Who is the certification for? (Hint: It’s not who you think!)

By Janis Palma ©2017

Yes, it’s a feather in our caps! Getting that letter saying we passed, congratulations you are now a certified interpreter, is a great feeling of accomplishment. Having those letters after our names, FCCI, CCI, USCCI, or whatever they may be, suddenly can make us walk a little taller and prouder. But, hey, the truth is that certification as a judiciary interpreter, be it state or federal, is not at all about us.

Certification is about the needs of the court system and the people who get tangled up in that system. Of course, professions have a way of evolving and taking on a life of their own. Judiciary interpreters all over the U.S. have come to believe this whole credentialing machinery was somehow created for their benefit. It was not.

Court systems test interpreting candidates because they need those services and need them to fall within certain quality parameters that assure all stakeholders that the services being provided truly meet certain predefined objectives. Those objectives have to do with criminal defendants’ constitutional rights: effective assistance of counsel, being present and informed at all stages of proceedings against them, assisting in their own defense, being equally protected by the laws that protect every other person facing criminal charges in a court of law or what is also known as due process.

Court systems test interpreting candidates
because they need those services…

Certification as a judiciary interpreter is about the court being able to communicate with someone who does not speak English and would otherwise not be able to communicate with the court. It is not about how much money an interpreter gets paid, or what sort of accommodations that interpreter gets while working in a courtroom. These considerations, among others, are part of a professionalization process for what has become a “new class” of specialists within the legal system as a direct result of a government credentialing process.

Negotiation[Certification] is not about how much money an
interpreter gets paid, or what sort of accommodations
that interpreter gets while working in a courtroom.

These considerations have to be earned on the basis of the interpreter’s performance once the credential is acquired. It is not automatic, and it is not “free”. Judiciary interpreters must set, follow, and urge all other members of the profession to abide by the ethical and professional standards that will command respect and proper remuneration.

Is a credential enough to accomplish this? What about education? What about an interpreter’s ability to demonstrate his or her command of the theoretical basis for the practical aspects of the profession? Can respect, proper working conditions and remuneration be achieved through labor-management type of negotiations? What is the unspoken message individual practitioners are sending to the rest of the legal community about our level of professionalism? What is the collective message?

Take a look around the country and answer these questions for yourself. I suggest we need to move beyond certification to raise our own performance and ethical standards. There is no entitlement attached to certification in and of itself. The entitlement comes from the effort we each put into being the best interpreter we can be every single day.

courtroomCertification as a judiciary interpreter is about the
court being able to communicate with someone who
does not speak English and would otherwise not be
able to communicate with the court.

Can you honestly say you are the best you can be right now? Or is there something more you could be doing to improve your skills, your knowledge base, and your overall performance as a professional judiciary interpreter? Is there something more you could be doing to help judiciary interpreting grow as a bona fide profession, beyond certification?


Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

24 thoughts on “Who is the certification for? (Hint: It’s not who you think!)”


    Thank you, Janis. Right on target!
    Many of us have, at one point, gotten frustrated with the credentialing process. However, I agree with you. We need to remember that the whole idea is to ensure at least a minimum standard of proficiency in order to perform our duties adequately, and this is for the sake of due process, not our own. Most certainly, credentials will open a number of doors, possibly leading to a rewarding career.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Yes, Henry, that’s exactly it! Thanks for the feedback!

  2. Thank you for a great article. I believe the primary purpose of certification is not for language minority individuals to communicate with the court, since it can do that, albeit badly, with friends, family, and unqualified interpreters who are practicing in the courts. Certification exists to ensure competency and to ensure due process in the United States. There is no way to ensure due process (which can only exists with accurate communication, not any communication) without certification. Qualification of interpreters vary tremendously by state and language, and certification systems should not be run by an employer, due to conflict of interest, in this case it is the government. However, it is far better than employers simply qualifying candidates they need and want badly with no testing experience or know how.

    Certification provides a validated third-party qualification that ensures that the court officers and professionals and the defendants and witnesses can avail themselves of interpreter professionals that know what they are doing and are truly competent to ensure accurate communication. Now the 20% passing rates of the Federal Court system call into question the validity of those exams from a certification standards perspective (See NCCA Standards at

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you for your comments, Izabel. I think that Robert Joe Lee’s reply addresses the issues you raise, but let me just add that I am very familiar with the NCCA Standards and the fact that the passing rate for the federal certification (or any) exam is low is–in my opinion as just another certified interpreter–a reflection of those taking the exam, not the exam itself. I still encounter working interpreters, not necessarily certified, with a very limited general vocabulary (in either English or Spanish) that reflects a certain unawareness of their own limitations. Some of these working interpreters with significant gaps in their knowledge or skills then go on to take the federal certification exam and fail. It is much easier to blame the test than it is to take a good look at yourself and identify your own challenges: are you reading enough fiction and non-fiction to help your vocabulary grow? Are you attending enough seminars, workshops and conferences to polish your skills or to have a deeper understanding of the cognitive functions that allow you to do what you do when you interpret? “La calentura no está en la sábana.” Let’s not blame the exam.

  3. Ricardo Eva says:

    Hi Janis…I loved your article and agree you´re right on target!

    The one thing that keeps baffling me is that while many of us keep spending vast sums to acquire all these certifications, whether federal or state certification, ATA, medical, etc, in addition to all the “professional membership” fees (that aren´t cheap)…why is it that I still get this feeling that we are NOT protected by law?

    I keep finding myself increasingly battling (fighting for a spot, if you will) UNLICENSED, UNDER-EXPERIENCED and, of course UNDER PAID translators and interpreters who keep being hired ONLY BECAUSE THEY WILL WORK FOR PENNIES…yet, here are hundreds, if not thousands, of LICENSED interpreters who can´t seem to get hired at a fair (market) price thanks to this undue competition…I have raised the complaints before state and federal governments, professional associations (at least the ones I used to belong to) only to be told that there´s not one thing they can do about it…mmm…makes me wonder…

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you for your feedback, Ricardo. My very personal observation is that judiciary interpreters have not yet reached that level of KNOWLEDGE about what they do to set themselves apart from the “unlicensed, under-experienced” person being hired to perform the very complex task of interpreting in a legal setting. Our expertise needs to go BEYOND legal terminology or knowledge about legal protocol, proceedings, and so forth. Our expertise needs to come from LANGUAGE and COMMUNICATION theory, from an understanding of how the brain works when we are interpreting, from a knowledge base that makes each and every one of us authoritative, not because we are certified, or have some other credential, but because we really do have a solid theoretical foundation for the work we do, and can demonstrate or explain in linguistic terms WHY that “under paid” person will never be able to do what we, the certified judiciary interpreters, do.

      1. Jose Gonzalez says:

        Janis, We can always count on you to find the perfect words to support and encourage our goals. The “solid theoretical foundation” was not just a description. It was a weighted answer with clout. Thanks again for taking the time to educate us with your wisdom and experience. Gracias!

        1. Ricardo Eva says:

          Thanks all! once again Janis right on target!!! I, and believe I could speak for all of us, love your insights!!! Thank you once again and keep it up!!!

          Ditto to all who have replied…it´s because of PROFESSIONALS like you that I´ve stuck,, and will keep sticking, with NAJIT over others…


        2. Janis Palma says:

          Thank you for your very kind words, Ricardo! I hope others follow your example and “keep sticking with NAJIT”.

        3. Janis Palma says:

          Jose, your words also encourage me to keep pushing the envelope. Thank you!

  4. Clarence E. Williamson, PhD, Korean Studies says:

    Ms. Palma by her post above offers us a sober reminder of the purpose of becoming certified and provokes added thoughts about all that is entailed in winning certification. What continues to mystify me over the years is the phantom-like role of those who make the judgement of who is and is not certified based on a very limited, photo-like exam conducted in an environ quite unlike the practical courtroom. From my experience in the courtroom both as a court interpreter and as a court reporter (stenographer), the foreign language being evaluated itself has a bearing on the evaluation process and at times is reflected in practice during hearings. I also now and then contemplate whether or not there is a required number of certified interpreters by location that just might also have a bearing on the evaluation results.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Clarence, I hope that my reply to Izabel and Robert Joe Lee’s comments have properly addressed your concerns. Thank you for bringing them up.

  5. Scott Robert Loos says:

    I agree that Janis’ piece was right on point, but Ricardo is not alone in his bafflement. I believe that the reason we are given ‘certification’ and not ‘licensing’ is that the court and counsel do not wish to create a system where they might be unable to find the qualified (read: legally licensed) practitioner without some changes in treatment or remuneration. I do notice that in the jurisdiction in which I work, interpreters for the deaf must be first certified and then licensed by the State in order to appear in court or be retained by the court to perform in interviews, investigations, orientations, etc. This does not apply to the spoken-language interpreter at all, and we still have that imbalance between what is expected in the court itself and what is settled for in the jail interview room, even if the two arise from the same case.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      We teach by example, Scott. I truly believe in “showing” that not everyone can do what we do, by being as impeccable as I can be in my own performance, whether in or out of court, but we know not everyone does that, certified or not. The profession still has quite a ways to go before every single practitioner understands that we each have an individual responsibility to be better and better, day after day. I truly believe this is the only way to keep the unqualified out, improve working conditions, and bring remuneration to the proper level all around.

  6. Ana Stine says:

    Great article and helpful!

    1. Janis Palma says:

      I’m so glad to hear that, Ana. Thank you!

  7. There is a lot that my friend Janis has written that I might respond to down the road, and I’d also like to discuss with Izabel the subject of passing rates, but right now I’d like to reply to some of the issues raised by Dr. Williamson. The main point I’d like to make is that the test model developed by the AOUSC and adapted by the states was rooted in an extensive research project involving a comprehensive, interdisciplinary team of experts. That process is summarized in Chapter 46 of FUNDAMENTALS OF COURT INTERPRETATION, Second Edition (González, Vásquez, and Mikkelson) and more comprehensively described in the article by Etilvia Arjona (1985) and the case, Seltzer v. Foley, cited in Gonzalez et al. I was one of the persons involved in adapting the federal model for state use, starting in New Jersey in 1986, and, for broader use under the Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification, which was formed in 1995, I chaired the committee that oversaw the Consortium’s policies and test development efforts until my retirement at the end of 2008 (since the Consortium was dissolved several years ago, the National Center for State Courts [NCSC] has managed the test program used by state judiciaries). One of our goals has always been to ensure that our test program was as transparent as it could be. Accordingly, the policies and procedures are available on-line: the Test Construction Manual, which sets the parameters for test construction, maintenance and revision; the Oral Examination Administration Manual, which sets up the parameters for administering the tests; and the Test Rating Manual, which regulates how raters are selected, trained and perform rating functions. These are all posted on the website of the Language Access Services Section of the NCSC under the “Written and Oral Exam Resources” tab: The subsidiary point I’d like to make is that the rating policies are designed to ensure objective, bias-free rating as far as is humanly possible–and I have never seen any instance of a rater being instructed or allowed to rate according to anything other than each candidate’s performance. Let me conclude by saying that these are my own comments and in no way reflect the NCSC or any federal or state program manager. These are my own thoughts and are based on my experience as the manager of the New Jersey Judiciary’s court interpreter program, chair of the Consortium’s Technical Committee, and consultant who is widely involved in test development, proctoring and development since retiring.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Robert Joe, there is nothing I can add, except to thank you for such an informative comment!

    2. Doris Ganser says:

      I am just a reader in the background here and my comment is more or less unrelated to the subject. But I just saw my decade-long good friend Etilvia Arjona cited above. It is perhaps not well know that Etty passed away on September 17, 2018 in Panama. We often roomed together while on the ATA board years ago, she visited me frequently in Kansas City or we met elsewhere, For years, Etty endlessly discussed and agonized over finding solutions to the subjects still being under discussion here.

      1. Observer Editor says:

        Thank you for letting us know, Doris. We found a tribute to her here Her work in Taiwan and her life work for T&I are should not be forgotten.

        TNO Editor

  8. Ricardo Eva says:

    Robert: Thank you for your clear explanation of the certification rating schemes and how tests and ratings SHOULD be applied. BUT, and yes, there is always that BUT than bothers us all…After serving in the U.S. Army as a primary linguist in all of Latin America, armed with all this “knowledge” and “experience” and AFTER BEING ASSURED by many “college” and “professional” advisors that my DoD license would be not only “readily accepted” but “welcomed” by federal and state courts I came to find out that this is not only NOT the fact BUT (here again!) the “testing processes” are VERY FAR AWAY from what happens, and expected, in real life. Point in question: I approached the translators department at the Federal Court in Houston, TX (this is where I found out that my DoD certification wasn´t worth the paper it was printed on) and, their chief at the time, who was also one of the proponents for the Federal Language and Translation Manual (that I think is still in use today) was nice enough to allow me to sit in a few cases where English-Spanish was used. Not only did I find that the “Federally licensed Interpreters” missed and missinterpreted words and whole phrases (tolerable and EXPECTED within the tolerances) but that WHERE NOT ALLOWED IN MILITARY COURT MARTIALS let alone in all the diplomatic interpreterships I had a hand on, but their court demeanor was lacking the confidence in redering. I digress…I took a few Federal and State examinations. I always scored 99.9% on translation and, on interpreting I kept being scored at 69.9% for “paraphrasing”…also, I made a test with this federal “think tank” where the tester puts you on a “hypothetical” position where you´re supposed to discuss whether homosexuality is, or not, acceptable (WOW!) I told the “evaluator” (a company that is in Alexandria) that I DID NOT FEEL THAT WAS A QUESTION I SHOULD DWELL IN as MY PERSONAL FEELINGS, either pro or con, where NOT part of a factual, true and accurate interpretership…I was pretty much made to answer the question (“either you answer or you are automatically disqualified…”)…I NOT ONLY DID NOT ANSWER THE QUESTION BUT COMPLAINED TO THE FEDERAL CONTRACTOR WHO WAS “HIRING” ME AND TO THE EVALUATORS SUPERVISORS only to be told THAT THE QUESTION…AND ANY QUESTION GIVEN DURING THE CERTIFICATION TEST WAS PART OF AND MANDATORY ACCORDING TO THE MANUAL…can you please clarify that?

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Wow, Ricardo! I am so sorry you have had such bad experiences. However, let’s start by clarifying the difference between translators and interpreters. Translators work with the written word, interpreters work with the spoken word. The office you went to in Houston was not the “translators department”, it was the Interpreters Office, because the federal courts only hire interpreters, not translators. I am sorry that you were ill advised about the courts’ acceptance of your DoD linguist license. The DOJ also has linguists and they, too, have to go through the examination process in order to get certified for court work. Missing and misinterpreting words or phrases in neither expected nor tolerated in federal court, so I am saddened by the impression you got from what you observed. It just brings home the point that certification is never enough and each one of us has a responsibility to continue to raise our level of proficiency and competence every single day. I will not comment on your test scores but I do want to clarify that no court certification exam that I know of poses any sort of hypothetical question that you have to answer in order to get “certified”.

  9. Ricardo Eva says:

    Please forgive the typos…fat fingers today…

  10. Maria de Villiers says:

    With all due respect, I disagree with our dear Janis! Certifications for Interpreters (in Texas a LIcensure) are, indeed, for and about the interpreters and for and about no one else. It is about us. It is about the Interpreters who, like Attorneys, Doctors in Medicine, Engineers, Programmers and so forth, successfully complete and pass rigorous studies and examinations that will render them skilled and capable individuals to practice their chosen profession, proof of which lays in the degrees, certifications or licenses they hold. It is about the professional and not about what entity they will be working for. Thus, it is up to us, the professionals in this Language Access field, who and to be held responsible for our competence, skills, continuous education, ethical standards,fairness and professionalism. I thank you, dear Janis, for bringing up this wonderful topic.

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