Court Interpreters: Qualified versus Certified

Have you ever interviewed someone who did not meet the qualifications?  Did you feel cheated out of your precious time? After all, that’s at least an hour that you will never have again.  Have you ever hired someone and later discovered that person misrepresented his qualifications? You have squandered more resources and money with no return on investment.

What does this have to do with court interpreting?  Have you ever hired an “interpreter,” only to find that person unqualified? What about an interpreter who represents himself to be certified, but that person only has a certificate of course completion? Unfortunately, many people and clients do not understand the profession of interpreting.  They are unaware of the process to become a certified court interpreter.  A few don’t realize that there actually are rules of professional responsibilities and codes of ethics for court interpreters.  The result is wildly differing experiences with court interpreting.

The definition of qualification is a special skill or type of experience or knowledge that makes someone suitable to do a particular job or activity.  The ability to speak two or more languages does not constitute a special skill.  SCACR Rule 511(2), REPRESENTATION OF QUALIFICATIONS:  Interpreters shall accurately and completely represent their certifications, training, and pertinent experience.  When an interpreter accepts an assignment, the judge and lawyers reasonably presume that said interpreter possesses linguistic competency in matters of law.

South Carolina is a member of the National Center of State Courts’ Council of Language Access in the Courts (CLAC).  According to CLAC, only certified court interpreters have demonstrated the minimum standards of proficiency for court interpreting (page 1).  This shows that only certified court interpreters have met the qualifications required for language access in the courts.  How so?  By successfully completing these three stages:

  1. Mandatory attendance at a two-day court interpreter orientation program
  2. Passing an English reading, vocabulary, and comprehension exam
  3. Passing all three modes of interpretation of the oral examination

Completion of stages 1 and 2 do not demonstrate any interpreting skill.  My mother could ace an English exam with a score above 90%.  Trust me, she is not and cannot be a practicing interpreter.

Individuals who have not taken the oral exam or have failed the oral exam are designated “otherwise qualified” interpreters.  What does that term mean? It means an interpreter who is fit by training, skill, or ability for a special purpose qualified in a different way.  What different manner is there to qualify other than orally testing interpreting ability?  Consider this:  two law school graduates take the SC Bar Exam.  One passes and is later sworn in.  She is now a licensed attorney-at-law.  The other candidate fails the bar.  Do you now call the other candidate an “otherwise qualified attorney-at-law”?  In reality, an untrained bilingual person practicing interpreting is tantamount to a law office receptionist practicing law.

Some people think an otherwise qualified interpreter is better than no interpreter.  Do these same people believe that an “otherwise qualified attorney” is better than no attorney? State statutes prohibits the unauthorized practice of law not to protect the money earned by licensed attorneys, but to protect the people of South Carolina from unfavorable outcomes due to “inaccurate legal advice given by persons untrained in the law.”

It is, therefore, essential that interpreters present a complete and truthful account of their training, certification and experience prior to appointment so the officers of the court can fairly evaluate their qualifications for delivering interpreting services.

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