By Yasmin Alkashef
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 individual (LEP) their life, a hospital thousands of dollars in unnecessary procedures, or a defendant in a court proceeding delayed justice or even their liberty.
On the other side of this dilemma stand thousands of interpreters who are in need of certification to be able to make a living and compete in the US market. It is a challenging position. For some languages, there are no certification exams and interpreters can only be qualified. This article focuses on languages other than Spanish in which certification exams are available. Despite this availability, obtaining certification remains a challenge for these interpreters for a number of reasons.
For many interpreters, there may be little motivation to become certified. This is especially true in healthcare interpreting. The status quo dictates that if there is no certified interpreter available, a qualified interpreter may be appointed. It would appear that some language service providers (LSPs) have little interest in having their interpreters certified as long as they can make do with qualified interpreters. If certified interpreters are able to command higher rates, this may translate into lower profit margins for the LSP. In fact, some interpreters have reported their concern that if they do get certified, they may very well lose jobs from some LSPs that seek to maximize their profits.
Certification costs can be prohibitive for many freelancers. Attending orientation and training sessions, paying application and exam fees, paying to take practice tests or mock exams, attending exam preparation courses and purchasing exam preparation materials, if they are even available in languages other than Spanish, adds up to a significant financial investment. This is especially true for interpreters in low-demand languages whose income is quite limited. In addition, they may need to pay the examination fees more than once, since passing the test on the first sitting is not that common. After certification, renewal costs are not insignificant either.
Although there are plenty of preparation materials in Spanish for court and medical interpreters, the same cannot be said for other languages. There are very limited resources for court interpreting in other languages, be they glossaries or interpreting scenarios. While material in English can be useful in training for the simultaneous part of the test, bilingual material is needed to practice consecutive interpreting. Differences in the judicial systems of different 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 US.
For healthcare interpreting, the situation might be less difficult. While there is very limited material available to use for consecutive practice, some material, although it was not originally prepared for interpreter training, is available online in languages other than English and Spanish. However, even if some scenarios were created specifically for interpreter training, these are often very primitive and are inadequate for certification exam preparation.
Although some trainings are language specific, mostly in Spanish, the majority of court and healthcare interpreter trainings available are language neutral. The same applies to trainings offered during national and regional conferences.
Interpreting is a profession that heavily relies on core skills and less on soft skills. Although there is valuable learning to be had from attending trainings about the code of ethics or cultural equivalence, it is 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 language-specific trainings.
How do we overcome all this?
If we are serious about offering quality language access and not just language access in all the languages spoken by LEP communities, major players, such as certification bodies, state judicial departments and health authorities, need to step up even further and motivate interpreters and agencies alike to provide resources and support for non-Spanish interpreters wishing to obtain certification.
Funding is needed to support initiatives aimed at building language-specific training materials. Such materials could be in the form of online trainings or books with accompanying audio files offering scenarios at various levels of difficulty and including different dialects in languages where training material is scarce.
Having more certified interpreters in as many languages as possible is a win-win situation for all stakeholders
It is also crucial to support trainers who can offer trainings in languages other than Spanish, either through scholarships to attend training of trainers (TOT) opportunities or through mentoring and observing practicing trainers in language neutral or Spanish trainings.
As far as existing language neutral trainings and CE opportunities, arrangements can 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, more scholarships to attend trainings and waiving some of the exam fees for first-time takers might encourage more interpreters to take the exams and work very hard to pass it the first time around.
Advocacy efforts for the profession and for certified interpreters might also help the industry and overcome the existing challenges. This could be in the form of client education or more communication between certification bodies and interpreters.
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 is only with concerted efforts from all those concerned that we can step closer to quality language access in the near future.
 Thanks to Russian interpreter and trainer, Svetlana Ruth, for her valuable input during the preparation of this blog post.
Yasmin Alkashef is an ATA-certified Arabic-English translator, certified healthcare interpreter (CHI) and registered court interpreter, originally from Cairo, Egypt. Now based in Oregon, she is a member of the ATA Interpreters Division and can be reached through https://www.linkedin.com/in/yasmin-alkashef/
Image credit: Ben Mullins on Unsplash
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