Court interpreting is a difficult and demanding skill to learn, but once it is mastered it is an extremely rewarding career.

In my case, I grew up speaking Spanish and lived primarily in Mexico from the age of seven to eighteen, when I returned to the United States to go to college. Even though the bulk of my friends were Mexican/Spanish-only speakers, and I spoke Spanish as a native speaker, my higher register Spanish was lacking because I was never required to use it as an adult. I had to study a lot to be able to pass the California Court Interpreter’s Exam. I spent six hours a day for a year and a half studying on my own and then attended a full semester class that gave me the necessary vocabulary to successfully pass the exam. When I took and passed the California exam in 1990, there were very few classes available for people interested in becoming court-certified interpreters. I attended the Monterey Institute of International Studies to prepare for the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination.

Today there are many reputable programs that help people evaluate their language skills and interpreting ability, build up any sub-par skills and provide tools to help pass the exam. The exam has changed over the last few years to allow for an English-only written exam.

I recently spoke with Martha Ortiz who works for the US Courts Bankruptcy Division. She was originally from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. She also considers herself a native speaker because she spoke only Spanish at home. After being hired by the bankruptcy court she decided to investigate becoming a court interpreter. She was asked to interpret during debtor exams in court and really liked being able to help people understand. She has passed the written portion of the federal exam and is studying for the oral, which she failed the first time. She said she took a basic court interpreting course which wasn’t much help. Then she began some self-study using the resources from the California court’s website as well as suggestions from experienced/certified interpreters and also began volunteering at a hospital. She also came to U.S. District Court and started listening to certified interpreters wearing a headset in the courtroom. She says that is what let her know what was really required to be a good interpreter. Once she began studying on her own, Ortiz started to notice improvement in her skills. She says it is like learning a whole new language because you have to know proper legal terminology, be familiar with the legal process and be fast. She has to learn slang, and know the cultural nuances and variations in usage of the vocabulary.

Formal certification is required to work as a court interpreter in California state courts and in the United States District Court. First, the candidate must pass a written test evaluating proficiency as well as ethics and professional conduct. The State of California’s average pass rate is approximately 12 percent and the US District Court’s pass rate is even lower. After passing the written test, candidates are invited to an oral exam which tests the three modes of interpreting we use in court in both the source language and the target language; simultaneous, consecutive and sight translation. The US District Court tests Spanish, Haitian Creole and Navajo; the State of California tests American Sign Language, Arabic, Armenian (eastern and western), Cantonese, Japanese, Khmer (Cambodian), Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. Interpreters must obtain 30 units of continuing education every two years in addition to reporting the case numbers and names of a minimum of 40 assignments over each two-year period.

The skills required to interpret effectively are complex and difficult. An interpreter must have linguistic, speaking, listening comprehension, reading comprehension,  interpreting and behavioral skills. An interpreter must possess: a native-like proficiency; an ability to think and react communicatively; a broad vocabulary – including legal terminology, subject specific terminology and slang – and the knowledge and use of cultural nuances, regional variations, idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms in each working language.

On top of that, an interpreter must be able to speak with proper pronunciation, diction and intonation, in a neutralized accent and dialectical differences, and to both project and speak softly. At the same time, an interpreter must be able to ignore auditory distractions and focus on the source speaker. And an interpreter must be able to read and comprehend overall meaning and specific details of written text, recognizing the context, whether it is formal or informal, the subject-specific vocabulary, idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms and be able to read quickly with little preparation.

Additionally, an interpreter must be able to process the linguistic information quickly, make decisions regarding word choice or terminology, apply short-term memory skills to retain small units of information, think analytically and utilize predictive thinking skills to anticipate incoming messages and the ability to convey meaning. While doing this, an interpreter must be able to transfer the message from one language to another preserving the accuracy while conserving the intent, tone, style and utterances of the whole message. An interpreter must follow ethical standards while working in varied situations and maintain an appearance of self-confidence and self-awareness.

As I have often heard said by Holly Mikkelson, Victoria Vazquez and Rosanne Dueñas Gonzalez, the authors of Fundamentals of Court Interpretation, “Two hands do not a concert pianist make.” In short, a solid knowledge of the source and target language is only the beginning.

Rebecca Rubenstein is a California Court Certified Court Interpreter and serves as Staff Interpreter/Coordinator for the federal court in the Eastern District of California.

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