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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (January 2007)

Interpreter Certification Programs in the U.S.
Where Are We Headed?
By Nataly Kelly

Certification is one of the most important topics in the U.S. translation and interpreting industry today. Rarely does one attend a professional conference without finding presentations on the topic. Numerous articles have also been written on the subject, and, in 2003, ATA published an International Certification Study, compiled by ATA President-Elect Jiri Stejskal, consisting of 24 individual articles from The ATA Chronicle devoted to certification programs around the world. These efforts have been key in helping interpreting professionals, and the public at large, to obtain information regarding current certification programs.

To date, the objective of much of the information made available on certification-related topics has been to inform end users and practitioners about certification program details, as well as to identify similarities and differences among programs. This body of work has laid the essential foundation for much needed analysis.

An important next step for those of us interested in the future of certification is to analyze the information available regarding past and current certification efforts so that we can attempt to identify possible future paths. The purpose of this article is twofold:

1) To describe the history and status of several major certification development efforts for court and community interpreters in order to provide a broader understanding of the meaning of certification and what has been accomplished so far in the field.

2) To offer recommendations based on the lessons learned from interpreter certification development in other areas.

The discussion that follows is organized into several sections. First, the term certification is defined from the perspectives of different stakeholders. Government and professional organization initiatives for certification are reviewed, and a brief overview of training issues is provided to highlight these topics as they pertain to certification. This is followed by an analysis of certification efforts for sign language interpreters to illustrate how certification efforts unfolded in this particular area of interpreting. To provide more insight on the status of efforts in the medical interpreting profession, a description is provided of the foundation currently being laid for healthcare interpreter certification. Finally, several recommendations are provided to stimulate further discussion.

Definitions of Certification in the U.S.

In the U.S., the definition of certification varies widely. An interpreter will usually state that a certification program involves some combination of testing and training in a given industry, such as court or healthcare, and that it is granted by a recognized certifying body, usually a government entity or professional association. 1

For members of certifying bodies, the definition usually describes their specific program, as well as the components or requirements it shares with similar programs. Michael S. Hamm, former executive director of the National Organization for Competency Assurance, an association and national standard setting body for certification organizations, defined the term certifying body in the following way:

"Programs that evaluate the knowledge, skills, and abilities of individuals are typically referred to as certification bodies in the credentialing world." 2 According to this definition, any program that assesses the knowledge, skills, and abilities of individuals would be referred to as a certifying body. Indeed, organizations, institutions, and private companies (e.g., NetworkOmni) have responded by developing their own certification programs. 3

Many colleges and universities that offer interpreter training issue a certificate to students who complete a specified number of courses. The possession of such a certificate does not necessarily mean that the individuals are certified to work in the profession, but proves that they have passed the requirements of the institution's program. For this reason, most academic institutions refer to their programs as certificate programs . 4 However, some colleges (e.g., Reedley College) are beginning to use the term certification instead of certificate to refer to their programs. 5

Finally, consumers of interpreting services will usually indicate that certification is tangible proof that a person can provide quality interpreting services. In spite of the variety of certification definitions in the U.S., they all fall under this generic definition, since they imply that an individual who successfully completes a certification program is able to interpret with a minimum acceptable level of quality. The way in which the minimum levels are defined and measured varies from one program to the next.

Government and Professional Organization Initiatives

When the Federal Court Interpreters Act was passed in 1978, the law required Spanish federal court interpreters to pass a certification exam in order to demonstrate proficiency. 6 This was the first such government initiative. 7

Over the next two decades, several state court systems began to follow suit and develop their own programs for state courts. In July 1995, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) created the National Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification, a multi-state partnership dedicated to developing court interpreter proficiency tests. 8 This alliance allowed state courts to combine their resources to develop creative strategies for resolving their common concerns related to interpreter certification. 9 Currently, 33 states belong to the Consortium. 10 While the test forms used for certification are consistent across states, there are many differences in program components and structure from one state to another.

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators also created a certification program for judiciary interpreters and translators, at the request of their membership, with the goal of elevating professional standards. This program is unique in that it certifies individuals to provide both interpreting and translation services in a wide variety of legal settings. 11

Variability of programs across states is not exclusive to legal certification programs. Some state governments, such as California and Washington, created certifications that are related to specific areas of healthcare interpreting, but do not necessarily cover the broad scope of knowledge and skills that make up the entire field. For example, the State of Washington's program is run by the Department of Social and Health Services, and serves as a basic screening for mental health and social services interpreters. 12

The State of California has a state certification exam for court administrative hearing and medical interpreters. According to the candidate information on the CPS Human Resource Services website: "Administrative hearing interpreters are deemed qualified as medical interpreters." 13 The site also states that the certification testing process for administrative hearing interpreters "requires demonstration of the ability to meet minimum performance standards in consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, plus the ability to perform sight translations of written material and knowledge of correct usage of legal terminology [my emphasis]," but the program information also states that the process includes testing in medical terminology. Essentially, interpreters with this certification are certified to provide interpreting services during state agency hearings that take place with administrative law judges and during medical exams conducted for civil cases in order to determine monetary awards or compensation.

The Washington and California programs do not encompass a full range of healthcare interpreting skills and terminology, and are not based on the National Standards of Practice issued by the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care.

Training Issues

Some certification programs effectively identify high quality interpreters through testing; however, certification programs have historically done little to prepare interpreters for their exams. Many interpreters take these tests, but when the tests are rigorous, it is difficult for candidates to achieve passing scores without substantial preparation, training, and experience.

Most certification programs take an either/or approach, meaning that an interpreter either passes or fails, with no clear path for an interpreter who might not receive a passing score, but who shows potential for someday becoming qualified. If the interpreter fails, he or she must seek out training and other possibilities for gaining experience in order to produce a passing result with the next attempt. The cost of taking the test often represents a sizeable fee, so many candidates become frustrated and stop after the first try, even if they do have potential for someday becoming a highly skilled professional interpreter.

The lack of attractive compensation for interpreters also presents a dilemma. If interpreters are not hired unless they are certified, and they cannot pass a certification test without training and on-the-job experience, how will they obtain training, get experience, pass the test, and become certified? When programs do not provide clear steps for individuals who show promise, but who do not yet have the required skills and knowledge to perform at the level necessary to pass a certification test, these individuals often become frustrated and lose interest in the profession.

Largely in response to the low passing rates for certification exams, certifying bodies have begun to acknowledge the need for training interpreters as part of a complete certification program. For this reason, some members of the Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification began to provide mandatory minimum training. 14 Some court programs offer orientation training prior to testing, but these sessions are usually short in duration and provide information on test specifications and logistics, while offering a basic introduction to interpreting skills and knowledge of industry-specific terminology along with a minimal amount of practice. 15

Educational institutions and private companies offer programs around the country to prepare interpreters for a range of interpreting settings. 16 Programs vary widely, from a 40-hour certificate program at a community college to a graduate degree program (for an example, see the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation). 17 Because these programs have different foci and areas of specialization in preparing individuals to work as interpreters, completion of an academic program does not guarantee that a student will become certified. Another challenge is that with low rates of compensation for community interpreters, especially in the area of healthcare, there is little motivation for an individual to make the major investment required to obtain a university degree in interpreting.

It is ultimately the individual's responsibility to seek out opportunities for education in a given field of study. However, the profession of interpreting differs from others in that most interpreters are expected to come to the job fully prepared, often without the benefit of any orientation, on-the-job training, or actual interpreting experience.

There is a lack of consistency in interpreter training programs, which results in interpreters entering the field with diverse backgrounds and levels of experience. On one extreme, there are successful interpreters who come to their first day on the job with a graduate degree in the field. At the other extreme, there are individuals who start out in the field with no formal experience or training whatsoever and a minimal level of education. Both have the possibility of becoming highly skilled interpreters through a combination of practical experience and training.

It is still common in many areas of community interpreting to find working interpreters who have received little or no training. While it would be impractical for these interpreters to leave their jobs to pursue a full-time academic program in interpreting, they do sometimes seek training for the purposes of learning how to do their job more effectively.

Some private, for-profit companies have begun to develop training programs specifically for these interpreters, usually offering training programs at a lower cost than academic institutions. These programs are accessible to a wider audience and usually offer a more practice-oriented, hands-on approach. Since these programs often focus on providing the essential knowledge and training that are needed, less time is devoted to theory and history, with more focus on hands-on techniques and role-play scenarios that will enable the interpreter to begin practicing immediately.

In addition, many of the state and federal government programs, particularly the programs for court interpreting, are enhancing and improving their inclusiveness by providing training opportunities or, at a minimum, a list of resources where interpreters can obtain more training. Also, many participants in programs administered by state courts actually participate in a two-day training session led by professional interpreter trainers that serves as an orientation to both the certification process and the court interpreting profession.

In terms of converting a skilled bilingual into a professional interpreter, there is only so much even the best trainer can accomplish in a matter of days. At best, these efforts provide interpreters with a general orientation in order for individuals to obtain initial practice in interpreting skills and to gain an understanding of the profession prior to taking a certification exam.

A View from Our Sister Profession

A national effort toward general certification of spoken language interpreters in the U.S. is still in its infancy, while programs of this nature for U.S. sign language interpreters are nearing adulthood. Taking a look at the road toward certification in sign language interpreting may provide insight into our current situation.

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) was born out of a group of providers of interpreting services, though sign language interpreters did not have the benefit of government sponsorship or regulation in their early days either. Within the eight years that followed the establishment of RID, the organization formed a board, developed a code of ethics, and published a guide to interpreting for the deaf.

During the 1970s, 18 "certifications" were in some stage of development. A Comprehensive Skills Certificate and a Master Comprehensive Skills Certificate, both generalist certifications, were offered, but were later discontinued, along with several other certificates. Between 1999 and 2003, RID joined with the National Association of the Deaf to create a task force that later became the National Council on Interpreting.

In 1999, two general tests were created: the Oral Transliteration Certificate (OTC) and Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI). Currently, RID's website lists 20 separate certificates. Of these, 13 were phased out or combined with or replaced by other certificates, leaving seven available: the OTC and CDI, the Certificate of Interpretation (CI), the Certificate of Transliteration (CT), the combined certificate (CI and CT), the

Conditional Legal Interpreting Permit-Relay, and the Specialist Certificate: Legal. 18 The seven remaining certificates encompass the necessary interpretation modes and types that respond more effectively to their community's needs.

Lessons Learned from American Sign Language Interpreter Certification Efforts

As we analyze the experience of our sister profession for answers and ideas about our own development, two major themes emerge. First, the majority of certificates (five of seven) that survived are general in nature, although two industry-specific (legal) certificates are still available as well. After decades of a concentrated, organized effort from national associations, the sign language interpreting community found generalist certificates to be of a primary and prerequisite importance. In fact, sign language interpreters must hold a generalist certificate before they are allowed to sit for a specialist exam.

A second emerging theme is that key associations have merged efforts, and the numerous certifications previously offered are being refined into seven more specific ones. The remaining certifications being offered no longer replicate other programs. While two specialist certificates are offered as well, the core focus is on certifying interpreters/transliterators according to their specific mode or type of delivery, not according to subject specialty or industry. This is in sharp contrast to most certification programs in the spoken language interpreting world, which tend to be developed within and geared toward a specific industry or setting (e.g., court, healthcare).

Laying the Groundwork for Certification in Medical Interpreting: The NCIHC

When looking at the progress of the sign language interpreting community with regard to certification, it would seem that some areas of spoken language interpreting, particularly community interpreting, are beginning to follow the path of sign language interpreting. We are at the point of having numerous certifications in multiple areas, and through strategic alliances between organizations, are starting to make efforts to join forces and pool resources. Indeed, our current trajectory is similar in many ways to that of our sister profession described above.

A promising development is the establishment of the National Council for Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC). Born from a grass-roots initiative in 1994, the NCIHC was first a working group, and later became what is today the Council. 19 One of NCIHC's strategies was to research and publish papers on key topics, such as the role of the interpreter in healthcare and initial assessment of interpreter qualifications. By putting research as a key priority, NCIHC demonstrated much forethought and built a foundation for future efforts.

In July 2004, NCIHC published the National Code of Ethics for Interpreters in Health Care . This document provides a detailed explanation of the background of the code of ethics, as well as a full description of each guiding principle. Also, NCIHC's team conducted a thorough analysis of existing codes of ethics in related professions, such as court interpreting and sign language interpreting. In addition, in order to ensure that this document reflects the current thinking of the profession, the team conducted focus groups and a national survey to receive input from working interpreters. 20

This was an important first step for the healthcare interpreting community. As an essential next step, NCIHC then published the National Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Health Care. At the time of this writing, the standards have been endorsed by a myriad of healthcare organizations, private companies, and associations. Both the code of ethics and the standards are available for download at

Moving Toward Healthcare Interpreter Certification

Another step in the right direction is being made by the Massachusetts Medical Interpreters Association (MMIA). MMIA has been working on a certification program for healthcare interpreters since 1995, when they published their own standards of practice. With funding from the Office on Minority Health obtained through NCIHC, a Spanish version of the test was piloted in 2003 through collaboration with the California Healthcare Interpreters Association (CHIA). MMIA is now pursuing fundraising efforts for the creation of a comprehensive certification program. 21

Just as the sign language interpreting community started to join forces and merge efforts, we are seeing collaborative relationships start to solidify within the medical interpreting realm. In the above case, we can see that links are forming between the efforts of NCIHC, MMIA, and CHIA. Whether the bonds that tie them together will become as strong as those in the sign language interpreting community remains to be seen. However, any collaborative efforts such as these should be considered a positive development, since they may eventually result in benefits of greater magnitude throughout the interpreting professions.

Signs of progress toward healthcare certification can be examined in more detail through a recent California Endowment publication prepared by Cynthia Roat. The document provides a comprehensive status report on efforts to certify healthcare interpreters in the U.S. 22

Looking Ahead

How do the lessons learned from our brief overview of past and current efforts apply to the interpreting community at large, and more importantly, what can we take from this analysis to ensure successful certification programs in the future? What follows is a series of recommendations regarding how these lessons can be implemented to help the advancement of our profession in the future.

1) When possible, we should seek to avoid replicating existing efforts. We have already learned this lesson in the court interpreting community, with many of the state-based initiatives now switching to Consortium membership. This joint approach provides improved consistency and cohesiveness across the states, as well as numerous additional benefits. 23 In the medical interpreting realm, if things continue along the current path, we can hypothesize that the current MMIA exam, or a future derivative thereof, could become the healthcare equivalent of the NCSC Interpreter Certification exam, especially if partnerships continue to be formed and efforts are continually made to work with other state and national associations. Hopefully, this pattern of working together will continue in order to provide a single, national certification exam based on appropriate and well-researched standards that can be used for all healthcare interpreters.

2) We should consider discussing a generalist certification for all community and court interpreters. Industry-specific efforts can be extremely useful as specialist certificates; however, some type of basic guarantee of interpreting skills and quality is still required by all industries. Instead of each industry conducting its own language proficiency screenings and introductory skills training programs independently, why not partner across our various communities to create a strategy to address these common components? The basic skills and requirements of interpreting are the same, regardless of industry. In fact, many of the types of interpreting referred to in this article would appear to fall under the larger umbrella term of "community interpreting." 24 Since each industry is tackling many of the same challenges simultaneously, it would make sense to pool efforts and achieve efficiency and consistency.

3) We should be inclusive, not exclusive, in structuring our programs. If we want to keep the needs of our society in mind, we need to shift our focus from what it takes to be a good interpreter to what it takes to create a good interpreter. We need to focus on providing the infrastructure to ensure inclusiveness, not just in terms of basic educational courses and training, but in terms of on-the-job experience, orientation to specific work settings, monitoring, and ongoing performance review. We need to pull together and make sure that basic training opportunities are not just available, but mandatory for interpreters who want to become certified. Also, we should keep in mind the need for some kind of consistency across training programs for interpreters, at least in terms of basic guidelines or standards for training.

4) We should offer programs that are continually updated and revised. Our programs should address the fact that, while an interpreter certification program may have been valid at the time it was created, as the scenarios (and content) to be interpreted evolve, the testing instruments and programs must be revised and updated accordingly. Laws are constantly being written and modified, and new medical procedures and medications are added each day. Obviously, our programs will never be able to keep up with every single new item of terminology that enters our vocabulary; however, we do need to ensure that our programs reflect the reality of the current work of our profession. The best way to do this may be through additional components, such as training and ongoing monitoring.

5) We should create programs that include a variety of requirements. As mentioned previously, many of the programs available only include testing, and if interpreters are fortunate, some basic training. They do not normally include on-the-job experience requirements, let alone monitoring, mentoring, or performance review, yet these may be some of the most effective tools for measuring and improving upon an individual's performance. While the reason for the absence of these components is mostly financial in the case of public entities and not-for-profit associations, the benefits of such components cannot be overlooked. Perhaps pooling resources in the future will provide a cost-saving strategy through economies of scale, and therefore allow more of this type of requirement to be implemented.

6) We should incorporate language testing expertise into our program design. Language proficiency testing is common to most certification programs, and the knowledge and experience of the language testing world is available for the asking. However, many programs are working without language testing experts as team members, and therefore, not benefiting from this expertise. If we can ensure collaborative relationships with key scholars and researchers from language testing who share an interest in interpreter certification, our entire industry will benefit. Some programs, such as the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Program and the NCSC, have followed this practice for the development of their exams. As programs grow and become more advanced, it is recommended that testing experts also be involved at a program development level to ensure validity and reliability across a variety of assessment types, and to provide feedback on enhancing the programs.

7) We should seek to draw from various sources of knowledge. Much can be learned from the experiences of individuals in all areas of interpreting, such as conference interpreting, court interpreting, healthcare interpreting, and sign language interpreting. Also, given the increasing number of academic programs for interpreters, it would be beneficial to increase communication between the interpreter trainers providing training through agencies and private training companies and the interpreter educators affiliated with academic institutions. In addition, it is important to identify models for training, certifying, and qualifying interpreters that exist in other countries, so that we might be able to identify and implement best practices within the U.S. Finally, we should make use of the growing corpus of literature available on quality in interpreting, which includes research by many authors, such as Franz Pöchhacker 25 , Miriam Schlesinger 26 , Barbara Moser-Mercer, Ulrich Frauenfelder, Beatriz Casado, and Alexander Künzli 27 , as well as Ingrid Kurz. 28 This body of work has grown steadily over the past decade, and continues to evolve.

8) We should devote the time and resources necessary to create quality programs. This is easier said than done, especially since most of the individuals currently involved in certification program design at a public or association level are facing a lack of funding. Also, even when funding is granted, our struggle is often to provide something tangible within a quick timeframe in order to obtain or renew that funding. However, as we have seen, a rush to move forward can often create fragmented efforts and result in going back to the drawing board, albeit decades later. In the long run, multiple individual efforts turn out to be significantly more expensive and time-consuming. Organizations such as NCIHC and MMIA have been successful in finding ways to secure funding through grants and endowments. Those are definitely steps in the right direction, but more financial support is needed to carry these efforts forward.


In summary, there are a host of issues pertaining to interpreter certification that need to be discussed, examined, and scrutinized by all individuals interested in the role of certification in the court and community interpreting professions. However, we may benefit most from coming together and joining forces. History and experiences from similar professions would seem to tell us that by sharing knowledge and working collaboratively, we may avoid pitfalls experienced by others on the certification journey.

Now, it is up to those of us who care deeply about interpretation quality and certification to take these key lessons, discuss their merit, and create something that can accomplish our goal of ensuring access to high quality language services across the nation, so that individuals and society as a whole may benefit from our initiatives.

The author would like to acknowledge Frances Butler, David B. Sawyer, and Jean Turner for their valuable input and guidance. Also, special thanks to Shiva Bidar-Sielaff and Karin Ruschke of NCIHC, as well as Izabel Arocha, Joy Connell, Maria-Paz Avery, and

Jane Kontrimas of MMIA, for providing input about these organizations to ensure accurate representation in this article.


1. A similar definition of "certification" is provided on page 4 of The Terminology of Health Care Interpreting, A Glossary of Terms (National Council for Interpreting in Health Care, October 2001).

2. Hamm, Michael. An Executive Summary: Review of the ATA Certification Program.

3. Sawyer, David, Frances Butler, Jean Turner, and Irene Nikolayeva Stone. "Quality Assurance in Remote Language Mediation: Overview of a Model for Identifying, Training, and Testing Telephone Interpreters." The ATA Chronicle (August 2002), 36-39.

4. See for examples of how "certificate program" is the preferred terminology for most academic institutions.

5. "Health Care Interpreter Certification Program."

6. Roseann, Gonzalez, Victoria Vasquez, and Holly Mikkelson. Fundamentals of Court Interpretation: Theory, Policy and Practice (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1991).

7. Partners for the development and administration of the federal court interpreter certification exam include CPS Human Resource Services and Second Language Testing, Inc. See for further details.

8. "Frequently Asked Questions."

9. Hewitt, William E. Court Interpretation: Model Guides for Policy and Practice in the State Courts (Williamsburg, Virginia: National Center for State Courts, 1995).

10. See for a complete listing of all Consortium member states.

11. "Frequently Asked Questions about the National Judiciary Interpreter and Translator Certification."

12. Stejskal, Jiri. "International Certification Study: The United States." The ATA Chronicle (June 2003), 13.

13. "Certification Standards and Languages."

14. Gill, Catherine, and William E. Hewitt. Improving Court Interpreting Services: What the States are Doing (Williamsburg, Virginia: National Center for State Courts).

15. For a sample training agenda of an introductory workshop for state court interpreters, see Stejskal, Jiri. "International Certification Study: The United States." The ATA Chronicle (June 2003), 13-14.

16. See Park's Guide to Translating and Interpreting Programs in North America for a comprehensive listing. Available through ATA at

17. "Degrees and Programs Overview."

18. "RID History: Bridge to the Future." Affiliate Chapter Handbook , second edition, Section 1 (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf).

19. "History."

20. "A National Code of Ethics for Interpreters in Health Care." Working Paper Series (National Council on Interpreting in Health Care, July 2004).

21. "Certification."

22. Roat, Cynthia E. Certification of Health Care Interpreters in the United States. A Primer, a Status Report and Considerations for National Certification (The California Endowment, September 2006).

23. Cantrell, Melissa, Paula Hannaford, Catherine Gill, and William E. Hewitt. Court Interpreting Services in State and Federal Courts: Reasons and Options for Inter-Court Coordination (Williamsburg, Virginia: National Center for State Courts, Oct. 30, 1998, NCSC KF 8807.C68).

24. Mikkelson, Holly. "The Professionalization of Community Interpreting."

25. Pöchhacker, Franz. "Quality Assessment in Conference and Community Interpreting." Meta , XLVI, 2 (2001).

26. Schlesinger, Miriam. "Does Intonation Matter?" In Bridging the Gap. Empirical Research in Simultaneous Interpretation. Edited by S. Lambert and Moser-Mercer (John

Benjamins, 1994).

27. Moser-Mercer, Barbara, Ulrich Frauenfelder, Beatriz Casado, and Alexander Künzli. "Searching to Define Expertise in Interpreting." In Language Processing and Simultaneous Interpreting. Edited by Englund Dimitrova, Birgitta and Kenneth Hyltenstam (John Benjamins, 2000). See also Interpreting , a journal co-founded by Moser-Mercer, which draws upon diverse areas of linguistics, such as sociolinguistics, cognitive science, discourse analysis, and more. Back issues available at

28.Kurz, Ingrid. "Conference Interpreting: Quality in the Ears of the User." Meta , XLVI, 2 (2001).

Nataly Kelly is the director of product development with NetworkOmni Multilingual Communications. She is also a certified court interpreter (State of Missouri) for English and Spanish. A former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, her current research interests are interpreter certification, quality improvement programs, and telephone interpreting. She currently serves on the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care's Outreach Committee. Contact: