Preparing for the state-level court interpreter certification exam

Eve Bodeux and I already recorded an episode of Speaking of Translation on this topic, but a few readers have asked me for a written post, so here you go! It’s long, but I hope it will be helpful to other people who want to take the state-level court interpreter certification exam, especially if you work in a language other than Spanish.

Executive Summary

After a year and a half of studying, I passed the Colorado court interpreter certification exam for French, in June. It was really challenging, but I passed on the first try after a lot of preparation. How much preparation? About 400 hours of direct studying for the oral exam (plus about 20 hours for the written), using the Acebo home study course The Interpreter’s Edge (they don’t have a language-specific version for French, so I used the Generic Edition), private coaching with interpreter trainer Athena Matilsky, and finally the practice test from the National Center for State Courts (again, no language-specific version for French, so I used the English version). On top of those 400 hours, I did an additional 100ish hours of “other” practice: French shadowing, doing flash cards of legal terms, etc. etc.

Many people fail the court interpreter certification exams, because

  • the test is hard
  • many people underestimate the test and don’t prepare adequately
  • if you do a language other than Spanish (LOTS), there are very few language-specific prep materials available

However it is possible to prepare so that you have a reasonable chance of passing on the first try. I’m now one of two court-certified French interpreters in Colorado, so there is a fair bit of work available; not enough that I am planning to immediately cut back on my translation work, but a fair bit. My next goal is to perhaps prepare for the Department of State interpreting exams, once I decompress from the end of my term on the ATA Board!

If that’s all you wanted to know, you’re good–you can stop here. If you want the details, read on!

In the beginning

When I started freelancing in the early aughts, I did a bit of community interpreting and loved it. However at a certain point, scheduling around my daughter’s part-time preschool schedule got too complicated. So I stopped, and did only written translation from about 2004 on. But I always missed interpreting, and thought (and thought and thought and thought, without taking any action…stop me if this sounds familiar) about getting back into it.

At the 2017 ATA conference, I went to Athena Matilsky’s presentation on consecutive interpreting, and something within me snapped. I thought, “You never have to pursue interpreting, but if you want to, it needs to be now.” So I did. I first paid Athena for a consulting session to tell me if this idea was totally nuts (her take: maybe a little nuts, but doable), and then I sought her advice on how to proceed. We jointly decided that I should pursue the state-level court interpreter exam, because there is a language-specific exam for French, and because–at least in Colorado–you do not have to pass all of the exam’s three sections (sight translation, consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting) in one shot. Within a certain period of time, you can re-take only the section that you failed. I also surmised that there might be a reasonable local market for French interpreting since there was, at that time, only one court-certified French interpreter in the whole state.

I dusted off my long-dormant copy of The Interpreter’s Edge and got to work, trying to practice for about 30-60 minutes, five times a week. I then met with Athena about twice a month to do live interpreting practice sessions with her critiquing my performance. Operation Interpreter was rolling.

The orientation and written exam

I’ll give a huge shoutout to the Colorado Judicial Branch for the organization of their interpreter recruitment and training system. The process is very straightforward:
-Attend a full-day orientation
-Take the written exam
-If you pass the written exam, take the oral exam
The orientation is simply a matter of attending; as long as you are there for the full day (the cost varies, but I think mine was $150), you are then eligible for the written exam. The orientation covers the requirements for working in the Colorado courts, interpreter ethics, and the qualification or certification process, plus specific information on preparing for each component of the exam.

The written exam is–depending on where you were educated and your level of knowledge of the legal system–either not that big of a deal, or really hard. As an educated native English speaker with some knowledge of the US legal system, I didn’t find it extremely challenging; I passed with a score in the 90s after preparing for about 20 hours. Mostly, I studied flashcards of all of the legal terms in the guide that Colorado Judicial provided. However, if I had to take a corresponding test on the French or Swiss legal systems, the test would have been extremely challenging. I think that how much you need to prepare really depends on your baseline language skills and knowledge of the US legal system.

The major challenge: the oral exam

After passing the written exam, the next step was the oral, which was by far my biggest challenge in the whole process. If you live in a state that uses the National Center for State Courts’ exam, the test consists of:
-sight translation in both directions (from and into English)
-a consecutive interpreting dialog where you interpret in both directions (i.e. one actor plays a court official who speaks English and the other plays a witness or defendant who doesn’t speak English, and you interpret for both)
-a simultaneous interpreting passage where you interpret from English into your other language

As I mentioned above, I used The Interpreter’s Edge for all of my English into French preparation. The major challenge was finding materials for French into English. If you do a LOTS language, I would highly recommend working with a trainer for your language if you can find someone. Trainers often have some of their own materials that they’ve paid to develop, or they know where to point you to find resources for your language. To be honest, I was never able to find a good source of English<>French consecutive interpreting dialogues where you have speakers of both languages in the same passage. So I mostly used things like French Canadian court videos on YouTube, French court documents, etc. to practice going into English.

Pro tips for preparing for the oral

Here’s a lightning round of my top tips for preparing for the oral:

Do every passage in The Interpreter’s edge multiple times. As Athena told me, continue working on each passage until either it’s perfect or you’re ready to throw the book out the window. This really helped me: rather than thinking, “Well, that was awful!” (which most of my renditions were when I first started out), I would record myself, listen to the recording, and analyze what I did wrong, then repeat the passage until it got better.
Know all of the boilerplate legal stuff like the back of your hand. When you go to the exam, you are dealing with a lot of unknowns. Mostly, you have no idea what will be the subject matter of the case that you are interpreting. It could be anything from armed robbery to traffic court to attempted murder. However you can be sure that certain boilerplate legal language appears in every case: words like judge, jury, verdict, plea. Phrases like “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” “raise your right hand to be sworn in.” And even whole utterances like, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” You do not want to be racking your brain for the French word for “witness stand” (la barre des témoins), when there’s a 90% chance that the term “witness stand” will appear somewhere on the test. Make flashcards of as many of those types of terms as you can think of, and go over them again, and again, and again. I actually kept my flashcards in a little Ziploc bag so that I could study them at breakfast, on the bus, while waiting on a conference call, etc. etc. Knowing those terms inside and out really helped my confidence level when I went to the exam.

When you make a mistake in simultaneous, don’t let it derail you. I think that many people fail the simultaneous section because they get rattled by a word that they know they got wrong. But instead of missing just that one word, they pause to think about it (oh no…the number was 70 and I said 17) , and miss the rest of the sentence, resulting in multiple error points. It’s really, really, really hard to do, but when you miss a word in simultaneous, just let it float away like a balloon, and keep on interpreting.

Use your two consecutive repetitions, but use them judiciously. Consecutive is by far my weakest mode (working on it still…), so I really wanted to take advantage of the option to have two of the consecutive segments repeated. I think most states offer this; you just tell the tester “repeat that please,” and they’ll play the segment again, and you can request that for two segments. On the exam, I got very lucky in that I selected the two longest segments for my repetitions, but that is a hard call when you’re very nervous: you don’t want to waste your repetitions on short, easy segments, but you also don’t want to leave a repetition unused.

Focus on passing the test, not on being perfect. This is a really hard one if you–like 99% of language professionals–are a perfectionist. To pass the exam in Colorado, I had to get a 70% on all three sections. But I didn’t want to get a 70; I wanted to get a 100. It took time to accept that that wasn’t going to happen, and that I needed to focus on the requirements for passing, not on perfection. It can also be somewhat terrifying to realize that–as difficult as the exam is–interpreting in the real world is even harder. For example the simultaneous passage on the exam is 125 words per minute. And in real life, very few people talk that slowly. People also do not politely pause at the end of a thought while you take notes. In a real court hearing, you don’t get two repetitions. Just keep reminding yourself that right at this moment, you don’t need to worry about that. The simultaneous passage is 125 words a minute, and you get pauses and repetitions during the consecutive, and your goal is to pass the exam.

The big moment: exam day

Before registering for the oral exam, I took the NCSC practice exam and scored above an 80% on all sections, and I was going only from English into French (my weaker direction), so I figured (hoped/prayed) that I had a good chance of getting above a 70 on the real test even with the nervousness factor, so I registered for the April sitting in Denver.
Athena gave me great advice for the final tune-up: finish on a high note. Two to three days before the exam, do a passage very well, then stop. Don’t be preparing until the 11th hour–you won’t improve, you’ll just make yourself more nervous. So that’s what I did: I picked a fast simultaneous passage from The Interpreter’s Edge that I had actually cried over (no exaggeration) the first time I tried to interpret it (as in “I’ll never be able to do this”), did it solidly, and put the prep materials on the shelf.

The day of the exam, I arrived an hour early to the testing location so that I wouldn’t be stressed out about the time, and then I listened to French music on my phone while I waited. This helped to get my French-language juices flowing without the pressure of having to interpret.

The court staff member who administered my exam was great. She was very calm and confident about administering the test, which really helped. At least for the Colorado version of the exam, you should be prepared that:
The tester sits at the same table as you, almost close enough to touch you. So you might want to practice with another person (your spouse, a friend, etc.) sitting at the table with you while you interpret, so that you’re used to that.
There is a time limit for the sight and consecutive sections, so make sure that you’ve practiced doing those modes efficiently (not pausing for too long) so that you’ll finish within the time limit.
You can use headphones for the simultaneous but not for the consecutive. Again, I would practice this at home so that you’re used to it.

After my exam, I felt that it went about how I expected. That sounds kind of anticlimactic, but I also felt that it was a sign that I had prepared thoroughly. As I expected, sight translation was my highest score, then simultaneous, then (the dreaded) consecutive, but I passed all three sections on the first try, which I was excited about.

Parting thoughts

If you’re interested in taking the state-level court exam, I would definitely encourage you to go for it, but be realistic about the amount of preparation it requires and what skills you need to practice in order to pass.

Since passing the exam, I’ve seen a number of benefits: court interpreting work of course, plus, oddly enough, I’ve gotten a lot more translation work from law firms, who want someone who is certified for both court interpreting and translation. I’m not sure I see the logic there, but if it’s a business advantage, great. Passing the exam has also given me the motivation to start preparing for the Department of State interpreting exams. Finally, I wanted to give a huge shoutout to the people who encouraged me and cheered me on during the looooong time it took me to study for the exam: my trainer Athena of course, and Judy Jenner, Cris Silva, and Melinda Gonzalez-Hibner. Their advice was really, really helpful and gave me the confidence to follow through on this big goal!

Readers, what questions do you have about preparing for the state court interpreter exam? Let me know in the comments!

2 Responses to “Preparing for the state-level court interpreter certification exam”
    • Corinne McKay November 15, 2019

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