Aspiring court interpreters gathered in downtown San Francisco to hone their interpreting skills and prepare for the California Court Interpreter Examination.

On Saturday, October 20, 2012, I attended a language-neutral workshop led by Angela Zawadzki, a native of Colombia and an English/Spanish Federal and California State certified interpreter with over 20 years of experience. The workshop was targeted to those interested in taking the Judicial Council of California’s Court Interpreter Examination. It was held at the offices of the Judicial Council of California at 455 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco, opposite the old Federal Building and behind the building housing the Supreme Court of California at Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco.

In the multilingual California of today, court interpreters are fixtures in the judicial system. According to the fact sheet provided by the Judicial Council of California, there are presently over 200 languages being spoken in California, and nearly 40 percent of the 37 million people in California speak a language other than English at home. Out of this number, it is estimated that 6.7 million people would require the assistance of an interpreter if they were in a courtroom.

Certified or registered?
Angela Zawadzki started the workshop with some background and an overview of the recent changes to the California exam, as well as local exam prep courses offered at San Francisco State and at Laney College in Oakland. We went over some of the types of vocabulary and legal procedure questions that are found on the exam. In particular, Zawadzki pointed out the Misdemeanor Advisement of Rights, Waiver, and Plea form as a source filled with specific court-related vocabulary that also highlights a number of legal procedures that an aspiring court interpreter must be familiar with.

Zawadzki went on to explain the difference between certified and registered interpreters. In the California court system, a certified court interpreter is someone who has passed the Court Interpreter Certification Examination in one of the 14 designated languages: Arabic, Armenian, Cantonese, Khmer, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Japanese, and Vietnamese. A registered interpreter is someone who works in a language other than these 14 languages and who has passed the written and English oral proficiency examinations and fulfilled the requirements of the Judicial Council.

The two-part certification exam consists of a section with 135 multiple choice questions in English covering English comprehension, court-related terms and usage, and ethics and professional conduct. A score of 80 percent, or 108 correct answers out of a total of 135, is required to pass. The oral interpreting section of the exam consists of sight translation, consecutive interpretation, and simultaneous interpretation.

Working the room
When working in the courtroom, Zawadzki stresses high ethical and professional standards. She also noted the importance of having reference resources readily at hand, such as a notepad and a Casio device with various bilingual and monolingual dictionaries uploaded. “I feel naked if I do not have a dictionary,” she said. Interpreting in court can be an emotional experience. “You are going to experience the full range of human emotions,” she said, in reference to the dramas played out in California’s courtrooms. As befits a drama, in which the interpreter is merely a supporting actor, improvisation is an important part of an interpreter’s work. This includes accurately mirroring the register of the language, from very formal and correct legal terminology to vulgar street idioms. Finally, working as an interpreter is also about learning about oneself and how one reacts under pressure. When interpreting, you will quickly learn what makes you nervous, or what makes you forget.

Getting hands-on
Towards the end of the workshop, the participants tried their hand at sight translation, and consecutive and simultaneous interpretation from English into their respective languages. The experience of working with an actual text and attempting to correctly render it in a professional manner into another language under strict time constraints was enlightening. Among the skills and knowledge tested during the oral exam are grammar, vocabulary, legal terminology, false cognates, idioms, modifiers, and register. Legal vocabulary is particularly important in this context. “This is very, very important. You have to have your legal vocabulary,” Zawadzki explained. Zawadzki also suggested The Interpreter’s Edge by Holly Mikkelson, with regard to practicing interpretation skills.

Zawadzki provided participants with helpful suggestions and insights into how translators work in the California court system, and also how the courts cope with California’s new multilingual reality. NN

An information packet on becoming a California Court Interpreter can be found here.