Today we start a series of posts spotlighting professional organizations for interpreters and translators. There are many benefits to joining a professional organization such as being listed in a member directory, receiving access to free or discounted classes, and opportunities to network with colleagues. The latter is especially important now – in the era of social distancing and cancelled events, it can be hard to find ways to connect with fellow interpreters. This is where professional communities come in – and today, we are learning about one such community: Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society (NOTIS), a Chapter of the American Translators Association (ATA).


About NOTIS 


Having started as an informal group of ATA members in Washington state, the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society held its inaugural meeting at the University of Washington on June 4, 1988. As of today, NOTIS has 575 active members in the five states it covers (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska), which makes NOTIS the biggest chapter in the ATA. 

Member benefits include being listed in the online member directory, getting access to a members-only job board, an opportunity to be published in the NOTIS newsletter and blog, opportunities to attend NOTIS events free or at a reduced members-only rate, and a chance to win a NOTIS Translation/Interpretation Scholarship. 


To find out what makes NOTIS a community worth joining, we interviewed Shelley Fairweather-Vega, NOTIS president and freelance Russian to English translator.


Who should consider joining NOTIS? 


Shelley Fairweather-Vega: “Everyone who works in any language field in the Pacific Northwest! We’re the professional home of interpreters and translators at all stages of their careers (students to retirees), working in all fields (medical to literary), working in all kinds of settings (tech companies to courts, freelance and in-house). We often work alone, and time with our colleagues is priceless. NOTIS brings people together to compare notes on language services across different languages and fields. By learning more about the work our colleagues do, we gain a better perspective on our own work and discover more possibilities for our own future careers. 


The benefits of a robust local organization are more obvious when we can get together in person. In pre-COVID times, every NOTIS workshop or happy hour brought in colleagues new to the field or new to the organization, who were always happy to discover this professional community waiting for them.

Now, with events all online, it’s more difficult to get a sense of that local camaraderie. But it’s still there. We have not seen a dropoff in membership since the pandemic hit, even though some of our members have experienced a drop in income during these difficult times. That tells me that our members value belonging to NOTIS and intend to stick with us until we can see each other in person again. And meanwhile, our online events have been extremely well-attended. NOTIS offers trainings that other organizations are not providing, everything from small literary translation workshops to sessions on very specific medical terminology for interpreters, court interpreting skills to discussions on vicarious trauma. Membership is inexpensive – student membership is just $15 per year, and individual professional membership is $45. We always welcome new members.”

The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the unmet need for medical interpreters throughout the United States. In April 2020, the University of Louisville Hospital in Kentucky saw Spanish and Amharic medical interpreters providing assistance to 30 to 40 people each day. And that’s just one hospital and two languages!


As the number of limited-English speakers continues to rise, so does the demand for certified medical interpreters who can assist patients and healthcare professionals. That means now is the perfect time to become one.


Education and Training for Medical Interpreters


While the career path is different for everyone, you must have at least a high school or equivalent diploma. Some interpreters earn Bachelor’s degrees in foreign languages, translation studies, or in healthcare-related fields. Others enroll in medical interpreting certificate programs that require a certain number of training hours to complete. (These are typically offered by universities and are different from national certifications.)


Many hospitals, clinics, and healthcare systems have their own in-house requirements for hiring interpreters. You don’t need to become certified, but it’s the best way to ensure you can work anywhere.


Certifications for Medical Interpreters  


Unlike legal interpreting, few states offer certification. However, there are two national organizations that certify medical interpreters. The qualifications are similar, but there are a few key differences. Let’s take a look at each:


The Certification Commission for Health Care Interpreters (CCHI)


To get certified through the CCHI, you must:


  • Be at least 18 years old.
  • Have a U.S. high school diploma (or GED) or the equivalent from another country.
  • Complete a minimum of 40 hours of medical interpreter training.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in English and the language for which you’re seeking certification.
  • Pass the CoreCHI, a 100 multiple-choice computer-based exam that covers the basics of medical interpreting.
  • Pass an oral exam in English and the target language, if you want to get certified for Arabic, Mandarin, or Spanish.


You’ll also need to complete 16 hours of continuing education every two years to maintain your CCHI certification.


The National Board for Certified Medical Interpreters (NBCMI)


The NBCMI only offers certification exams for Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, and Vietnamese. To get certified, you must:


  • Be at least 18 years old.
  • Have a high school diploma (or GED).
  • Complete a minimum of 40 hours of medical interpreter training.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in English and the language for which you’re seeking certification.
  • Pass a multiple-choice written exam in English.
  • Pass an oral exam after you’ve passed the written exam.


To maintain your NBCMI, you’ll need to complete 30 hours of approved training every five years.


Preparing for the Future


Once you become a certificated medical interpreter, you can work anywhere in the U.S. And telehealth and remote interpreting options make it easier than ever to accept assignments no matter where you live.


If you’re already a working medical interpreter, give Boostlingo’s interpreting platform a try. You can manage your onsite schedule, take on-demand video or over-the-phone requests, and more!


I’m a medical interpreter working primarily onsite, and as an independent contractor, I work with several local agencies. And just like with virtually all other jobs, mine has also been affected by COVID-19. 

My schedule has always been unpredictable, and along with last-minute requests, cancellations and patient no-shows were nothing unusual. However, starting in mid-March, just as the first stay-at-home order was issued in my state, there was nothing but cancellations and no shows. Then the appointments stopped coming.

Although one agency was still sending me requests, they were mostly at the local hospital where all the COVID-19 patients were being taken at the time. Every time I received a request, part of me wanted to take that job – after all, I still needed to make a living and this might be the only job I’d get that day. I also worried that, if nobody was going out there to interpret, patients would be left without adequate language access. On the other hand, I was wondering whether that 1-hour fee was worth the risk I was taking coming into the hospital when much was still unknown about the virus and universal mask wearing wasn’t yet adopted. 

This dilemma became even more pressing the following week. An agency called me, asking if I could take a last-minute appointment for an MRI scan at a local hospital. As I arrived at the hospital, I put on a cloth mask a friend had made for me and headed for my destination – which to my utter shock turned out to be the COVID-19 isolation unit. The nursing staff had to wear hazmat-style suits and helmets with air pumps to enter the patients’ room – and here I was in a hand-made flowery cloth mask. In the end, even though a nurse found a face shield and a surgical mask for me, I didn’t need them as the procedure was cancelled. This assignment brought up so many questions: How do I stay safe when I’m working? As a freelance interpreter, how do I make sure I have access to PPE such as masks? Is it irresponsible for me to keep taking onsite appointments and risk bringing the virus back to my family? What will happen if I get sick? And if neither I nor my fellow interpreters take that appointment, will the patient still receive interpreting services? 

Ultimately, I decided that as long as I was getting requests for my services, I would go out and interpret. Over April, May and June, as elective medical services were put on hold, and many local hospitals were switching to telephonic or remote interpreting, I was getting jobs mostly in cancer care.

As such appointments were taking place in outpatient settings and clinics were introducing universal mask wearing policies and providing masks to interpreters and visitors, I felt reasonably safe.

However, the new reality introduced new challenges: How do you socially distance yourself in a small exam room? How do you make yourself heard through a mask? What is a safe way to, for example, take a drink of water while out on assignments? There are no ready-made solutions, but luckily, interpreters are nothing if not resourceful and I have every confidence that, whatever life throws at us, we will find a way to keep interpreting! 

The demand for interpreters in the United States is projected to rise by 19% through 2028. That means now is the perfect time to either start your career or sharpen your skills. And one of the best ways to skill up is to specialize in one or more fields. However, fields such a medical and legal interpreting have a range of requirements you may need to meet.


Let’s take deeper dive into legal interpreting to cover the education, training, and credentials you’ll need to succeed in the field.


Education and Training for Legal Interpreters


Courts and other employers often require legal interpreters to hold a bachelor’s degree. Some legal interpreters have a degree in foreign languages, translation studies, or legal studies, but you can enter the field even if you studied another subject.


Many colleges and universities throughout the United States offer interpreting certificates, which require a set number of training hours to complete. (These programs are different from state certifications).


You can also enroll in training programs and workshops offered by state courts, local and national interpreting organizations.


If you want to become a court interpreter, you’ll need to train to perform the three mayor types of court interpreting: sight translation, consecutive interpreting, and simultaneous interpreting.


Court Interpreter Credentialing


There are two types of court interpreting certifications: state and federal. Here’s a quick overview of the requirements for each.


State Court Interpreter Certification


Although the requirements vary from state-to-state, you’ll need to pass a written and oral exam in English and a foreign language. State courts offer these exams. Many states also recognize certification through the Consortium for Language Access in Courts as well as the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.


However, certification exams aren’t available for every language. If your state doesn’t offer a certification for your language, you may qualify to become a registered court interpreter.


Federal Court Interpreter Certification


Becoming a federal court interpreter is a challenging, yet rewarding process that can open the door to new opportunities. But here’s the catch—certification is only available for Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Navajo. If you speak one of these languages, you’ll need to take a written exam and an oral exam separately.


If you don’t speak one of these languages, you can become a professionally qualified interpreter. To do so, you’ll need to:



Preparing for the Future


Once you’re ready to take the state or federal interpreting certification exam, there are plenty of resources to help you prepare. The National Center for State Courts’ self-assessment and study tools are a great starting point.


And if you’re already a working legal interpreter, check out Boostlingo’s interpretation platform. You can manage your onsite schedule, take on-demand phone requests, and more.