“How come ‘nobody’ passes the court interpretation oral exams?” I get asked this question so often that I feel compelled to attempt to answer it once and for all now:

First of all, it is inaccurate to say that “nobody can pass”. In fact, many interpreters of different languages (Over a thousand in Spanish alone) have already been able to complete this task successfully and are working as certified interpreters in legal settings around the country. Nevertheless, it is true that many other of our colleagues are not able to obtain the minimum required grade of 70% to pass the oral examination for court interpreters in their state. This is a complex problem, because there are many causes and it is really hard to point out one in particular as the main reason for this high failure rate. However, one thing seems to be clear: a large majority of the candidates who take these exams have little or no training in the field of court interpretation and are therefore at a disadvantage when it comes to passing this examination.

Unfortunately, the assumption that a person, by virtue of being bilingual, is automatically qualified to be successful in this highly complex task seems to still be the prevailing idea among both court systems that need court interpreters who are qualified and bilingual people who are interested in covering these assignments. To assert that a bilingual person is automatically qualified to be a court interpreter sounds to me like saying that because a person knows how to use a pair of scissors they can automatically be expert hairdressers. Being bilingual is certainly necessary to become a successful court interpreter, but is not nearly enough. As a matter of fact, one of the problems we have noticed through the years is that candidates taking the oral examination have clear deficiencies in their mastery of one, and sometimes both, of the languages they are to utilize in their work as interpreters. Often candidates lack basic legal vocabulary in one of their languages, not to mention lack of understanding of the complex terms utilized in court in either language. Unprepared candidates frequently make grammatical mistakes when interpreting, forget or change the information they heard while attempting to transfer the message from one language to the other, and add information that was not present in the original message. To better understand this, I strongly recommend that anyone thinking about taking the oral examination, or those who administer these tests and want to acquire a better understanding about this important issue, first read the article published by the National Center for State Courts called “Common Oral Interpreting Exam Performance Deficiencies”. – In my opinion, a well prepared candidate should be completely familiar with this document before registering for the oral examination, and I’ll provide a link at the end of this article.

Based on my years of working with interpreters and as an interpreter myself, I submit to you that in order to be successful as a court interpreter one must possess three key elements:

1.   Natural Talent, demonstrated by the ability to listen to a person talking and simultaneously reproducing said speech in another language. This is a very demanding mental task that requires the utilization of different cognitive skills to be achieved successfully.

2.   Very strong Language Skills in both languages to be able to navigate the intricacies of the spoken word by understanding and being able to interpret highly sophisticated (high register) speech as well as colloquial, non-standard communication such as slang and idiomatic expressions. This skill set allows the interpreter to navigate the variety of subjects that a court interpreter will hear in court, the obvious one being legal vocabulary, but it’s not uncommon to be challenged by the use of medical terms, the mention of weapons of many kinds, drug terms, (both formal and slang) body type descriptions, appliances, vehicles, etc. Vocabulary acquisition is an ongoing task for court interpreters, and they must know how to create their own study plans and glossary developing techniques, which is also why they need to be trained in these areas.

3.   Interpreting Skills. In many cases, this is the Achilles’ heel of unsuccessful candidates, many of who do possess the appropriate language skills and are talented enough to engage in this profession. Interpreting skills such as note-taking, memorization, “décalage” or ear-voice span, cognitive load management, routinization and many others must be acquired and practiced in appropriate learning environments. These skills are not intuitive and, in fact, many times feel completely unnatural to new interpreters who have to practice extensively in order to master these techniques. Only deliberate practice can improve performance. As the saying goes: “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and a certified court interpreter is not going to be successful at her profession without investing time and effort into mastering these skills.

In conclusion, court interpreting is a complex task that requires the use of many disparate cognitive skills and is, without a doubt, a task that should be carried out by trained, credentialed, and professional individuals. Certified Interpreters are crucial in the process of providing equal justice for all. Court systems have done well in identifying the importance of certifying interpreters and should now partner with all interpreters serving the courts to increase their access to professional training.

If you are interested in finding out more about the services, we provide regarding language access for your court system or if you are an interpreter seeking information regarding training or certification please visit our website


We are always happy to hear from people interested in language access.

To access the resources provided by the NCSC, click here.