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.