We've answered some of the most common questions about translation and interpretation.  Just click on a question below to be taken to the answer.  If you don't find the answer your looking for here, please contact us and we'll be happy to help you out.

What is the difference between an interpreter and a translator?

An interpreter works with the spoken word between two languages, meaning he/she must know both languages almost equally well. An interpreter must have good public speaking skills and like working with people.
A translator works with the written word between two languages, usually translating into his/her dominant language only, rather than into the second and less precise language. A translator must have good writing, grammar and syntax skills in his/her dominant language, and good comprehension of the source language.
Translators must know how to use a computer, know software programs like MS Office, Word, Excel and PowerPoint and terminology management software, like Trados - SDL, Déja Vu, etc. Also, how to find new terminology on the Internet. The above skills are also useful for interpreters, but not as mandatory.
See the booklets “Translation - Getting it Right: A guide to buying translations” and “Interpretation - Getting it Right: A guide to buying interpreting services” that the American Translators Association (www.atanet.org) published. Buy it in bulk, and hand copies to all your clients..


Where can I get certified as an interpreter or translator?

The American Translators Association (ATA) has the only certification program in the U.S. for translators.  A limited number of language pairs can be certified at this time; more are being added as tests are developed and graders trained. Please contact the ATA directly for both membership and certification information. Its website is   www.atanet.org.  Certification in translation is for ATA members only. If you cease to be an ATA member, your certification ceases also.   



For interpreters, there are the following certifications:


(1) a Federal (nationwide) certification for court/judiciary interpreters in Spanish only; visit the website at the National Center for State Courts – NCSC – and look for the federal exam www.ncsconline.org/fcice/ ; and


(2) a state court/judiciary certification available through the NCSC’s Consortium in 14 languages, with others being added as tests are developed and graders trained. There are 41 states, as of this writing, that are members of this Consortium. There is little reciprocity between the Consortium members as many states have added their own unique requirements and tweaks. However, as long as the Consortium exam was taken and passed, there exist possibilities for recognition of the certification.  Please contact The National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, VA, for more details at  www.ncsconline.org and go to Court Interpretation. Also see the FAQs at that site. You can also check the NCSC site to see if your state is a member of the Consortium or not. If not, then it may be that your state does not require certification at all.


NAJIT (National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators) also has a “national interpretation examination”.  Check out their website at  www.najit.org


In Texas, once the certification exam has been taken and passed, the interpreter must obtain a “license”; the exam and paperwork is handled by the newly formed JBCC-OCA (Judicial Branch Certification Commission of the Office of Court Administration) who has taken over from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, visit its web site at  www.jbcc.tx.courts.gov  and go to Licensed Court Interpreters, there is a huge amount of information and forms, pay attention to all of it. Texas is a member state of the National Center for State Court’s Consortium. 


There are two (2) national certification programs for medical interpreters, and some states have individual programs that may be phased out. See www.certifiedmedicalinterpreters.org, and also the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care – NCIHC - www.ncihc.org.


Can anyone become a translator or interpreter if one is bilingual?

Yes, but…please read our separate article Bilingualism - And What To Do With Yours

Where can I study to become an interpreter or translator?

There are a number of universities that are giving courses in translation and interpretation in various states. Look them up on line.


The National Center for Interpretation in Tucson, AZ, gives intensive 3-week courses in Spanish only, every July or August at the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, as well as other courses throughout the year at different times and places.


The Monterey Institute of International Studies (an affiliate of Middlebury College) in Monterey, CA, offers the following degrees and programs:  


M.A. in Translation, M.A. in Translation and Interpretation; M.A. in Translation / Localization Management, M.A. in Conference Interpreting, and Non-Degree programs and short courses In the following languages:  Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Spanish


Check your local translator/interpreter associations many of whom give occasional classes in translation and interpretation. Some are independent, and some are ATA chapters and affiliates.


Many private courses are also given for medical interpreters, prior to the certification exam and later for continuing education hours. Certified Medical Interpreters at www.certifiedmedicalinterpreters.org, and the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care – NCIHC at www.ncihc.org

How do I become a state-certified/licensed interpreter?

You must begin with adequate language skills – college graduate level English and your foreign language (speaking, reading, writing, grammar, syntax, etc.). If either of your two languages are not at the college graduate level, you should definitely consider going to college first to learn both languages to an adult, professional, business level.


You will also need to learn thousands of words of legal terminology in both languages, as well as court protocols, and protocols in other judiciary situations (administrative hearings, depositions, etc.). Other countries have different legal systems than ours, so legal terms and concepts won’t always match up exactly, but you are explaining the American legal system to foreign clients, regardless of their origin, so it is important that you know the precise meanings of the words in the U.S. legal system.


So, if your language skills are up to par, but you don’t have the legal terminology knowledge and have no skills in simultaneous interpretation, sight translation and consecutive interpretation, it will take you about one year (or more) to study enough to pass any test, provided you study consistently every day for that year (or more).


Remember, lawyers go to school for many years to learn the terminology that they must know.  You obviously, don’t need to be a lawyer, but you must know and understand the terminology used in the courts and in other judiciary situations in two languages, and very quickly. There is no time to look up words and concepts (as in translation) when you’re a working interpreter. The interpretation must be accurate and complete and totally understandable. In simultaneous interpretation, no one waits for you to catch up, it is up to you to stay caught up. That’s why it takes a while to learn all this terminology and interpreting skill.


Find out if your state belongs to the National Center for State Courts’ Consortium (41 states do). If so, go on line or call your appropriate state agency to find out about the testing requirements, background check of potential interpreters, code of ethics, orientation training and anything else that your state specifically requires. Some states require a written exam that you must pass before you can take the oral exam. Download any and all forms and other materials from that web site and start a file for your personal use.


If you already have all the knowledge and skills required, you may have to take a written test, and then you must take an oral test for certification (licensing in Texas). If your state is not a Consortium member, you may have to go to a Consortium member state to take the test. There generally is little reciprocity between states who are Consortium members, as each state has tweaked the original requirements to the point that one state may not accept another state’s practices. The certification oral test, however, is the same for all member states of the Consortium.


If your state is a Consortium member, there are 19 different languages which are tested, but you may have to go to another state to take the oral test. Call the Consortium and find out. Spanish is, of course, the main language and all member states give these tests within their territories at least once a year if not more.


NAJIT (the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators) also has a “national interpretation examination”. Although this test is not the one given for certification by the Consortium.


The written test changes from state to state. It usually covers ethics questions, includes some legal terminology, some protocol questions and some criminal law terminology.


The oral certification test consists of: 

·   Two sight translation tests (one from English to the foreign language and one from the foreign language into English) – these take about 10 minutes each.

·   One consecutive interpretation test (about 20-30 minutes) between English and the foreign language.

·   One simultaneous interpretation test (about 7 to 10 minutes), from English into the foreign language.


The tests are monitored by state personnel (or their contractors), who may or may not actually handle the recording machines used in testing. There is one machine that you listen to and another for you to record your version of the test.  Your version of the test is then sent to graders who will notify the state on whether you passed or not. The state will notify you if you passed or not. You must pass each segment of the written and oral tests individually to pass the entire test. Being very good in one segment and poor in another will not allow you to pass the entire test. If you pass in the state of Texas, you must then apply for the corresponding license. See information on the Texas JBCC-OCA web site indicated above.


Most states have an on-line list of certified/licensed interpreters from which clients can pick by location. Texas (and a number of other states) also have continuing education (CE) requirements (8 hours per year or more). These CE hours are mandatory in retaining the certification/licensing from year to year.


There are interpreter/translator associations around the country that give short courses from time to time.


To study on your own:


Berkana Language LLC carries books for court interpreting as well as on other subjects:


1.                      Introduction to Court Interpreting (English only)

2.                      Manual for Judiciary Interpreters (English/Spanish 700+ page dictionary, felonies)

3.                      Municipal and Justice of the Peace Court Interpreters’ Manual (English/Spanish                                             300+ pages – misdemeanors)

4.                      Sight Translation Training Materials (5/6th English; 1/6th Spanish)

5.                      Simultaneous Interpreting Training Materials (all English – 2 sound CD-ROMs for practice)

6.                      Illegal Drugs Terminology for Judiciary Interpreters – English-Spanish or English only


You can find more information and prices on these books at www.eberkana.us, Products.


Acebo.com has sight translation, simultaneous and consecutive interpretation materials in English-Spanish, and in some other languages as well.


This is just a short summary of the process. In Berkana’s six books you will find much, much more information, particularly in the Introduction to Court Interpreting. But don’t feel bad or overwhelmed, judiciary interpreting is certainly not for everyone, so there is nothing wrong with saying this is not for me, and moving on to some other good use of your foreign language skills.