Interpreting Is Not Always Improv

There is one aspect of all judiciary interpreters’ certification exams that I find somewhat inconsistent with real-life practice. In real life, being able to anticipate and appropriately reformulate what judges and attorneys say is very closely linked to the repetitious nature of legal language. There is, in fact, something known as “boilerplate language” because it’s a speech formula used by judges from which they rarely depart. The more we hear and become familiar with what English speakers say in court and how they say it, the better we can render it in the foreign language. As we repeat, we refine, we polish, and we come up with better and better solutions.

This may seem like a basic principle of our professional practice to everyone reading this, but to be honest, I was not fully conscious of the link between repetitive speech patterns and ease of delivery until I ended up interpreting in a completely unfamiliar court. The script changed, the way the judges and attorneys used legal language changed, and it was so difficult to anticipate where they were going as I tried to follow their trains of thought and speech patterns that I felt like a rookie all over again. Then, as I kept thinking about it—because that’s how I learn to do better next time—I came to realize how interpreting students must feel as they are learning to master the simultaneous technique for court while also learning to navigate the particular traits of legal language.

Testing an interpreter’s simultaneous skills having had no prior exposure to the particular discourse does not seem to me to be the best approach for a credentialing exam. But for the sake of full disclosure, I admit I am not a psychometrician or test designer or anything of the sort. I am an interpreter who is always trying to do better, even after forty-some years in this field. I do know that a lot of the work we do in the simultaneous mode is scripted, in a sense. There are bench books that provide judges with outlines for the various hearings they preside. There are textbooks that provide attorneys with guidance on the best way to argue a motion or to conduct a direct or cross-examination. It is certainly not all spontaneous discourse, and testing an interpreter’s ability to improvise seems a bit out of step with real-life interpreting scenarios.

Of course, professionals should know how to do both, follow the script or improvise as needed. It’s like playing a musical instrument: you need to know the scales and read sheet music, but you also need to know how to follow or lead improvisational harmonies. Now, even if you were able to do both, I wonder if, when testing a certification candidate, requiring an improvised simultaneous rendition is the best way to measure a candidate’s performance level. After all, a certification exam is an instrument designed to evaluate the minimum knowledge and skills an interpreter should have in order to perform competently in a courtroom. And that performance is certainly going to improve with exposure to more and more proceedings, more and more boilerplate language. Yes, improv will always be a necessary skill for the consecutive mode, when you never know for sure what someone’s answer will be to an open question. But if it is good practice to memorize repetitive courtroom discourse, is it so far fetched to consider a simultaneous portion of a certification exam that is already familiar to the candidate?

Now, this is just me thinking about all the different threads woven into the fabric of our very complex profession. I am not a test designer, but I know a good interpreter when I hear one. So, speaking of test design, why is no one paying attention to the pragmatics of discourse in the consecutive mode? Why do we still have interpreters on the witness stand that sound like robots? A criterion-referenced test is all about the scoring units, but scoring units in and of themselves do not tell the whole story. We need intonation, we need the proper tone—sarcasm, disbelief, hostility, etc.—we need pacing, which a timed test does not allow for because the candidate is worried about running out of time. These are all elements of discourse that have an impact on meaning and accuracy. Sometimes we may even have implicit information that needs to be made explicit or explicit information that may be conveyed implicitly. In other words, are scoring units allowing candidates to present a complete picture of their skills and knowledge? Has there not been any research on testing interpreters after 1978 that can give us a better instrument? (Rhetorical question. Of course there has been!)

And one last word about the certification exam. Potential examiners get together and decide what will and will not be acceptable. Most of, if not all, those examiners are seasoned interpreters. When deciding what to accept and what not to accept, they would do well to remember what it was like when they were taking their first steps in this profession. To the test examiners: please don’t expect testing candidates to perform at the same level you perform today, after years and years of experience. Remember that practice is going to polish those candidates’ skills and expand their knowledge. Someday, they will be you.


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She worked as an independent contractor for over twenty years in federal, state, and immigration courts around the U.S. before taking a full-time job. Janis joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a staff interpreter in April 2002 and retired in 2017. She now lives in San Antonio, Texas, embracing the joys of being a grandmother. She also enjoys volunteering for her professional associations, has been on the SSTI and TAJIT Boards, and is currently the past Chair of the NAJIT Board of Directors. Contact: palmajanis88@gmail.com

Main photo (cropped) “Hôtel judiciaire (Neuchâtel)” by Yannick Bammert, from Wikimedia Commons, under CC BY 2.0. Body photo“Ki mit tud? 1972 Zsűri színes 1” from Szalay Zoltán, in the Wikimedia Commons, under CC BY-SA 3.0.

11 thoughts on “Interpreting Is Not Always Improv”

  1. Robin Ragan says:

    Great points! Replicating spirit and tone are required, but never tested. Our LEPs can hear a monotone interpreter treating their words with no emotion and it hurts! I also agree that working in the same kinds of appointments over and over with boilerplate language can give us a false sense of how good we really are. Plop yourself into a new space and suddenly the adrenaline really kicks in. Thank you for thinking about new interpreters with such compassion.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thank you, Robin. I like what you said about a “false sense of how good we really are” – so true!

  2. Dennise Serrano says:

    Great post, Janis! As always, you are spot-on. I am one of those students, test-takers. I have wondered, more than once, if this way of administering exams is setting us up for failure.

    1. JANIS PALMA says:

      Thanks, Dennise. I am starting to wonder that myself–are we setting up certification candidates for failure?–which is the reason for this blog.

  3. Arunee says:

    Thanks so much for your empathy towards new interpreter who is in the process of taking a certification exam.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. You encourage, motivate and remind all of us to keep up the good work as interpreters. Also, to keep in mind that practice is key to improvement.

      1. JANIS PALMA says:

        Jennifer, I am so happy you feel encouraged and motivated. Do keep up the good work, no matter how many years you’ve been around!

    2. JANIS PALMA says:

      Arunee, none of us should ever forget where we started. My best wishes for success with your certification process.

  4. Jesse Leonor says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Janis! While I am of the belief that our profession would greatly benefit if we had many many more federally certified interpreters (particularly since our contracts are unilaterally drafted by our main client, making scarcity of little financial benefit – in stark contrast to most other specialized fields) I cannot say that I agree that the certification process would benefit by testing for one of the few mundane aspects of our job. First of all, for a particular hearing to become anything close to familiar for an interpreter requires that the interpreter be exposed to that “script” by that same judge for that same type of hearing, with the same charges, a sufficient number of times. While this might be common in certain districts, it is not a given that a new interpreter will experience repetitive material to the point of breeding familiarity. Being able to interpret competently (albeit with more effort) with little to no foreknowledge of a specific court’s canned phrases will serve us well 100% of the time, Familiarity may come, but it is not at all necessary for a job well done. A hearing where we are familiar with a speaker’s spiel is the equivalent of driving on cruise control with little traffic around us. Sure, this low-stress facet of driving might be the norm for some drivers, but not for all. It is also not a part of testing when obtaining a driver’s license, whereas technical far-from-common maneuvers (parallel parking in Florida anyone?) are. Likewise, the certification process should focus on those critical components of what we do that can truly be detrimental if not mastered and let the “cruise-control” be a perk that some enjoy later on. Lastly, as portentous as the written and oral exams can be… to the chagrin of the youngsters in my life, I’d say: “An actual high-stakes federal hearing has entered the chat.”

  5. I would like to expand on Jesse Leonor’s thoughtful comments. As someone is to testing perhaps what Janis is to interpreting since I’ve proctored hundreds if not thousands of exams, both federal and state, and have coordinated teams writing or revising exams in at least twenty languages, I’d like to respond to some of Ms. Palma’s observations. The purpose of certification exams is to attest to judges, attorneys, and other persons involved in the administration of justice that a person who has been certified has demonstrated the ability to perform the duties of the court interpreter at a specified minimum level on a valid and reliable exam. From an administrative point of view, the test also must be permit efficient administration and rating as resources for test development, administration and rating are not infinite. Nor do candidates want to come take performance tests that last for hours. Bottom line: it’s just not possible to test everything one might want to test.
    There are many aspects of the court interpreter’s job that I would like to test, but have been rejected for one or more of the following reasons: they would make the test intolerably long for the candidate and require much more time to rate, they would introduce subjective grading, they are simply not easy or even possible to factor into a test, or they just won’t work. For example, I would love to somehow check candidates who introduce on their own content that is not in any source language testing. Adding anything is obviously one of the worst things interpreters can do and which we often see in candidates being tested, but I don’t see any way to build that into the tests. I think this applies to such factors as pragmatics, too.
    All of the exams are built on material from real-life courtroom discourse. Since these are transcripts or documents (re sight), there is no information about tone or the other pragmatic considerations Ms. Palma is concerned about. Certification testing can cover only so much and the experts who created the test design focused on what is central to an interpreter’s work, what kinds of errors interfere with professional performance, and what can readily, efficiently, and objectively be rated.
    Interpreters must be able to deliver simultaneous interpretation in a vast array of situations beyond those that involve “boilerplate language.” So the test is designed to measure a candidate’s ability to handle a typical case without specific preparation. After all, if the material in the test is already “familiar to the candidate,” then one is testing ability to prepare for specific content, not for a candidate’s ability to handle almost any situation. Keep in mind that one of the principles of test development is NOT to use any material that is overly chock-full of legalese (such as jury instructions) or complex (such as technical testimony by an expert), but general and representative enough of a wide array of courtroom discourse to be a fair measure of one’s ability to interpret in each of the modes.
    In her final paragraph, Ms. Palma asks raters to not “expect testing candidates to perform at the same level you perform today.” Believe me, they don’t. Test rating is guided by following test scoring dictionaries that set forth acceptable and unacceptable renderings. Those dictionaries are live, i.e., they are updated as new was of accurately interpreting or misinterpreting specific scoring units appear through testing. And raters or trained to follow those scoring dictionaries and for any scoring unit to be counted wrong, the two raters grading a test must agree.
    Finally, scoring units are distributed through all test texts in a manner that approaches structured random sampling. When scoring units are omitted or misinterpreted, the meaning of the sentence in which they are found is partially or totally distorted. Tests can’t measure everything nor should they try,.
    For the best short description of the origin of this model of test design, see Etilvia Arjona’s article, “The Court Interpreters Certification Test Design,” the citation of which is available in a bibliography on court interpreter testing in the Resources tab of my website.

    1. I see the link for my website did not make it so here it is: https://courtinterpretingresearch.com/resources.

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