Exam-taking time

It’s that time again, when certification candidates start looking for practice buddies, dig up practice materials from workshops taken long-ago, or sign up for new courses, all in the hopes of passing the oral portion of a certification exam. The truth is that what you need to pass that oral exam should have become second nature to you by now, because good habits in your every-day work are what will get you through any exam successfully.

Habit #1: Verify, verify, verify…

Interpreters cannot rely on their own instincts, other people’s opinions, or other unorthodox sources of information to make decisions about the meaning of the words they choose to include or exclude from their active vocabulary. That’s what dictionaries are for. Always go to authoritative sources (that means “NOT GOOGLE”!) Authoritative sources are dictionaries published in hard copy, authored by reputable scholars, which may or may not be available in digital format. Verify your sources first, then verify that the word you are using actually means what you think it means. And then verify again if the word has more than one meaning, to make sure you know which ones apply in which contexts. For example, the word “scheme” can mean “a systematic plan for a course of action”, “a secret plot”, or “a chart, diagram or outline” among other things. When choosing the equivalent in your target language, you may need three different words, one for each of these different contexts. Verify that you are choosing the right one. 

Habit #2: Keep your target language standardized

If you normally use regionalisms, borrowed words (e.g., Anglicisms), slang, and other dialectical variations of what would be considered the standard in your target language because you think your listener will understand you better: stop! Your role is to render the source language message exactly as it was conveyed by the speaker. If the speaker used slang, then of course you will use an equivalent slang term in your target language. Otherwise, stay within the register of the source language speaker. Changing registers during an exam is one sure way to fail it.

Habit #3: Choose one solution and stick to it

Offering synonyms in the hopes that one of them will be “the right one” is not a sign of a good interpreter. What an examiner hears is someone who is not competent enough to ascertain the exact meaning of a word in the source language, or perhaps to find the most accurate equivalent in the target language. If you are in the habit of offering more than one “choice”, break it! Pick one, and only one equivalent, then stick with it all throughout. If in doubt, see Habit #1.

Habit #4:  Own it

Interpreters cannot be shy. You need to project your voice, but you also need to project confidence in yourself. When you walk into a courtroom or a conference room for a deposition, own it! Be courteous but professionally detached. Have your pad, pen, dictionaries or electronic devices in a briefcase (no backpacks, please!), and lay them out in front of you as soon as you take your seat. This says to everyone there, “I know what I’m doing and I’m ready to do it.” While you will not be able to bring any outside materials into a testing room, you will nonetheless project this self-confidence if you cultivate a professional demeanor in your day-to-day practice. And please wear business attire. First impressions matter, especially where you may be a borderline certification candidate and what will get you across that threshold is the subjective scoring by the examiners. Your appearance and demeanor should reflect how you see yourself in the context of judiciary interpreting. Get in the habit of dressing the part. You are a highly-skilled and very well-remunerated professional. Own it!

Habit #5: Never stop learning

Incredible as it may seem, there are interpreters who think they have nothing new to learn. They usually stand out, because they are the ones who make the most mistakes. In our world, where our main tool-of-the-trade is language and as such, by its very nature, is constantly evolving and changing, arrogance is the kiss-of-death. To be a truly competent interpreter you must always be open to new information, and even to constructive criticism that will help you along this continuum of self-improvement. And that is all a certification exam is looking for: truly competent interpreters.

So if you are one of those who will be taking the oral portion of a certification exam this year, work on being excellent every day in everything you do. Because “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Aristotle)

20 thoughts on “Exam-taking time”

  1. Goyo says:

    Great advice–especially part on forever learning and accepting criticisms!! 🙂 ¡A por ello!

    1. Janis Palma says:

      ¡Gracias Goyo!

  2. Re: “dictionaries or electronic devices in a briefcase (no backpacks, please!)”.
    We’ve all seen lawyers and others in court whose bodies have been permanently deformed and become lopsided by carrying heavy briefcases habitually on one side or the other. A backpack is the natural and efficient way to carry things. It balances the load evenly over both shoulders, promoting healthy spinal and shoulder alignment and leaving the hands free. We’re living in a time when we must pay special attention to ergonomics or suffer the consequences and dangers to our health. The rest of the article is filled with good advice.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you for the feedback, Nick. I was talking about first impressions mostly. If you don’t want to carry a briefcase, that’s okay. I understand the part about the back pain. However, there are many details that go into making a good first impression (clean shoes, for example, or neat hair.) I mentioned the backpack because it is often part of some casual attire that is not appropriate for court. Women may not want to wear high heels all the time, or a suit and tie in the case of men, but young interpreters should understand how formal and traditional courtrooms can be, particularly the federal courts, and know to dress accordingly if they want to make a good first impression.

  3. Luis O. Garcia, M.D. says:

    Thank you so much for the tips and encouragement, I am determined to pass the federal oral exam this year and this gives me more insight. Thank you again.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Great attitude, Luis! Please let us know when you do pass it.

  4. Sonia Velez says:

    Thank you for the wise words. They have given me much to think about.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      My pleasure, Sonia.

  5. Melina says:

    Thank You I am currently Studying for the Oral Exam and your advice really helped!

    1. veronica says:

      When will you be taking your test? Where?

    2. Janis Palma says:

      That is what makes it all worthwhile, Melina. I am so glad this helped.

  6. Rebeca says:

    Thanks for your tips will help me a lot.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      You are most welcome, Rebeca!

  7. thanks for this useful info & your effort, i will try this tips

    1. Janis Palma says:

      We’re here for you, Jessie! Let us know how it went after you take the exam.

  8. Michael says:

    Hello Colleagues,

    A number of interested interpreter candidates in languages other than Spanish (LOTS) have approached me over time to ask if there are court interpreter training programs out there (internet or brick ’n mortar) for languages other than Spanish. Of course, I think that most of us are aware of all the resources we have in Spanish but are any of you aware of good court interpreter training courses for LOTS, specifically Chinese (Mandarin/Cantonese), Vietnamese, Arabic, Armenian, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, etc.?

    Appreciate your feedback & will pass it along,



    I just want to know how and from where i can do Certificate of NAJIT?


  10. Janis Palma says:

    So sorry, Mujeeb, NAJIT is not offering its certification exam at this time.

  11. Arturo Flores says:

    I am interested in working as an interpreter English / Spanish, where do I start to take classes. Any help is greatly appreciated.

    1. JPalma says:

      Hello Arturo. There are many online courses available for judiciary interpreters, as well as university programs ranging from short certificate programs to master’s degree programs. Availability will also depend on where you are (city? state?). Your local interpreters and translators association could be offering workshops near you. A search online should point you in the right direction. Best of luck!

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