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Certified Court Interpreter Certification and Career

Certified court interpreters work in courtrooms helping deaf individuals or those with limited English language skills testify in court. They also translate or explain what foreign-language or deaf witnesses or speakers said. Read on for career information, including where you might work, available certifications and related degree programs.

What You Need to Know

If you are fluent in a second language, you can work as a court interpreter. While there are certificate and degree programs available for interpreters, not all courts require their interpreters to have a degree. However, you may have to pass a court-administered examination to demonstrate your interpretation skills in areas such as medical terminology and slang.

Responsibilities Translate testimony and spoken word into another language or American Sign Language
Certification Professional certification may be required by employer or state; federal courts require interpreters to pass their examinations
Programs Certificate; associate's degree in language translation and interpretation, deaf studies or sign language interpretation

What Would I Do as a Court Interpreter?

As a court interpreter, you render a foreign-language speaker or deaf individual's words into English so that the judge, lawyers and jury can understand them. You might also interpret written documents. Most interpreters are fluent in either sign language or a foreign language, not both. Interpreting is different than translating, which traditionally focuses on changing written documents into English.

What Types of Interpreting Exist?

There are two types of interpreting: simultaneous and consecutive. When simultaneously interpreting, you turn the speaker's words into English while they speak. When consecutively interpreting, you wait until the speaker has stopped talking to explain what they said. The type of interpreting used depends on the judge, circumstances and type of court proceeding.

Where Would I Work?

You could apply your court interpreter skills by working for a state or federal courthouse. In these positions, you would be assigned to translate during live hearings and trials. This means that some days you might not be in the same courtroom twice or that you could spend two weeks interpreting witness testimony in a single trial. The government employs some court interpreters full-time, while it hires others for work on an as-needed, hourly basis.

Interpreters typically work a 40-hour workweek. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, as of 2017, all types of interpreters and translators earned a median wage of $47,190 per year.

What Certification Do I Need?

There is no single type of required certification for court interpreters. Each state accepts different certification, and some states do not require interpreters to be certified. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT), Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and The American Association of Language Specialists (TAALS) all offer interpreter certification. To become certified by any of these associations, you need to pass an exam consisting of written and oral interpretation. Tested subjects include antonyms, analogies, grammar and ethics. Eligibility requirements for the exams differ for each association, but in general, you must have a certificate or degree in this area as well as experience working as an interpreter.

The federal government's certification requirements differ depending on the language you aim to interpret. To work as a Spanish-English federal court interpreter, you need to pass the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Exam (FCICE). The exam consists of written and oral sections, but you must pass the written section to continue to the oral test. The exam is offered in alternating years and only to a limited number of people. You can work as a Haitian Creole or Navajo translator in federal court if you pass the State Department's interpreter test, are certified by the RID or are a member of TAALS.

What Degree Do I Need?

As long as you are fluent in another language, you technically do not need a degree to work in this arena. However, employers prefer interpreters who possess either a certificate in court interpreting, legal interpretation or translation or an Associate of Science in Language Translation and Interpretation, Deaf Studies or Sign Language Interpretation. The foreign language being studied, such as Spanish, Chinese or Korean, defines language translation and interpretation programs.

What Courses Will I Take at the Certificate Level?

In a certificate program, you learn about interpretation for civil and criminal courts. These programs consist of an average of six months of study. Some programs are only available to experienced court interpreters, while others require that applicants pass an oral examination in the foreign language prior to admission. These topics may be covered:

  • Consecutive interpretation
  • Simultaneous interpretation
  • Court procedures
  • Legal terminology

What About Courses in an Associate's Degree Program?

In a foreign language interpretation associate's degree program, you learn medical or legal terminology and interpretation according to your specific field. You also complete a practicum. In a sign language associate's degree program, you may learn about the following:

  • Ethics
  • Linguistics
  • Deaf culture
  • Slang in sign language
  • Comparative linguistics

Some sign language programs require you to be fluent prior to admission, while others teach you the language.