. They were great because they forced me to think through interpreting solutions at a rapid pace.

Pros: Great advanced materials for seasoned interpreters, affordable, and a great diagnostic tool.

Cons: Unlike Edge 21, you do not get sample audio renditions. However, the suggested translations following each section are a good reference against which you can check your renditions.

I would recommend that every FCICE candidate invest in a copy of Turbo.

A word of caution: if you are getting ready to take the state exam, DO NOT use these exercises. These are designed to challenge seasoned interpreters. Doing them when you’re starting out will only be discouraging. Stick with Edge and Edge 21.

2. ACEBO Two-Tone CDs, Volume 1: English-Spanish Simultaneous Practice ($18.00 or $15.30 if bought alongside Volume 2: Administrative Hearings)

What you get: 9 Simultaneous exercises in a two-tone format, where you can hear the simultaneous exercise in one year to practice interpreting and hear a sample rendition by Holly Mikkelson in the other ear.

Pros: What I love about this supplement is that it covers the most common cases that will be covered in a trial. The language and style they have chosen for the opening and closing arguments exercises are also well structured and akin to the speech patterns used by American attorneys in court. They also have some topics that are more likely to pop up on the federal oral exam, such as firearms experts and terrorist bombings.

If your budget only allows you to buy either Turbo or Two-Tone Vol. 1, I would recommend investing in Turbo. However, if you’re someone whose simultaneous skills need a lot of polishing, I think it is worth investing in these additional exercises. This is also a great investment for current state certified interpreters looking for resources to keep building their simultaneous skills.

Cons: My one con with these exercises is that, since they were recorded over 20 years ago, the sound quality is very poor in comparison to modern recordings. My hope is that the ACEBO team will eventually put out an updated version that has better quality and updated linguistic references and topics.

3. Interpretrain Court Interpreter Federal Certification Program – ($349.00 in 2019, with occasional discount promo codes offered)

This is the new kid on the block, so I’m going to dedicate some extra time to it.

What you get: Access to 50 Interpreting Labs (based off of the 2019 version) and self-grading platform designed to prepare you for the federal exam. This is separate from another course offered for those preparing for state certification.

What it is: Interpretrain launched their training platform for interpreters in the fall of 2019. Interpretrain, founded by federally certified interpreter Virginia Valencia, is already well-known in the North American interpreting community for offering courses on foundational note-taking techniques. This platform serves as an online self-paced exam preparation program. It comes with instructional videos on how to use the platform and set up your study schedule so that you can pace your preparation. 

The 2019 federal program had 50 interpreting “labs” covering all three modes of interpretation. Each lab has three steps: Vocabulary, Interpretation, and Grade. 

In Step 1, “Vocabulary”, you focus on learning the terminology associated with the interpreting exercise. You’re provided three to four different vocabulary exercises to reinforce the language learning component. 

Step 2, “Interpreting” is the main exercise. In the 2019 version, simultaneous and consecutive exercises were based off of the same script, with minor changes to adapt to the mode of interpretation. You can also do the exercises at different speeds: “decelerated” or “normal” for consecutive and 120, 140 and 160 words per minute for simultaneous. 

Step 3, my personal favorite, is “Grade”, where you can play back your interpretation against a transcript of the exercise and then use evaluation criteria provided by Interpretrain to help you do a fair assessment of your rendition.

Pros: The biggest pro to this program is how exam preparation has been moved to a virtual classroom platform. You can take your classroom and homework wherever you go. You can also move through the different steps freely – so if you want to do a cold run of the exercise first before focusing on learning terminology, you can.

Second, this program saves candidates time by providing you with the vocabulary and flashcards. It cuts down on what you need to self-input into vocabulary sets. You know what you need to study that day with your exercises. With the different study modes, you can reinforce terminology.

Third, the simultaneous and consecutive exercises are offered at different speeds. This is tremendous in that it allows you to focus on different aspects of your interpreting.

Last, and my favorite part of the platform, is the “Grade” Step. First, alongside the exercise manuscript, you have to note if you got the scoring units within the exercise. The second half of the evaluation looks at the holistic criteria. You even have a space to make any additional commentary. I love this because it gives you criteria that follows what the examiners are evaluating. It makes it so that you have to sit with your renditions and give an honest, objective and holistic evaluation of your performance, not just on scoring unit recall.

Cons: I love the mechanics of this learning platform and think that it has great potential. However, there seem to be some kinks that still need to be worked out in terms of having each exercise build on what is taught in the ones prior.

Some of the labs didn’t reflect the flow and structure of the exercises the candidates will be facing on the exam. For example, some of the exercises used for the simultaneous and consecutive worked off of the exact same script. Most of the time, it seemed like exercises designed to practice the simultaneous mode (English into Spanish) were broken up into consecutive chunks. Similarly, other exercises had only a Spanish speaker with no alternation between Spanish and English text. I felt that this left out an important aspect that makes consecutive interpreting challenging: switching between source and target languages.

Second, while I enjoyed those labs focused on learning regionalisms, profanity, and slang, they are taught in an isolated context. For example, in an exercise, the speaker will say something in regional slang in every rendition. There’s a lack of that back-and-forth scenario of interpreting the high register English of the attorney to the slangy register of the witness. The current exercises are great for reinforcing memorizing terminology, but there’s that missing link of testing this terminology in an exercise that also tests other consecutive skills.

Additionally, once you finished a lab with slang, the terminology rarely popped up again in other exercises. Personally, I would prefer having this terminology also peppered throughout the different exercises. That way, as you progress you can have these expressions come up within the other exercises so that they can test long-term recall, like Interpretrain does with legal terminology.

Finally, I would love it if they could keep adding to the technical vocabulary and more expert witness simultaneous exercises. Especially with speed alterations and grading criteria, this platform would be amazing for expert witness practice.

Conclusion: The most exciting part of what Interpretrain launched is the platform. It is a great tool to reinforce the linguistic learning component of interpretation training. Another strength is that it incorporates the holistic evaluation that many candidates ignore in their prep. Though it has the pros and cons of a new program, I am excited to see how this will evolve for the 2021 offering.

4. Interpretrain 10 Lessons to Excel at Consecutive Interpretation – ($109.00)

What you get: 5 instructional videos with practices, The Note-Taking Manual (PDF), Lesson Plan with Quizzes, and audio exercises.

If you’ve never taking a note-taking course, especially the one offered by Virginia Valencia, I highly recommend it. Once you learn and practice the technique, your consecutive will improve exponentially.

If you do decide to do the digital or the live version (whenever Virginia offers it), my recommendation is to do it well in advance of the exam. This is because when you’re switching note-taking methods, you’ll be slower in the beginning. It’s better to learn these foundational skills ahead of time so that you’re well practiced and ready to perfect it for the exam. Note-taking should help you, not hinder you.

III. Webinars and In-Person Seminars

If your time and resources allow, I highly recommend attending an exam prep seminar. Whereas I didn’t feel they were worth the investment for the written portion, this is the time to sign up for a course. I couldn’t take everything out there. There are other courses that I am sure are wonderful, but I had to pick where to invest my money. If you are interested in a different course, I would recommend asking people in the different forums for private feedback. 

In 2019, I did the following two prep courses.

1. Transinterpreting: Prepare for the Federal Oral Exam ($289.00 in 2019)

Edgar Hidalgo is a state certified court interpreter in California who provides a lot of great continuing education webinars for court and healthcare interpreters, as well as prep materials for the state certification exam. He has partnered with a federally certified interpreter, Antonio Pelayo López, to offer a prep course for the federal oral exam.

What you get: A combination of live and prerecorded courses covering all modes of the exam. The course focuses on breaking down the examination and the techniques needed to approach interpreting at the federal level, as well as a breakdown of how candidates can get tripped up during the different exercises. Materials also include access to various interpretation exercises in all three modes with word banks and transcripts.

Pros: Being an online course, I was extremely pleased with what Transinterpreting has to offer. Aside from this being ideal for folks that need flexibility (you can access the class recordings at any time up until the exam date), I enjoyed the breadth of materials covered in this prep course. The exercises provided were extremely challenging and great for pushing your interpreting skills to the max. You also get a ton of word banks on non-legal terminology that trip people up on the exam (descriptors, slang, regionalism, etc.) and expert witness fields that could pop up on test day.

My favorite part of the course was the materials provided to study Spanish to English sight translation, along with the analysis provided by the federal instructor. This was phenomenal for tackling this exam exercise.

Cons: This does have the limitations of a webinar. While it’s convenient for folks that can’t always make it to class, if you don’t attend then you miss out on the live class experience. Of course, the Transinterpreting team is great, so you can always contact them if you have a lingering question. Like with any independent study, you also have to be accountable and have great time management skills so you actually do the work.

2. FCICE Exam Workshop – Tony Rosado and Javier Castillo ($500.00, plus travel and lodging expenses)

If you can attend a live exam workshop, I absolutely recommend it. If you can grab one of the coveted seats at Tony Rosado and Javier Castillo’s workshop, get it.

What you get: an intensive, three-and-a-half-day live workshop with two of the best and most well-respected interpreters in the profession. Classes are held in a collegiate setting (UNC Charlotte in 2019). The workshop covers each section of the test, grading criteria, and technique in depth. It ends with a mock examination and an optional evaluation, in front of the class or in private, of one of your renditions.

You get tips and insight from phenomenal interpreters that want people to pass this exam, but who will be brutally honest about your readiness. The instructors are not unkind, but they expect you to have the thick skin of a professional interpreter.

Tony and Javier have a great dynamic as instructors. Both their personalities and language combinations complement each other. Tony is also a former exam grader and provides important insight so that you better understand the oral exam. (No, he won’t be giving past test questions. That would be impossible, illegal, and, frankly, totally useless.) You also go home with transcripts of the class exercises so that you can use them in your self-study as well as tips on resources and how to study. Additionally, the instructors give candidates advice on how to protect themselves if there are any problems that pop up in the administering of the exam.

Pros: This workshop was exactly the ass-kicking I needed a month before the exam. It left me feeling raw, and I did a lot of deep reflection into where I was, both as an exam candidate and as an interpreter. Tony and Javier forced us out of our comfort zones as interpreters. It was a rough week, but I think it was quite possibly the best investment I’ve made, not just for this exam, but for my interpreting career.

Aside from getting a much-needed reality check, the value in this workshop is that it is the only one where I left feeling like I finally had a good grasp on what this exam is, what they are evaluating, and exactly what is being asked of candidates in order to work in the federal courts. At the end of that week, after hours of intensive work and a one-on-one session with Javier where he kindly talked me through my emotions (yes, I cried in front of him – fun!), I left with a great game plan to best use my remaining month of prep before test day. That alone made the time and money worth it.

Cons: I don’t really have any. I have just one minor suggestion that has to do with time management and Q&As. As interpreters, we’re quite an enthusiastic and opinionated bunch. Of course, when it came to terminology and exam-insight, fellow attendees wanted to ask about all of the words and propose a myriad of hypotheticals. I understand that impulse. It’s so hard studying for an exam that is so difficult, lacks transparency at the administrative level, and that makes you feel as if so many factors are out of your control. But this ended up taking away a good chunk of class time. My one suggestion would be that the instructors find a way to control these tangents so that they have plenty of time to cover everything on the agenda, possibly asking attendees to hold questions until the end of each section or during a designated Q&A session before lunch and at the end of each class.

I hope that in 2021, Tony and Javier are able to offer this workshop in one or two more locations. The setting in North Carolina was great and ideal for me as an Alabama resident. If their schedules allow, I think it would be wonderful if they could also offer a West Coast session for our colleagues on the other side of the country.

IV. Practice Tests

While the AOUSC provides one practice test with sample passing and failing renditions, a lot of candidates want other opportunities to simulate the exam with different materials. University of Arizona has you covered with both a download-ready and live, online practice tests. I was not able to fit in the live tests with my schedule but I did use The Spanish Talking Manual. Like most of the U of A’s materials, it is extremely challenging and great to get a sense of where your skills really are. You can do this practice test over and over again and still encounter challenges. It’s absolutely a worthwhile investment.

For those looking to do a live exam, I would be on the lookout for announcements from Arizona about a live mock exam. The exam is done online and is followed by a two-part webinar going over the practice test and oral exam logistics.

V. Private Coaching

While I did not use a private coach, I do want to make sure candidates know that this is an option. If you check out the forums, you’ll see that there are federally certified interpreters offering one-on-one coaching. I know that Athena Matilsky does this and her students love their experience working with her. I’ve had Athena as an instructor in the past and she’s been great.

If you’re interested in private coaching, I would reach out both to instructors offering this service and our community to see which coach would be a best fit for you.

Final Thoughts

I hope this helps you navigate the world of federal court interpreter exam material. I encourage you to also get feedback from others in the interpreting community. Most folks will happily talk about their experiences.

Remember, there is no need to put financial strain on yourself and buy everything out there. People have prepped and passed this exam on different budgets. It is not about how much material you buy. It’s about taking full advantage of the material you have.

In the final post on the oral exam, I’ll wrap everything up by going over how to prepare for exam day, updates on the exam administration, and what I plan on doing differently for 2021.

Read Part 4 here.

You Failed the Federal Oral Exam…Now What?

As you can see from the title, my first go at the federal oral exam was not successful. Results for the 2019 exam are rolling in and people are sharing them both publicly and privately. I want to take a brief interlude from the breakdown of my exam prep experience to talk about how you can process falling short on an interpretation exam. My hope is that by opening up about my experience, I can help others who are feeling discouraged find the energy to keep pursuing certification.

(Don’t worry, I’ll still share my thoughts on prep materials, etc., before finally blogging about different topics.)

First of all, I want to give a huge congratulations to all of the successful candidates! I know just how much time and effort you dedicated to this exam and am so excited that all of your hard work has paid off. You deserve this and I hope you relish in your accomplishment. I know all of you will bring talent and integrity to the federal system and the profession as a whole.

I especially want to shout out my prep team. As of today, we have found out that one of our study partners was successful in passing with a really solid score. (One member is still waiting for her results…more on administrative snafus in a different post.) While the rest of us did not pass, we are still incredibly proud of our teammate and celebrate his accomplishment as if it were our own. Even if he was the only one to pass, we still beat the national passing rate, which sits well under 10%. Statistics would’ve predicted none of us passing and we beat those odds.

Candidates taking this notorious exam are at different points in their careers. Some have years of experience working in state courts. Others may be newer but wanted to take their shot after passing the written exam. Some candidates are already highly skilled and working in conference interpretation. Others may have bypassed the state interpretation exam all together and are going straight for federal certification. And the majority of annual test takers are not taking it for the first (or second, or third, or fourth…) time.

My point is that candidates are going into the federal oral exam with different backgrounds and levels of experience. There can be many factors contributing to a non-passing score. I’m not going to talk about those today, though I would like to write on it to provide aspiring interpreters with a reflection tool. Today, I just want give you a pep talk to help you process this disappointing news.

1. Be Proud of Yourself

Maybe you didn’t pass, but I still congratulate you on taking the time to prepare and actually sit this exam. Because of its infamy, a lot of people panic at the last minute and either decide not to do it or walk out in the middle of it. This happens so often that the proctor has to say as part of the instructions, “If you decide to stop the exam, I will encourage you to continue.” You didn’t quit. You went into this exam knowing just how demanding and nerve-wracking it is and you still finished it. That takes guts.

After taking an amazing prep course in November (more on that in a separate post) where I got to see some of the best candidates in action, and had my mini professional crisis, I made my peace with the fact that this was not my time to pass. After a rough period of self-reflection, I realized that I still needed to do more court interpreting skills building in order to be at the level of my colleagues who were ready. At the exit assessment, I asked one of the instructors if it was even worth my taking this exam. He, in turn, asked me what I had to lose by doing so. In that moment, it dawned on me that I had nothing to lose. All I could do was take what I had learned over those days, try to address my weak areas in the remaining three weeks, and see what happened. 

I’m glad I did because now I know this exam is nothing to be afraid of. Had I not done so, the exam would still remain a mystery. That right there is an important small victory.

2. This Does Not Cancel Out Past Accomplishments.

The prestige afforded to this exam can make failing it difficult to swallow. As Spanish language professionals in the United States, we are encouraged to obtain federal certification to solidify our credentials. Because of this, failing it can make us belittle all of our accomplishments on our professional journey. This, combined with a desire to make sure we’re not seen one of those “paraprofessionals” trying to profit off of the public’s misconceptions about interpreting and translating, can cause us to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to pass and can kill our confidence when we don’t.

Here’s what failing this exam does not do. It does not take away any of the education and training that you have received. Do you have a Masters in interpretation? Failing this exam does not invalidate your graduate school diploma. Are you already working as a state court or medically certified interpreter? No one is going to come by and revoke those.

While our egos may take a (huge) hit, I can assure you that no one is going to respect you less as a colleague because you didn’t pass this time. I will state right now that I still respect you and see you as an equal, even if this is your hundredth attempt at passing.

At the seminar, when I was asked what I had to lose, I realized that the worst that could happen is that I would not pass. However, I could continue working in the field, studying to be a better interpreter, and pursuing other career goals. I am still one of a handful of people here in Alabama that managed to pass the state certification and the healthcare certification exams. I still have amazing clients that have given me great opportunities, and I have had incredible experiences because of them. None of that is going away tomorrow because I didn’t pass this time.

As for professional respect, I can only say this. I was the first person in my group that found out she failed the exam. When I let my group members know, the first thing they did was rush to assure me that while this was disappointing it did not mean that I was a bad interpreter. These are well-respected colleagues who during six months listened to, analyzed, and gave me feedback on my interpretations. It meant a lot hearing from them that they would always think of me as a good professional. I bet if you talk to your colleagues, they’ll assure you that this exam does not change how they feel about your professional worth.

There are hundreds of things a colleague could do that would cost her my respect. Failing to pass one of the hardest interpretation exams in the United States is far from one of them.

3. It Wasn’t All for Nothing

My heart breaks whenever I read a despondent posting on our forums from a colleague that has not passed a credentialing exam. I empathize and understand just how frustrating it can be to put in so much hard work and have it not paid off. Interpretation exams in particular can cause you to question your foreign language abilities, even if you have a doctorate in that language. The cognitive dissonance caused by receiving less than stellar feedback on one of these tests can lead a lot of people to lament the whole process and give up on ever getting credentialed.

I want to assure you that the time, effort, and sacrifices you have made have not been in vain. While the ultimate goal is a passing score, that is not all that you gain from going through the interpreting exam training process, especially for the federal exam. You have just spent months dedicated to interpreting practice, vocabulary building, and perfecting your language abilities. If you studied in a group, you got valuable feedback from people that have helped you realize your strengths and weaknesses. You may have also made new friends across the country and expanded your network. I know I have.

This all matters.

In the six months that I spent preparing for the test with my study group, I grew more as an interpreter than I had in the three years since first passing the state exam (my fourth anniversary is this fall). My Spanish is stronger; even my family members have commented on it. My interpretations are smoother and sound more natural. My skills have all gone up. I have noticed all of this, not just in practice exercises but on the job. I also have a much better idea of who I am as an interpreter, where I am strong, and where I still need to do some work to grow and be ready to enter the next level of court interpreting. 

Additionally, because of the seminars that I attended I finally feel like I know exactly what the examiners want and how to best prepare for this test. All of these are factors that I can take with me into Round 2.

For those that have already gone up to bat multiple times, I can’t imagine the frustration that you feel. All I can say is that, irregular years aside, I still think this is a very fair interpretation exam. If someone falls short, even by one percentage point, there’s something the raters are hearing that leads them to believe they can’t recommend him for certification. Maybe you have already invested in a lot of resources and aren’t sure what else you can do to improve your score. I can only encourage you to keep getting feedback so that you can finally pinpoint what’s going on and what you need to do differently.

I still have faith that you can do this. If you keep trying, then you may finally pass the exam. If you never take it again, then it’s a guarantee you’ll never be federally certified. Please, do not rob yourself of the opportunity to pass.

Chin up, everyone. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. I’ll see you back in 2021 to face this exam again.