The Paperless Interpreter

Thinking About Taking a State Court Interpreter Exam? Here are my Top Recommendations

Last week I had a wonderful lunch with a talented young woman who is interested in becoming a court interpreter.  I learned about her background, motivations, and fears, and I believe she came away with a clearer idea of what lays ahead if she chooses to move forward. While I don’t know everything, I am always happy to share what I learned along the way.

Below I’m going to share some of the (mostly free and digital!) resources I recommended to her. These suggestions assume a university-level command of both languages and at least a basic understanding of legal concepts and procedures; what it takes for any individual to reach that point will vary.  In my case, I had lived in Mexico, earned a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish with specialized coursework in Translation and Linguistics, and worked as a community interpreter for several years before attempting a court interpreting exam.

I think aspiring court interpreters need to focus on two areas: preparing to interpret and preparing to be a business owner.  Weakness on either side will result in a rough path, regardless of the test results.

A glimpse of Holly's study sessions on Instagram @hollybehl

A glimpse of Holly’s study sessions on Instagram @hollybehl

Preparing to Interpret

I recently read some great advice for preparing for interpreting exams: Prepare beyond the exam.  Real-life court interpreting is full of mumbling witnesses, Spanglish, bad acoustics, witness stands designed for only one chair, instructions read into the record at lightning speed, and a thousand other suboptimal conditions for interpreting.  The exam, on the other hand, will be in a quiet room with clearly recorded speech, and you will be able to control things like the volume.  So, instead of focusing on the exam, focus on preparing extensively for real-life court work, and the exam will be relatively easy.

Practically, a basic principle of exam readiness is to be familiar with the exam format. The examinee should know the format so well that you know exactly what to expect at each stage of the exam.  Further, it should not be  necessary to listen to the exam instructions during the exam itself; know them so well that instruction time is a moment to breathe deeply and relax in the familiarity.

As for subject-matter study, memorization of decontextualized vocabulary lists is not recommended.  Instead, practice interpreting sample recordings as much as possible.  Look up new words and interpret the recording again until you can provide a smooth rendition.

Here are the resources I recommend to start your study:

I took the practice exam as a benchmark before starting any studying, and scored 45%–a huge distance from the 70% needed to earn a Master license in Texas. This informed my strategy for studying and test timing, and I later passed both phases of the state exam on the first try.

Before moving to the next section, I’d like to say that I can’t recommend enough the Agnese Haury Institute for Court Interpretation’s 3-week course in Tucson, Arizona. I attended in 2014 and it is absolutely worth the time, funds, and energy invested–my only regret is not attending at the beginning of my career.

Preparing to be a Business Owner

At least here in North Texas, staff positions for court interpreters are rare.  Instead, most interpreters work as freelancers for the courts, agencies, or direct clients.  To someone who has always worked as an employee, freelancing requires some radical lifestyle changes.  You will be master of your flexible new schedule, but you will not get paid for any time you take off or don’t find work.  You will charge a high hourly rate, but will see your revenue whittled down by overhead expenses and taxes.  You will have the ability to earn more if you invest in yourself and your business, but there will inevitably be slow periods when you will wonder if you’ve made the right choice.

To ease the transition, I recommend overpreparing, especially in learning about bookkeeping and accounting and in saving for your transition phase.  Fortunately there are many successful translators and interpreters blogging about their businesses and sharing a wealth of knowledge.

Here are a few resources I would categorize as required reading:

Now it’s your turn–what resources have proven essential for you in preparing for the state exam and transitioning to the freelance life?

Updated 2/15/2016: If you are looking to become a Texas Licensed Court Interpreter and you would like to enroll in my online orientation (which fulfills the JBCC orientation prerequisite for examination), click here: Roadmap to Success: Online Licensed Court Interpreter Orientation (JBCC Approved). I look forward to meeting you!



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