Passing the State Court Interpreter Exam in Nevada and Beyond

Judy, who is a master-level Spanish court interpreter in Nevada, recently wrote the article below for those considering taking the notoriously difficult exam in Nevada or any other state that is part of the Consortium for Language Access in the Courts. The article first appeared in the spring 2011 edition of e-NITA, the newsletter of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association. Read on for myths and truths about the exam!

You may have heard the rumors, myths, and half-truths, such as: “It’s impossible to pass the oral exam for becoming a Supreme Court certified court interpreter in the state of Nevada,” or “No one ever passes the exam on the first try. It’s too hard, and the graders are biased.”
Judy on her way to court. 

Well, I have some good news for you: those things are untrue. I’d like to give you an overview of the process, what to expect, and some basic tips on how to prepare for the oral exam.
First of all: The exams, expertly administered by the Supreme Court of Nevada are fair, well-developed, and not impossible to pass. I did indeed pass the exams at the master level, which means that I scored above 80% in every section of the written and oral exams, so I am living proof that it is possible. Passing this exam is never accidental, and the graders are unbiased: they don’t know who you are, as you are identified only by a number.

A quick overview: There is a fairly straightforward English-language written exam (multiple choice) that immediately follows the orientation workshop. No specific preparation is required for the written portion, but fluency in English is a necessity to comprehend and answer the questions, which are similar (but much easier) than the verbal portion of the SAT (college admissions exam) test. For those who pass the written exam with a score of 80% or above, there is an oral exam, held in the fall, which is recorded and sent off for grading. The oral exam contains sections on simultaneous interpretation, consecutive interpretation, and sight translation (in both language directions). You must score higher than 70% on each section of the oral exam in order to proceed to the next step, which includes a background check, proof of court observation hours, and an application for certification. For an exact breakdown of the process, please visit the Supreme Court of Nevada’s website.

What is true is that the pass rate for first-time test takers is 5%. However, I will go out on a limb here and say that the rate is this low not because the exam is that difficult, but because:
There is no barrier to entry. As opposed to other state-administered exams, there is no requirement to attend the two-day workshops and take the written exam the following day. The lack of prerequisites attracts many people who are not professional linguists, which helps explain the low pass rate.
Many applicants simply don’t prepare enough. As with any exam, you need to put in some hard work to master some specific test-taking skills, especially for the oral exam (traditionally offered in September). There are no shortcuts or magic pills: If you are not willing to put at least forty hours into practicing your interpreting skills, then I don’t think you have a realistic chance of passing the exam. Of course, the number of hours you need to practice will strongly depend on your individual skills, previous experience, and ability to learn and improve.
Many applicants don’t purchase the proper training materials. While it’s understandable that many test-takers would prefer not to spend a lot of money on the preparation phase, there’s really no way around buying the test-prep materials. My favorites are the ACEBO materials, published by court interpretation guru and Monterey Institute professor Holly Mikkelson. You can purchase the Spanish-language materials at ACEBO
Many applicants don’t go to court. You will be encouraged to do the 40 hours of court observation that are required to obtain certification before taking the oral exam. I wholeheartedly agree with this, since I learned invaluable information about processes, terminology, and how the court system works during my observation hours. Everyone at the Regional Justice Center was kind and helpful, including judges, attorneys and bailiffs. I asked a lot of questions and got well thought-out answers. I attended as many different legal procedures as I could, and was able to go to small claims court, drug court, traffic court, jury selections, jury trials, arraignments, etc.

Do you feel better now? You should. Every professional linguist has the opportunity to pass this exam if they are well-prepared. However, it is true that it is challenging – as it should be. Being a court interpreter is a very serious responsibility, and I think it’s wise that the Supreme Court only certifies the best of the best. After all, would you want to be a defendant in a criminal trial with a mediocre interpreter?

Here are a few things that you should know or do before starting the process:

Enjoy legal issues and terminology. If you don’t like legalese, then being a court interpreter is not for you. Guess what? You will be surrounded by legalese all day. I was already a very seasoned legal translator, so going into court interpreting was a natural extension for me.
Being bilingual is the absolute minimum requirement. I know that I am preaching to the choir here, but be reminded that being completely, fully, fluently bilingual is only the minimum requirement, and being bilingual does not mean that you are an interpreter.
Are you already a professional linguist, either an interpreter in another field, or a translator? If not, then you’ve chosen one of the Holy Grails to enter the profession, and I don’t recommend it. There are always exceptions, but setting your sights on court interpreting is usually a discouraging way to try to enter the language profession.
Understand that interpreting is a highly specialized acquired skill. It involves many things, including excellent memory and the ability to quickly think on your feet, solve linguistic challenges in an instant, and take excellent notes, in addition to having a very deep knowledge of both languages and the law. It will take time to learn and build on these skills, and it’s a challenge.
Court interpreting is not for the faint of heart. You might have to interpret for defendants in criminal trials who have done things you’d rather not think about. And real court is not like TV – it’s serious, but also sad, never glorious, and there’s no neat wrap-up after 30 minutes. There are real lives at stake here, and if dealing with the gravity of court cases is something you don’t think you can handle, then you might be better off interpreting in less formal situations.
Remember that you will be running your own business if you do pass and become certified. I often get phone calls from laid-off professionals who think that becoming a court interpreter will guarantee them a full-time job. It does not: You will be a contractor to the courts, and there is no guarantee whatsoever on how many hours you will work. You will have to market yourself to obtain projects beyond the courts. If you are not prepared to maintain a website, acquire new business, attend workshops and seminars, do your own accounting and manage your time and resources, then court interpreting is not for you.

Last but not least, try the following tips to help you improve your skills for the oral exam:

Cramming doesn’t work. Improving your interpreting skills is a long-term process. Make a commitment to dedicate a certain amount of time to it every day (or every week). I practiced simultaneous interpreting with my CDs in the car while driving. Be sure to pay more attention to the road than to what you are saying, though! If this is too distracting for you, try another approach.
Get a digital voice recorder. I bought mine for less than $30 at Office Depot, and it truly is my new best friend. Many times, I would feel that I was doing quite poorly during an interpreting segment, but when I listened to it and graded myself, my performance was actually quite strong. The opposite was true, too – I would feel very strong, but the recorded result would be mediocre at best. You really don’t know how you did until you record yourself.
Get honest feedback. Meet with colleagues and ask for their honest feedback. You want to surround yourself with people who have the ability to evaluate your performance and who will tell you the truth, even if it’s not what you would like to hear.
Be patient. This was tough for me, but learning and improving your skills will test your patience. You can’t expect to remember new vocabulary immediately. Repetition and reinforcement are key.
Make vocabulary lists. Don’t know what a side-bar conference is? Look it up, and look up the translation, too. Build vocabulary lists and study them.
Read as much legal writing as you can – yes, even if it’s John Grisham. Actual court decisions and verdicts would be better, but try to surround yourself with legalese.
Be humble. If you don’t pass on the first try, that neither means that you are not a good interpreter (although it could) nor that the exam is flawed (it’s not). The beauty of this exam is that you can take it again the following year, and many people pass it on the second or third try. If your scores are not even in the ballpark of passing, then it’s time to take a hard look at your skills.

With that, I’d like to wish you the best of luck on your journey towards becoming a certified court interpreter in the state of Nevada or anywhere else in the nation.


Sophia Ozog on March 16, 2011 at 9:21 AM said...

Congratulations Judy!

Aga acgtranslation said...

Well done Judy :) I fully agree - there are no difficult exams for those who are really good at what they do and also well prepared:) Congratulations and happy court interpreting, Aga

GG on March 17, 2011 at 7:56 PM said...

Very true what you said, Judy. This profession is not easy at all, and newcomers many times do not have a clue. A 2-day seminar is not gonna cut it, and even as a seasoned interpreter I feel challenging to work in a court environment, which can be a very harsh and sad place to be. I actually think it is a good thing that only 5% of people pass both exams. I myself found the written exam challenging.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 21, 2011 at 10:30 PM said...

@all: Thanks, ladies! I appreciate it. And yes, it's a challenging and demanding profession for sure, and agreed with @GG -- two days of prep might just not be enough. There's a lot of self-study that one needs to do in order to have a shot at passing the exam. And yes, GG, it is a great thing that only the top performers pass -- no one wants a mediocre court interpreter; could you imagine all the consequences? Thanks for reading.

EOA on March 23, 2011 at 11:22 AM said...

Congratulations Judy. You are definitely a professional, and your columns always teach me something new or provide a different prospective. Office Depot, here I come (besides for the copies).

Legal translation services on May 11, 2011 at 8:14 PM said...

Great post Judy! Now I've got tips on how to pass the court interpreter exam. Thanks for sharing this very informative post. Wish you luck too.


José Alejandro Navarrete said...

Well, Judy. Certainly everything you aver in your text is correct and wonderful. I am a court interpreter in Santa Bárbara, California.

What is troubling to me is the level of Spanish that is spoken by the "bilingual" professionals that work in and around the court system...I'm talking about lazy, older interpreters and private/public defenders, attorneys, clerks, paralegals, probation officers, mediators, etc. that think they can perform their duties in Spanish, when they really don't have a clue. They think interpreting/translating is simple, any bilingual can do it. Then, judges depend on all these reports, which are based on erroneous Spanish. The defendant hears different kinds of bastardized Spanish, and is ultimately confused...

Recently, the California State Certification Exam has been watered down: there is no longer a Spanish written test.

The Spanish language-- and by extension, the mono-lingual Latino community-- is disrespected, veritably insulted.

The office and role of the "Court Interpreter" needs to be formalized. I'm sorry, Judy, I think we might disagree on this point: a court interpreter is a public servant, and should be taken this seriously. We should change this perception that we are independent, free-roaming contractors.

We should have executive hierarchy and academic autonomy within every court system to ensure the rights of everyone, to ensure quality.

What say you to this, Judy?

(Saludos desde Santa Bárbara)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on January 10, 2012 at 11:33 AM said...

@José Alejandro: excellent points and thanks for commenting! Unfortunately, you do describe the sad reality of "language abuse" that I also see in many courtrooms. I am not quite sure what the solution to that is -- perhaps more frequent testing/mystery shopping of interpreters? And some stronger legislation of not allowing non-certified folks to interpret or translate? I think we are a long ways from that, but I would love to see it. In terms of having court interpreters be public servants: sure, I think that's a good idea. Looks like you are suggesting that eliminating the freelancer positions would be a good idea and might result in higher quality? That's a thought for sure. However, I don't think the courts can afford that....This is a difficult and important discussion. I am a contractor to the courts myself, and take my role quite seriously. :) CA has the fantastic CFI; perhaps they could get involved? Our profession is quite young, and there's a lot more to be done. Agreed 100%!

Unknown on June 25, 2014 at 6:19 AM said...

Dear Judy: I learned a lot from your post. Thank you for your pointers and advice. Do you happen to know any CD / DVD or written study materials for Mandarin Chinese for court interpreter certification?

Unknown on June 25, 2014 at 6:25 AM said...

Dear Judy: Thank you very much for your advice. You are so generous to share your experience. I hate to say that some certified interpreters in my language pair are not that generous when I asked for advice or suggestions and they even didn't bother to reply my email, although we are in a small professional community. I learned a lot from you. Do you happen to know any CD/DVD or written study materials for Mandarin Chinese? Thank you.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on June 26, 2014 at 2:16 PM said...

@Philly: You are welcome; happy to help! Unfortunately, we don't think ACEBO makes any Mandarin practice materials, but you can always practice with TED Talks and State Department speeches, and YouTube videos and all those great resources.... but do have a look at the ACEBO website; perhaps they've added Mandarin Chinese now. Best of luck!

Unknown on March 22, 2016 at 11:56 AM said...

Dear Judy: Thanks for the wonderful insight on court interpreting. Years ago I attempted the State Court Interpreter Exam and was very close to passing. In fact, on different occasions I've passed both the sight translation and the consecutive portions. Now, after several years completely away from the field I am considering another attempt. Would you be able to tell me how I could come into contact with other people who may be willing to study on camera using real "face-time?" Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on March 22, 2016 at 1:52 PM said...

@Mr. D: Thanks for your comment and good luck on the exam. Without knowing where you live, we'd recommend reaching out to the local translator/interpreter association. If you are a member, you can post something on their list serv and hopefully many will want to join you! You can also approach more experienced colleagues to see if you can form study groups, either in person or via Facetime. Best of luck!

Innovation Processes and Best Practices on October 14, 2018 at 7:53 AM said...

I am a Certified Interpreter in Michigan. I got my certification in 2002 but started working in 1995. After 26 years of interpreting for the courts, my current state joined the consortium and for me reciprocity of all three components is not an option. I am back to the blackboard and searching for answers. That’s how I got here. They scored differently then. When they adjusted the scores to reflect today’s standards in my state I am by one point short of the minimum threshold which is 65% on the sight from Spanish to English. I scored 64/84 They will transfer all components except the sight. I agree with the writer of this article that one needs to work hard and study. But I disagreed in part with that you have to be a linguist or a language profesional to be an interpreter. My line of studies is Business Administration. Although, my colleagues who are language experts have it easier than me, I was able to get certified and earn a living for 26 years as a Court Interpreter. I fully agree with her study methodology and her recommended resources. I am going to add one more... Puerto Rico’s penal/Traffic/ Civil/Family codes. I would copy all to a Word document, hit Find and Replace option Replace text you may not agree with. For example: If you find ‘causa probable’, replace it with ‘motivos fundados’ or ‘indicios fundamentados’. I hope this also helps.

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