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 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 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.

8 Comments
  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 12:12h, 13 March Reply

    Beautifully said, Kevin! I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people blame test bias for their failure to pass. Likewise, too many people who have passed it think they are the cat’s meow. To everyone I say, “Record yourself. Compare your interpretation to the original.” If you come out clean, with absolutely no mistakes, I will be happy to applaud you as King or Queen of interpreters. Otherwise, just like the rest of us, you still have something to learn.

    • Kevin Mercado
      Posted at 20:31h, 15 March Reply

      I used to think passing the test on the first try was impossible, now I know many colleagues who have passed on the first try. I’m glad I had about 5 years between attempts. It gave me more time to develop my skill, something I still work at.

  • Martin Anderson
    Posted at 12:16h, 13 March Reply

    Another element of professionalism, I believe, is speaking in a loud, clear voice. This brings three benefits. 1) Everyone can hear clearly and can concentrate on content, not delivery. 2) It can help attorneys and others, often notoriously low-voiced and inarticulate, remember to speak up as well, a big benefit for us. 3) It suggests confidence (whether you have it or not this particular day) in yourself, and can therefore make you more confident, and, thus, a better interpreter.
    A word on tests. All tests will be biased, to some extent. As a native English speaker who began learning Spanish at 34, I took and passed the NY and NJ state exams in 1998 and didn’t sense any bias there.” In any case, I’m not sure there could be a motive for any particular deliberate regional bias in a test.
    Thank you Kevin for a useful article. After 15 years as a staff interpreter in NY, and now free-lance in New Hampshire, I know we receive quite a bit of undeserved and inaccurate criticism. The more professionally we carry out our jobs, the less that will happen.

    • Kevin Mercado
      Posted at 20:34h, 15 March Reply

      Great point. I make it a practice to focus on making sure the court reporter can hear and see what I’m saying. There’s much to be said for the visual cues which can help with volume and pacing.

  • Adriana Trevino
    Posted at 12:42h, 13 March Reply

    I agree with you 100%. I would even say that professionalism and the right ATTITUDE are as important as certification. I run an agency and manage hundreds of interpreters.

    Let’s just imagine we have one certified, very skilled, accurate and effective interpreter with a lot of experience in the field. This interpreter comes to the hearings or depositions fully prepared and arrives early. Furthermore, this interpreter dresses well and knows how to handle any type of “professional” situation such as letting the parties know that they are speaking too fast, clarifying words/terms unknown to him, etc. However, this interpreter has an attitude. e is not friendly or personable. He continually looks at his watch when the minimum time for which he was hired is about to run out. He needs to be somewhere else and makes sure he tells everyone he will no longer be available, again, with an attitude.

    I often get feedback from my clients. My clients include federal and state courts, probation, law enforcement, private law firms, etc. Because my agency works only with the most qualified interpreters, it is rare to get complaints about the interpreter’s skills. However, my clients have brought “attitude” issues with interpreters. I first, clarify the issue with the interpreter and offer an apology to the client. Many times it is just a misunderstanding and we all learn from the experience. But if the interpreter responds to me with a rude attitude then I make sure I don’t call that interpreter again.

    If you are rude and have a negative disposition, then no great skills or certification will guarantee you a job. Do we have to subject to a doctor’s rude behavior simply because he is a licensed physician? No! We choose a different one, right???

    • Kevin Mercado
      Posted at 20:36h, 15 March Reply

      Absolutely. I like to look at the attitude as sales. End users have to happy with the service, and a good attitude usually leads to positive feedback.

  • Vicki Santamaria
    Posted at 19:06h, 13 March Reply

    Thanks for this post, Kevin. I think you read my mind, because I’ve been thinking for a while about a continuing education session I’d like to prepare about how court interpreters should never think they know everything. After 29 years of working as a certified interpreter, I still am learning new things, and I hope getting better at interpreting.

    As for the certification exams, whether or not they are biased toward a certain regional variation, a court interpreter needs to be familiar with all regional variations. In my career, the only nationality I haven’t interpreted for is Paraguayan!

  • Kevin Mercado
    Posted at 20:38h, 15 March Reply

    Your welcome. At the end of the day, we want to make sure we were able to facilitate the communication, and the more regional variations we know, the more likely we are to do so successfully.

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