Certification, Regulation, Standardization: Working toward the Establishment of the Interpreting Profession on a National Level, Part 1

The following is the first of a two-part series on the importance of certification standards with a view toward achieving recognition of the interpreting field as a profession on a par with those already regulated and standardized in the United States.

Part 1: Why Certification Matters

Early Days

The year was 1998, and I had recently earned what was then called the Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification of the National Center for State Courts, now the Consortium for Equal Access in the Courts.  I was proud to be one of the first two certified court interpreters in my state.  At about the same time, the courts in my state received a mandate to employ only certified or eligible interpreters, and I started getting work. The interpreters I was replacing in my local courts were two “bilingual” members of the community. The lower courts had had to depend on the services of a local chicken farmer, who sometimes appeared in overalls, and who had no problem telling people how to plead or accepting payment from both the court and the defendants. In the higher court, there was a lady who dressed nicely and was a real whiz at converting legal language into baby Spanish “so that the defendants can understand.”  For many members of the local legal community, this was the only kind of interpreting they had any ever observed. Some of them didn’t know what to make of me.

I remember my first attorney-client conference as if it were yesterday. The defense attorney and I had just gone through an exemplary interview with an incarcerated defendant. I felt that the attorney had done an admirable job of eliciting information from his LEP (limited English proficient) client, and that I had conveyed the information accurately. Everything seemed hunky-dory until after we left the cell block, when the attorney turned to me and said, “You know, I think all this business about certified interpreters is a crock.”

Well, as you can imagine, I was literally dumbstruck. I wish now that I had managed a snappy comeback, but I had just gone through an in-depth orientation about the importance of adequate interpreting for LEP persons, and in my naiveté I truly had no idea there was anybody who disagreed with that assessment.

Today—Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

That was fourteen years ago. The profession has come a long way, and many, many more interpreters have become certified at both the federal and state levels. At the same time, there has developed an increased understanding and regard for the work of court interpreters and their function in the justice system. Many members of the legal community—attorneys, judges, and prosecutors— appreciate the importance of using certified interpreters, but there will always be those who, like my attorney friend, think it’s all a crock. There’s not a lot we can do to change their minds except to continue our efforts to educate and advocate for our cause and to do our very best in our field of endeavor,

There is another group, however, that presents an even  greater challenge—interpreters themselves. There are working interpreters out  there who strongly resist seeking any kind of certification, and their reasons  are many. I’ve heard some say that they get plenty of work anyway, and that  they make a good living without having to go to the trouble and expense of taking  an exam. Then there are interpreters for whom the converse is true—they feel  they don’t work enough to make it worth their while. There are also those who  rely on getting work from certain agencies that don’t require any certification from the interpreters who work for them—indeed they call uncertified interpreters first because they’re cheaper. Where is the incentive  for an interpreter to get certified if it means less work?

Then there are those who feel that they should not be required  to take any tests since their experience should speak for itself. Others feel that  all interpreter testing is by its very nature discriminatory. (I used to know a  lady who insisted that the only reason she had not yet passed the state certification exam–after four tries–was because of her accent in English.) Finally, there  are a number of unfortunate interpreters who must strive to overcome a  seemingly overwhelming, sometimes pathological, fear of test-taking. For these interpreters the prospect of having to interpret in the context of an exam seems to induce such performance anxiety that it is actually more stressful for them to interpret into a microphone in a quiet place than in front of a room  full of people under the most demanding conditions.

All of these reasons for avoiding the certification process suggest that a narrow and personalized perspective on certification is still prevalent in the interpreter community. We tend to see only our own situation  without relating it to our profession as a whole. What we need is to develop  a broader, more long-range view that focuses on one of our main objectives—to  be considered as members of a regulated, standardized profession like that of any doctor, lawyer or, yes, electrician or plumber.

Good Interpreter/Bad Interpreter

When weighing the requirement for using certified  interpreters, people sometimes suggest that certification does not automatically confer competence. This may or may not be the case, but to me it is beside the point. In this country, most states require that aspiring practitioners of countless different occupations pass through some kind of qualifying process, sometimes many, before they are allowed to actually begin working in their field. This includes doctors, lawyers, dentists, veterinarians,  psychologists, social workers, builders, plumbers, real estate agents, beauticians…the list goes on and on. But not court interpreters, and for that matter, not medical interpreters.

Look at it this way. Would you get a pedicure at a nail salon  that employed unlicensed operators? Would you go to a doctor who had not passed her qualifying exams? Would you trust the sale of your home to an unlicensed realtor?  A lawyer who has not passed the state  bar exam might be every bit as competent as one who has, but which one would you go to for advice about a will?

Yes, the members of every profession include individuals who are highly competent and others who are less so. There are even qualified professionals who are (horrors!) incompetent and even unprofessional. To say that there are uncertified interpreters who are just as good as their certified colleagues ignores the question of what certification implies for the profession as a whole. In order to receive the respect we seek as professionals, certification must be the norm rather than a feather in one’s cap for the interpreter and an onerous and unreasonable demand for the courts and other venues.

The extraordinary thing about the lack of standardization in the field of interpreting is that our expertise or lack thereof can affect the future of an individual in situations of life and death. Isn’t the possibility of life in prison or serious medical complications of more importance than the correct installation of a garden sprinkler system, the exact shade of color on a woman’s hair, the most favorable divorce settlement? Apparently, at this time, it is not.


Information on the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination



Information on the Consortium for Equal Access in the Courts Certification Exam


National Council on Interpreters in Health Care: Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Certification of Interpreters


For a lively discussion of certification pros and cons, go  to the Indeed.com forum at:


On test-taking phobias (Courtesy Gio Lester)


(Check under Social Phobias)



The next installment of this series will deal with the difficulties encountered in the areas of regulation and standardization of the interpreting profession, and will include concrete comparisons with other professions, the use of interpreter agencies
and the current interpreter situation in Great Britain and its implications for interpreters in the United States.

* It is now the
Consortium for Equal Access in the Courts

5 thoughts on “Certification, Regulation, Standardization: Working toward the Establishment of the Interpreting Profession on a National Level, Part 1”

  1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    Great part one, Kathleen! Here’s what struck me most: “In order to receive the respect we seek as professionals, certification must be the norm rather than a feather in one’s cap for the interpreter and an onerous and unreasonable demand for the courts and other venues.” I’d go even further to suggest, as many colleagues have over the years, that higher education play a role in even allowing candidates to take exams. In states where it seems like the market is no longer struggling to find court interpreters, for example, wouldn’t now be the time for the profession to create requirements for the future generations, such as degrees or experience in the field? ATA has very specific requirements to even take the test to be a certified translator, a field where certification isn’t usually a legal mandate. How did they get there, and how can we (at least in California) suggest pre-reqs for taking an exam? Food for thought. 🙂

  2. Gio says:

    The only interpreters I know of for whom certification is a requirement are ALS interpreters. We need to find out what path they took to conquer that feat, learn from it and adapt it to our own situation.

    Medical interpreters have two certifications to choose from now – the National Board’s and CCHI’s. CCHI has just earned NCCA Accreditation. It is expected that medical interpreter certification will become a requirement soon.

    Another big issue is compensation. The disparity between the importance of the work interpreters perform in their different settings and what users are willing to pay them is ludicrous.

  3. Kathleen says:

    Thanks, Jennifer and Gio! I plan to address all of the topics you intoduce in further posts. There are so many things we must consider to figure out where we have been, and why, and where we are going and how to get there.

  4. Alicia Wade says:

    Hii. Thanks for sharing the amazing post. I really enjoyed your post.

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