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And does the difference between qualified and certified interpreter matter?

The big picture on distinctions for professional interpreters

Interpreting is all about words—what they mean and how we ensure we get the meaning right when we interpret into a different language. In our profession, words matter. So, the words we choose to describe that profession to potential clients and ourselves matter just as much as those we so carefully consider when we are helping others communicate.

The terms “qualified interpreter” and “certified interpreter” are a perfect case in point. Both terms are sometimes used as synonyms (where they most certainly are not!), sometimes to make an important distinction and more often than not just get muddled together.

Yet understanding the distinction really does matter. Here’s why:

Interpreting is a young profession. There is unchecked confusion both inside and outside the profession about what constitutes a trained, competent, professional interpreter. As interpreters, we are all working towards greater credibility and recognition, and ultimately better pay. Yet, those efforts are undermined when we ourselves cannot define, nor articulate, what trained and competent mean in practice. And if we don’t define competence and professionalism in our own field, others will do it for us.

For the client, understanding the distinction is equally important. Navigating the difference between certified and qualified can help a requestor make an informed decision about which interpreters can fit their language support need.

Certified Interpreter

So, what is the difference between these two terms?

Let’s start with the term, “certified interpreter.” Possessing that title does not mean the interpreter took a course and got a certificate for attending and is now magically certified.

Instead, this term implies that the interpreter passed an exam or evaluation process by a recognized governmental or professional organization that shows interpreting competence in at least two languages and that the certification exam itself has been validated as effectively testing interpreting knowledge and skills.

Currently, in the United States, there are validated certification exams for medical and legal interpreting for spoken language interpreters, and both general and specialized certifications for sign language interpreters.

On the other side of the globe, NAATI, the national standards and certifying authority for translators and interpreters in Australia, has certifications for the following categories: certified provisional interpreter, certified interpreter, certified specialist health interpreter, certified specialist legal interpreter and certified conference interpreter. A small number of additional countries have developed their own formal certification processes.

A great metaphor for certification is the difference between passing the bar and finishing law school. Your courses as a law student prepare you to pass that exam, but they do not guarantee that you will pass your state’s bar exam and become a practicing lawyer. Certified interpreters have passed the bar exam.

The Elephant in the Room: A shortage of available certifications around the globe

Which brings us to the gigantic elephant in the room: regardless of where you are in the world, interpreter certifications are only available for a limited number of language pairs.

The stark truth is that there will never be enough money, expertise or even demand for interpreter certification tests across all possible language pairs for all specialties. Yet, hospitals, courts, schools, governments and most clients would love to see those magic initials, such as RN, MD, Esq., or PhD, after interpreters’ names that prove we can do what we say we do and that an outside authority agrees.

Dr. Bill Rivers, long-time language services industry advocate, wrote a white paper recently that describes the problem, using data that NIMDZI (one of the language industry’s leading research publisher) gathered on certification in the state of California as an example:

However, of the 38,600 Interpreters and Translators in California, only 12.6 percent hold any certification, and no certification is valid in every domain. For example, there are 1075 Interpreters certified by the Certification Commission on Healthcare Interpreting, whose certification does not make them eligible to work in the State Courts or other administrative law/legal settings. Moreover, the development of occupationally valid certification tests requires a sample of at least 100 [exam]s, in order to validate the test, and often requires more than $250,000 per test. As more than 350 languages are spoken in the US, the costs for developing certifications in every language and every domain (legal, medical, and others) is prohibitive, and for many languages there are not enough interpreters and translators available to validate a test. It is simply not feasible to test and certify every language needed.

Despite existing demand, language companies and clients struggle to find trained, professional interpreters with clear indicators of their skills in hundreds of languages globally.

Unlike practicing law here in the United States, the multitude of language pairs make it impossible for there to be one definitive exam like the bar to exist in the interpreting space. Rather than just testing knowledge about the mechanics of interpreting (as the bar tests the mechanics of practicing law), an interpreter certification exam by nature has to test language proficiency and terminology skills in more than one language. Developing the questions to sufficiently gauge those abilities requires money and expertise simply not available for every language combination.

As interpreters, we would all love to be able to take the definitive test that would show the world we can interpret competently, in the same way that doctors, teachers, lawyers, nurses and any other number of professions can. But since that simply isn’t possible, we come to our second term: “qualified interpreter.”

Qualified Interpreter

This term is much less precise in its meaning than “certified interpreter.” A “qualified interpreter” is someone who is considered competent to interpret in at least two languages after meeting a set of standards or criteria.

Most certifying bodies provide for some kind of “qualified” or “provisional” status for interpreters who speak languages for which no certification is available. In this case, the criteria for what is considered “qualified” may consist of showing the required level of language proficiency, passing a test in English or a country’s primary language of service, and proof of interpreting training and experience.

Increasingly, state and federal legislation in the U.S. has begun to address the lack of certification available for most interpreters by defining both certified and qualified interpreters and how that relates to where they can work. For example, the rules governing Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act are currently being revised. The current proposal includes definitions for a qualified interpreter for a limited English proficient individual, qualified translator, and qualified interpreter for an individual with a disability.

The window for commenting on the proposed rule closes on October 3rd. There’s still time to put in your comments supporting strengthened language access and I encourage you to do so. The National Health Law Program has provided detailed information and suggested comments for the public here.

Similarly, AB 2257 is the “fix-it bill” to California’s 2019 AB 5 law that essentially made it impossible for interpreters to work as freelancers in the state. The final text that gave interpreters (and translators) an exemption to AB 5’s prohibition in 2020 includes detailed language defining a certified interpreter and when certification is required to be able to work as a freelancer. This bill also defined how non-certified, i.e. “qualified interpreters,” can work, which is when no certification for their specialization and/or language pair exists.

Make Our Words Count

Many of us who have watched the interpreting profession grow remember the early days (and still occasionally today) when language service companies and training programs would declare an interpreter “certified” if they completed a privately developed training and testing process.

The industry has made a lot of progress over the past 30 years and interpreters and advocates like myself have worked hard to build credibility and visibility by reserving the term “certified” for validated, skills-based testing processes. But much confusion remains.

The time has passed to rein this confusion in. When federal and state governments take the time to define what they consider to be competent, trained professionals, we want to make sure they are using the criteria that we, as a profession, have developed and stand by.

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