Federal Interpreters or Bust!

I still remember it vividly: On October 18th, 2013, I discovered that I had passed the FCICE federal exam. It was one of those remarkable moments that remain transfixed in one’s memory no matter how much time passes. I was elated to receive the news.

The federally certified judiciary interpreter designation is an important one for Spanish interpreters. It gives us the chance to set ourselves apart, and candidates invest an extraordinary amount of time and money in the hopes of overcoming this extremely difficult challenge. The odds are not in our favor; in my case, it turns out I was one of just four people in the entire state of New Jersey who had managed to pass that year. In the interests of transparency, I will say that my score was in the low 80s. Very low 80s. Sure, I worked for it—I would estimate that I spent about two hours a day studying in the months leading up to the exam—and even still, I probably got a little lucky when I managed to succeed.

The federal oral exam is offered to Spanish interpreters every two years. The qualifying written exam is offered in alternating years. This year, 2017, saw a change in the administration and format of the oral exam. Paradigm Testing took over, and an entirely computer-proctored system was implemented, with a live proctor available for questions, but not for running the exam. To my knowledge, no pilot exam was done to analyze the efficacy of this new test.

This was not the first time the format of the federal exam had changed. Some time ago it was run by three proctors, who administered the exam live, whereas when I took it, the exam was recorded and a live proctor pressed the buttons. Nor is this the first exam to ask the candidate to be in charge; when I took my healthcare interpreting exam with Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI), I also needed to manage the process via computer, which certainly added a multi-tasking challenge to the mix.

I defend the content of this exam vehemently. I don’t think it should be made less difficult, and anyone hoping to pass it must rise to the occasion and overcome testing anxiety. I spend hours every day working with students who are hoping to pass tests, and I advise them to take it seriously, whether they are studying to be a CMI (Certified Medical Interpreter), CHI (Certified Healthcare Interpreter), state-certified or federally certified. For more on the topic, see: Would You Like Some Cheese With Your Whine? And while we’re at it, check out this page for study tips and resources, many gleaned from my old study group, “Federal Interpreters or Bust.”

That said, the complaints I have received from literally dozens of students and colleagues revolve not around the content of the exam, but its format. There have been reports that the touch screen did not work and that the mock exam (in some cases received just a day before test day), whose point was to familiarize candidates with the actual format, did not work. Some candidates did not even receive it. Emails to Paradigm Testing regarding this subject went unanswered, leaving candidates to wing it the day of the exam. The test apparently relied on an insecure internet connection that was often faulty, resulting in delays that counted toward the maximum time allotted, or forcing candidates to leave and return. Finally (and again, this is all anecdotal because I did not take the exam myself), almost all the candidates I spoke with were devastated by the consecutive section. They were required to click a button – not once, but twice – in between each utterance, and many have expressed concern that this lowered their accuracy and that, potentially, entire chunks of their rendition went unrecorded.

It could be argued that federal interpreters should be tested on their ability to multi-task and maintain accuracy of interpretation even under these stressful conditions. Additionally, implementing the computer-proctor should theoretically cut down on human error and the stress that some experience when another person is watching them interpret. However, it seems that the issues with internet connection should have been cleared up well in advance. Likewise with the mock exam, which could have allowed candidates to thoroughly understand what they would be facing on the day of the test. Similarly, perhaps a solution to the consecutive process could be implemented, such as a “record” button that is only hit once and records the entire exam. It doesn’t seem fair to test candidates on multi-tasking now, since those of us who took the test in the past needed only to interpret.

I am thrilled to count myself among the ranks of federal interpreters, and I hope to continue coaching others so that they may succeed as well. (And by the way, if you are interested in connecting with other federal exam candidates, make a request to join this Facebook page.) But from everything that I have heard, it seems that this exam, only administered once every two years, needs to be improved. Too many people are investing too much time and money to try to make this dream a reality, and if they have attained the level of skill required to pass the exam, they ought not have that same dream thwarted by the click of a button.

Did you recently take the federal exam? If so, you are perhaps in a better position to comment than I am. Let us know your thoughts below!


Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website: https://athenaskyinterpreting.wordpress.com/

8 Comments
  • HILDA E. SHYMANIK
    Posted at 12:25h, 03 November Reply

    Athena, I remember “Federal Interpreters or Bust.” I was one in the group. I didn’t take the exam this year due to the date’s change and a pre-booked trip. I blame this on Paradigm as they waited very long to disclose the change. Having said that, I probably wouldn’t have been up to the commitment regardless. As you rightly point out studying for the Federal Oral Exam is a great undertaking and one to be taken seriously.

    The year you passed a good friend accused the test of being “rigged” but I maintain to this day that she is wrong. I know I have become a far better interpreter than when I started in January 2008 but that does not mean that my rendition during tests deserved that elusive 80%. I know I have a bit to go… and I know it quite clearly when in your company (remember that judiciary training in November 2015 with Agustin de la Mora? You and Bethany were absolutely superb on those exercises). And it’s not about putting myself down. Just acknowledging superior performance.

    I’m a bit nervous about taking the test in 2019 or 2021 with the horror stories I’ve heard. But I took NY’s test with a computer system and no Proctor whatsoever and managed to land on the top 15 with an 88.1% and I’m planning on retaking that test next year although I do not need to in order to remain qualified for freelance work.

    While I wait for my next turn to take the FCICE test I will work towards getting master level in all three modes in NJ and add one or two states to my certification’s current list.

    Hopefully next time around you can couch me one on one. That’s if you haven’t moved on to somenthing else!!

  • Pablo Salas Oroño
    Posted at 12:55h, 03 November Reply

    I did take the exam on September 19, 2017.
    Everything the article says happened to me,
    The mock exam did not run properly, there was no way to familiarize oneself with the new modality, and, paying attention to the screen and the clicks during consecutive was a challenge beyond expectations, and, yes, it caused to forget part of the rendition.
    I agree that the exam should be challenging, I took it before and have no complaints other than perhaps not having practiced enough.

  • Kathleen M. Morris Morris
    Posted at 13:07h, 03 November Reply

    I became certified many years ago, and did not take this version of the oral exam,, as I had live examiners. But I have been in touch with many recent exam candidates, who have all mentioned the issues you raise in your blog.

    There was some mention of affected exam candidates requesting that the AOUSC contact Paradigm, to consider allowing affected candidates to re-take the exam, once technical aspects are fixed. To me, this would seem to be a fair solution. I do not think they should be charged for taking the exam twice, given these circumstances. But I have heard of no further action on the part of the AOUSC or Paradigm, to allow this justifiable remedy to take place.

    If the AOUSC contracts with Paradigm to administer this exam, and rate the results, I believe this office has a vested interest and duty to remedy this deplorable situation, for these and future exam candidates.

  • Ada
    Posted at 13:16h, 03 November Reply

    Yes, it was a disaster. I couldn’t access the practice exam and my proctor didn’t know how to ask for a repetition so time was wasted and a I didn’t finish the consecutive portion, There was a noisy air conditioning unit in the room that I could still hear even wearing noise canceling headphones. In the middle of the test, the other proctor knock at the door, came in and started talking to my proctor! Very unprofessional! It was a joke !!

  • Cristina Frasier
    Posted at 15:06h, 03 November Reply

    II took the exam for the first time this year, so I don’t have parameters to compare in any of its aspects. I do like the self-administered system, but I consider myself one of those rare computer obsessed people, who can figure out how to work a program/system even if they never used it before. However, I can see how interpreters, who may be excellent at what they do in court, may have had trouble with the exam if they are not computer savvy.
    In my personal experience, I will say that the consecutive portion of the exam was very confusing, and I actually lost a couple of renditions due to the fact that you had to “click” every time you were going to render the interpretation. That alone gets our multitasking heads “out of whack”… No matter how skilled you may be, your brain can only do so much multitasking at once, and I would venture to say that consecutive interpretation of long utterances is one of those brain activities that need extra concentration. So I definitely agree with you about the recording process of the consecutive portion.
    I hear people complaining about the “speed”, and I don’t particularly feel that the speed is unreasonable. That is pretty accurate in court proceedings, especially when you have police officers, expert witnesses, etc, who are not used to working with interpreters, and cannot slowdown in spite judges telling them to do so. I also am a firm believer that we can’t expect attorneys to entirely adapt to us. The work they do requires great adrenaline output, and with that comes their efficiency and effectiveness in questioning and making an impression on the jurors, or whomever they are trying to make a point.
    As far as the content of the exam, I feel that it was perfectly acceptable as you say. I do think that there were parts a bit too “out there”… to use a Spanish home word, I would say “rebuscado”. In other words, there were terms or expressions that were somewhat outlandish and not realistically used nowadays. It is very true that professional interpreters do need to have an exceptional level of understanding and knowledge of both languages, in any sociocultural setting. However, I believe that the best skill interpreters must develop is the ability to properly clarify with the parties. It is much more important to make sure that the meaning is clearly rendered, which requires clear understanding, than to be fast at responding with a pretty or well-practiced equivalent, at least when on the stand interpreting for witnesses.
    And here is where my main constructive criticism of the administration of the test comes. Interpretation is not an exact science, it requires understanding and ability to speak up, and manage in the court room. Even though we may have one understanding of an idiomatic expression or word, the speaker may have a different idea of it, and although it will be the same 90 % of the time, you must be able to catch the 10% in which that expression doesn’t make sense in that particular context. I would like to see those skills evaluated as well. And I do understand that this would make it very difficult to produce an evaluation and score that is impartial and equitable, so I don’t really have an answer for that part, other than it would probably have to be evaluated the way professors used to do it in the old times before multiple choice and such…
    I don’t know if I pass it or not, and I can’t even guess! The exam is pretty intense, so you basically hardly remember what just happened in the last 30 minutes! So I am certainly looking forward to that, one way or another! Regardless, it was a great experience and I think the exam is very helpful in giving you insights about your skills!

  • Maribel PINTADO-ESPIET
    Posted at 16:15h, 03 November Reply

    Excellent points as to the FCICE exam. Agree that it does not need to burden the candidate with extraneous duties. The challenges presented by this exam went far beyond candidates’ expectations. The test should have never been administered under such conditions. No word yet from the AOC as to what remedy, if any, will be available to candidates. Please note, this was not an insignificant matter. One concern I will add is that, because of the WIFI connectivity issues at some of the locations, there is no certainty that the exams were even recorded. While one can appreciate the federal government’s bidding process, you have to wonder why Paradigm was even awarded the contract to administer the exam.

  • Martin Anderson
    Posted at 23:24h, 03 November Reply

    On an entirely different issue, I enjoyed this account of the difficulty in attaining federal certification, and admire all those who accomplish it. I am not federally certified and it’s important to know that you can interpret in federal court without federal certification as “language qualified” I think the term is. However I have a question. Long ago, in 1998 or 99, in an ethics seminar preliminary to working per-diem for the New Jersey Superior Courts, Robert Joe Lee stated; (I think this is at least close to accurate) “At some point someone will ask you if you are a ‘certified’ interpreter. If you answer ‘yes’, I will fire you.”
    He went on to explain that no state had a “certification” exam. In New Jersey you were to describe yourself as “approved”, if I remember right. He explained that only the federal exam and NAJIT”s exam were “certified as certified”. At an ethics seminar I attended this week in NY the word “qualified” was used; not “certified” for those passing NY tests (there are two; civil service for staff and OCA for per-diem).
    Is this still true? Does it matter? There are many fine and skilled interpreters who are not “certified” in this formal but important way. Should we all know the exact difference and use precise terminology?

  • Athena Matilsky
    Posted at 02:28h, 09 November Reply

    Hi all,

    Thanks so much for sharing your comments and experiences. To answer Martin’s question, I’m not sure about other states. I know that in New Jersey we call it “approval” but I believe that in Pennsylvania it’s called a “certification.” There may be other people who can answer the question better.

    Good luck to everyone who took the test this year, and to those planning to take it in the future!
    Cheers,
    Athena

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