To Be or Not to Be Certified: The Dilemma for Non-Spanish Interpreters

In an industry where the majority of professionals are freelancers and where subject matter expertise cannot be easily judged by clients or intermediaries, certification remains the gatekeeper to quality. Hiring a translator or interpreter without verified qualifications or certification is a very risky endeavor. The result may cost a limited-English-proficient (LEP) individual their life, a hospital thousands of dollars in unnecessary procedures, or a defendant in a court proceeding delayed justice or even their liberty.

(The following was originally published on the blog of ATA’s Interpreters Division,

On the other side of this dilemma stand thousands of interpreters who need certification to make a living and compete in the U.S. market. It’s a challenging position, especially for interpreters who work in languages where certification is unavailable. (For these languages, interpreters can only be considered qualified.) The following focuses on languages other than Spanish in which interpreter certification is available. Despite this availability, however, obtaining certification remains a challenge for many interpreters for various reasons.

Motivation: For many interpreters, there may be little motivation to become certified. This is especially true in health care interpreting. The status quo dictates that if there is no certified interpreter available, a qualified interpreter may be appointed. Unfortunately, some language services companies have little interest in hiring certified interpreters as long as they can make do with providing qualified interpreters. Their reasoning is that paying the higher rates certified interpreters command will lower profit margins. I know interpreters who have expressed concern that agencies would drop them if they became certified and increased their rates.

Prohibitive Costs: The cost of certification can be prohibitive for many freelancers. Attending training and exam preparation sessions, paying application, practice test, and exam fees, and purchasing exam preparation materials (if they are even available in their languages) add up to a significant financial investment. This is especially true for interpreters in low-demand languages whose income is quite limited. In addition, interpreters may need to pay to take the exam more than once since passing on the first try is not that common. After obtaining certification, renewal costs are also not insignificant.

Preparation Material: Although there are plenty of preparation materials in Spanish for court and medical interpreters, the same cannot be said for certain languages. For example, there are very limited resources for court interpreting in languages such as Arabic, Vietnamese, and Russian, be they glossaries or practice interpreting scenarios. While material in English can be useful in training for the simultaneous part of the exam, bilingual material is needed to practice consecutive interpreting. Differences in the judicial systems of various countries add another layer of difficulty. Court materials from other countries, which can be found online, are not very useful for an interpreter trying to get certified in the U.S.

For health care interpreting, the situation might be less difficult. While there is very limited material available to use for consecutive practice, some material, although not originally prepared for interpreter training, is available online in languages other than English and Spanish. However, even if some practice scenarios were created specifically for interpreter training, these are often very primitive and inadequate for certification exam preparation.

Training: Although some training opportunities are language-specific, mostly in Spanish, the majority of available court and health care interpreter training is language neutral. The same often applies to training offered during conferences.

Interpreting is a profession that relies heavily on core skills and less on soft skills. Although there is valuable learning to be had from attending training focused on codes of ethics or cultural equivalence, it’s skill-based training that actually prepares us for interpreting in our language or passing certification exams that test those core skills. An additional compounding factor is the issue of having very few qualified trainers who can offer training specific to certain languages.

How Do We Overcome All This?

If we’re serious about offering quality language access in all the languages spoken by LEP communities, then major players such as certification bodies, state judicial departments, and health authorities need to step up their efforts. They need to motivate interpreters and agencies alike to provide resources and support for non-Spanish interpreters who want to be certified.

Funding is also needed to support initiatives aimed at building language-specific training materials. Such materials could be in the form of online training or books with accompanying audio files offering practice interpreting scenarios at various levels of difficulty. These materials could also include different dialects in languages where training materials are scarce.

It’s also crucial to support trainers who can offer training in languages other than Spanish. This support could come through scholarships to attend training sessions for trainers, or through mentoring and observing practicing trainers in language neutral or Spanish trainings.

Regarding existing language neutral training and continuing education opportunities, arrangements could be made so interpreters for a specific language could work together in small groups and practice in their language of expertise.

In terms of certification costs, offering more scholarships to attend trainings and waiving some of the exam fees for first-time exam takers might encourage more interpreters to take the exam and work hard to pass it the first time.

Advocacy efforts for the profession and certified interpreters might also help the industry overcome existing challenges to obtaining certification. Such advocacy could be in the form of client education or increased communication between certification bodies and interpreters.

A Win-Win Situation

Having more certified interpreters in as many languages as possible is a win-win situation for all stakeholders. However, the existing obstacles make this goal quite far from being realized. It’s only with concerted efforts from all those concerned that we can step closer to quality language access in the near future.

Note: Thanks to Russian interpreter and trainer, Svetlana Ruth, for her valuable input during the preparation of this column.

Yasmin Alkashef, CT is an ATA-certified Arabic>English translator, certified health care interpreter, and registered court interpreter, originally from Cairo, Egypt. She has a PhD in translation and interpreting studies. Now based in Oregon, she is a member of ATA’s Interpreters Division.

Interpreters are a vital part of ATA. This column is designed to offer insights and perspectives from professional interpreters.

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