20%-30% – Among other things

I happen to be a state certified interpreter.  By no means does this indicate that I am a perfect interpreter; I am not.  It does indicate that I passed a test on a given day, with at least the 70% needed in each section in order to be deemed certified.  No one scores 100%.  I don’t have stats, but I’m certain it is safe to say that the passing scores are probably grouped closer to 70% than to 100%.  I’m sure at the federal level they are grouped closer to 80% than to 100%.

Obviously, when we get down to practicing our profession, accuracy is crucial.  So how do you get from the 70-80% required to pass the exam to the 100% required in court proceedings? What makes up the 20-30%? Professionalism.

First impressions are important.  Did you show up to the appointment on time?  I’ve heard a few people use a quote over the past year which rings true.  Roughly it goes:  If you are early, you are on time. If you are on right on time, you are late. If you are late, you missed it.  I think you get the point.

Are you dressed appropriately for the courtroom?

Do you have the tools of the trade:  A pen and pad, a dictionary or dictionary app, colleague close by, or a phone-a-friend option?  Are you actively taking notes, and using the notes to improve?

When things start getting out of hand, and they inevitably do, parties start speaking too fast, speaking over each other or using words you don’t understand, do you know how to take control of the situation? Do you maintain your composure, stay in third person and keep the record clean?

Feedback: How do you keep parties informed about the process and how do you make the process as seamless as possible?  Are you open to criticism, and are you able to give constructive criticism without tearing a colleague or party down?  Or do you avoid being critical of the process altogether, hoping it will magically improve?

These are just a few of the things I consider when I think about professionalism and the the profession.

Realistically, you can take certification out of the equation.  Before obtaining certification, it can be easy to consider the oral exam and certification as the end rather than the beginning, but this is not the case. There are many professional interpreters who work in languages where certification is not available, and there are many professionals working toward certification.

There are countless ways to go about being professional.  Do you care to share some?

And since I mentioned the exams: enough already about the certification exam being “biased toward certain Spanish speakers”!  Enough about “the test uses Spanish from a certain region, so it’s not fair to folks from other regions!” Malarkey!  If you are a complainer: quit complaining.  If you are an interpreter who needs to pass an exam, dedicate yourself to skills building.


NOTE: This piece was first published as a NAJIT blog in 2015 by author KMercado.

Main photo (cropped) taken from “Tribunal de commerce de Paris, grande salle d’audience” by author Tiraden at Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Body photo (cropped) “Horloge de la gare SNCF rive droite” by Frédéric BISSON at flickr, under the CC BY 2.0 license.

11 thoughts on “20%-30% – Among other things”

  1. Jason says:

    I love the last paragraph!

  2. Darren Parse says:

    Composure is crucial, especially when you’re working with attorneys who are unsympathetic towards the LEP and the interpreter. Losing your cool won’t change this. Polite persistence prevails.

  3. Vinka Valdivia says:

    While I agree with some of the points this author made, such as that passing the test is not the goal but merely a starting point, i disagree with some of the other points that follow. Yes, professionalism is important: dress, comportment, abiding by interpreter guidelines, etc. But what is more important, in my opinion, and I think is the intention of the test is to realize that those are the MINIMUM levels you need as an interpreter to begin to start working. The remainder is up to you to improve– improve vocabulary, improve technique, improve research skills, etc. so that you can get as close to the 100% as possible IN YOUR INTERPRETING every single day.

  4. Weston Van De Berg says:

    I take my certification exam for the 2nd time this Friday. I’m very nervous but this article really cheered me up! Thank you!

    1. Ruth G. says:

      Best of luck! Did you retake it to get better scores or like me, just to test your skills 🙂

  5. Max Goldston says:

    Good post! I agree with the last comment wholeheartedly. I did take Nestor Wagner’s year long Criminal Proceedings course in order to pass the test Once I got my certification I only realized it was a beginning, a starting point wow! I have now signed up for his Professional Interpreter course and I’m sure I won’t stop there. Education, education…

  6. Nattalia Paterson says:

    I love the last paragraph, especially because when a client/court ask for an interpreter who speaks a specific dialect, there is usually great outrage and passionate claims that “it is all the same language. The exam is not easy, but it is not too difficult. In my personal opinion, it is fair. The work we do every day in court is a lot more challenging than the test and we do have to serve LEPs from different backgrounds, not only those who share our specific dialect. For anyone who has taken the test multiple times and still has not passed, I suggest that you try to approach the test and how you are studying for it differently Ask a friend who did passed if they have any tips and be open to listen to what they have to say. Heck! You can contact me anytime. I’d be happy to assist in any way I can. As court interpreters, we are facing many issues right now. Working conditions have been deteriorating since the pandemic and the rates we are getting paid are most certainly not keeping up with inflation. The number of untrained colleagues who have never even heard of a code of ethics working in the courtrooms today has increased tremendously and the noticeable drop in the quality of the services provided has left court personnel on a constant state of irritability. The certification exam most certainly is not an end, but a steppingstone. However, it is an important steppingstone. Since I’ve become certified, I feel a lot more empowered to stand my ground and demand better work conditions to be able to provide my services. In my personal experience, the magic word — *certified* — when said out loud in court, does carry some weight and, when you use it, people do stop to listen to what you have to say. And regarding those yet untrained colleagues, please don’t be mean to them! Take them under your wing instead. There is great power in numbers, and we need all the help we can get to fight for the betterment of our profession.

  7. Ruth G. says:

    Your publication “hit the spot!”

    I was a legal interpreter for over 6 years before crossing the border to a neighboring state to get state certified. Even though my home state did not request certification (unfortunately still something not required nowadays), I wanted to be ahead of the game, be prepared, and most importantly, prove to myself, first and foremost, that I was good at what I do.

    Getting certified opens many doors to more and better possibilities, but as you said, there are some basic 101 interpreting rules that I am still puzzled to see many interpreters bypass. Being on time is number 1 for me and this is something you can’t learn in school, it is common sense and a matter of courtesy to those we serve and especially to any colleague working with us as a team.

    I recently decided to retake the written portion of the certified test, why? Because I wanted to verify if, after 20+ years of combined experience (medical + legal), my skillset had sharpened.

    Sometimes if we stay too long inside our comfort zone, our skills remain stale. I like to mentor newcomers to the profession and my advice is always to diversify and try new challenges daily.

    My next goal: the federal exam. After all, I score above the 20% threshold in the state certifiedtest 🙂

  8. When I started my interpreting career many years back (moving into it from a totally different field), I threw myself into Federal Court. And it was GREAT because at that district, colleagues were very supportive, and we would have debriefing sessions afterwards to discuss terminology and challenges of the hearing. Especially useful was the fact that all interpreters could look up and listen in to-live-anything that was being interpreted in the courthouse. It was useful for 2 reasons: (1) To learn from experienced colleagues and see that even among themselves, there would be disagreements about the possible ways to interpret something. Or how to handle court situations. Their feedback was always kind and helpful. And (2) because I feel that too many interpreters are not always willing to let a colleague “hear in” to what they’re interpreting. This means they’re working in secrecy… in a bubble, and how will they CONTINUE to learn if there are better styles, equivalencies, etc.? There has to be trust and collegiality, of course, but knowing another interpreter is hearing your rendition, is a very motivating tool to keep you on your A game all the time. So my advice is> put yourself out there, it’s the best way to learn (but you will need to accept feedback, which is something we all should do!). Remember> the people who hire you are just basing it on the fact that you’re on a list, so be one of the BEST interpreter out there! Everyone, no matter how long they’ve been an interpreter, can (and should) still learn something new, and probably has great things to share with receptive colleagues.

  9. Jesse Leonor says:

    I remember learning a while back that the typical person in the U.S. eats something like a pound or two of insects per year. Most of them are ground into the different flours we consume. Being that it is impossible to remove every last bug from crops, the USDA sets a threshold that is allowed to be mixed in with what winds up in our food. In a truth that is just as ugly, we all know that as interpreters it’s impossible to be 100% correct, 100% of the time. So, where does that leave us? Well, we need to acknowledge that there will be errors and many of them can be accepted. The question then becomes, which errors are acceptable and which have to be addressed. Next question is, who should be pointing out those material errors. In my opinion, the answer is found in a mix of confidence and humility. Humility in being able to look beyond yourself and be willing to point out your serious error before anyone else does, or worse, before your error affects the judicial process. And confidence to feel bold enough to speak out about your flub, knowing this won’t mean you are suddenly unqualified to do this work, but more. The 100% should still be our goal, but ironically, we only reach it when we are comfortable pointing out our flaws.

    P.S. – If we miss noticing our own errors, the next ideal person to point it out is a fellow interpreter (not a random bilingual listener). Only an interpreter is truly qualified to evaluate the performance of another interpreter.

  10. Jaime M de Castellví says:

    I wonder how interpreters who complain that “the exam is biased towards certain Spanish speakers” deal with the situation when they suddenly have to interpret (at a hearing, at a trial, at the witness stand, in front of a jury) for a defendant whose version of spoken Spanish they feel most challenged by. Do they ask to approach and bellyache to the Judge about it (LOL)? If they are completely certain that they are not up to it then the responsible thing is to inform the Judge of course., but I suspect this is a rather rare situation, more likely to come about for interpreters who misrepresent their qualifications or level of skill.

    Excellent article, Kevin. I suspect that some of the people who may think they disagree are actually coming from the same place, just using different semantics. In my experience most professionally-minded interpreters pretty much agree that passing a certification exam simply means that one has achieved an entry level baseline upon which to continue to build their skills.

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