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.
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.
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!
Dr Amanda Xiaoqing Mao (@AcuritMedComms) says
Thank you sooooo much for the post and the podcast! I’m in Australia and have paid for my certified interpreter exam (Chinese English) next March. I used to think as it was so hard to pass and needed a lot of prep, and as my business is good without interpreting as an additional source of income – I’d just prep a little and not care about the results. I am now so inspired by you! I decide to take it seriously from now on. Hope it’s not too late. Wish me good luck
Corinne McKay says
Great!! Good luck and let me know how it goes!
All the court websites I visisted say that the simultaneous portion is an opening or closing statement by an attorney, but my friend took the exam 5 times and said it was more like jury instructions? What was is for you?
Corinne McKay says
Hi Nawal! Anyone who has taken the exam is actually not supposed to talk about what’s on it, so (with all due respect your friend…) if they took the exam, they shouldn’t have disclosed any of the material to you. You could order the NCSC practice exam to see what they give as a sample simultaneous passage!
Oh, sorry I didn’t know.
Thank you so much for the advice.
I was supposed to take the oral exam on march 18,2010, but they canceled it due to coronavirus. Now I have to wait until next September. I have the ACEBO material, and I almost memorized it by repeating it a lot. Is there another language neutral study material you heard good reviews about?
Corinne McKay says
Hi Nawal, thanks for your comment and I guess having the test delayed could be both a curse and a blessing: you have more time to prepare, but it’s hard to be “in the starting gate” and then have it cancelled. I would recommend:
-The podcast Court Junkie. This is not anything made for interpreters specifically, but it has a lot of actual court audio footage that I find helpful for practicing. Additionally you get the REAL experience of what it’s like in a courtroom, with people mumbling, talking over each other, etc. which I think is harder than the test.
-Any study materials you can find for court reporters; those are all in English, and they’re fast. If you go on YouTube and just put in “court reporter training,” or “court reporter practice,” you’ll find some good stuff
-A suggestion that Cris Silva gave on Twitter: form a practice group of other people preparing for the exam and meet on Zoom or Skype??
I hope those are helpful.
Thank you so much Corinne! I truly appreciate your help!!
Zack Hitchens says
Hi Corrine. I am preparing myself to take the written exam again hopefully next month. It was originally scheduled for April but due to the coronavirus It has been postponed. I took it once and got a 62. I have been brushing up on the English section which is the part l did the worse on. Do you have any other materials or suggestions?
Corinne McKay says
Hi Zach! Soooooo, here in Colorado they gave us a study guide for the written test when we went to the all-day orientation that is required in order to take the written. I studied about 20 hours for the written which was sufficient (mostly flash cards of the legal terms). What state are you in? And what do you mean by “the English section”? Here in CO the written test is in English only, general knowledge questions about the US legal system and legal vocabulary. Also feel free to just e-mail me at email@example.com.
Eduardo Juarez says
Hi Corinne. I really appreciate your post. I was unsure how to begin to prepare for the exam (in California). Could you tell me how you used the ACEBO CD materials. I do not own a stereo or CD player and I am unsure what device to buy before making the investment in the CDs. I have heard that listening with only one ear can damage hearing in the long-term, so I think I would prefer a something with balance control.
Also, could you tell me a little more about what the written exam was like in CO?
Corinne McKay says
Hi Eduardo! This sounds (and is!) pretty 1995, but I actually had an old Discman laying around that I used to play the Acebo CDs. I used that one so much that it died, and believe it or not a friend had one laying around that she gave me. So you could try that route; maybe get a Discman from a thrift store?? The Colorado written exam is all multiple choice, all in English, mostly questions about the US justice system and legal procedures. I studied about 20 hours for it and got in the 90s on the first try, but I think that depends on how familiar you are with the US court system and what your state tests on the written.
Thanks so much for the information from your personal and professional experiences in the context of Court Interpretation. I am currently Court Qualified, but am in the process of getting my licensing. I reside in TX, but have served CO Judicial Court through virtual assignments.
My target language (s) are Thai/Laotian which I am finding it to be a challenge to find a CE to provide the Oral Examination. It is not eligible / available in my state. However, I went ahead and got a certificate of completion for the Orientation (pre-written exam) completed and waiting for an in-person Written Exam in Oct. 2022 – which requires traveling, lodging, etc.
My question: Do you see any benefits in at least getting the Written Exam completed and passing even though one may not receive Certification? Did you receive a Certificate of Completion for the Written Exam?
I have over 20 years of translation and interpretation background. Like you, I have some gaps between freelancing and pursuing different career paths. Since covid, I have returned to do what I am passionate about: helping others though bridging the language gaps.
I appreciate your time! TYSM!
Corinne McKay says
Hi Mary and thanks for your comment. Wow, that’s an interesting question. As far as I remember, in Colorado at least, there’s no “partial” completion of the certification or approval process after you do the written exam, there’s only the option to become “Approved” (if that’s the correct term…now I can’t remember) by doing an oral proficiency test in a language that doesn’t have a certification exam. I’m not the expert on rare languages, but it seems to me like one option would be to take the written exam (I do think it would be good to pass that, whether or not you get a certificate for it), then do the Language Testing International oral proficiency test in your languages: https://www.languagetesting.com/ Good luck to you!