I'd like to devote a couple entries to the certification processes I have gone through and am going through in my work as a freelance interpreter in Washington State. This first entry will focus on the language certification from the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. The second entry will focus on the court interpreter certification process of the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts. This entry will be primarily directed towards those who are interested in or have begun any of these certification processes.

By way of introduction, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) has two categories of testing: one for certified languages and another for screened or authorized languages. The certified category is for languages of higher diffusion in Washington  (so, Spanish and the like). All other languages fall into the "screened/authorized" category. Both the oral and written components are different based on whether you are testing for a certified or screened language. I won't spend too much time rehashing information that can simply be found on the DSHS Language Testing Center website. I'll focus on on my personal experience to try to encourage and inform others who may be preparing for these exams.

In order to make reasonable money as a community interpreter in Washington, you need DSHS certification. Both Medicaid and Medicare have state contracts that require the use of certified interpreters whenever possible. I am unfamiliar with the requirements or certification processes of other states.

In the past 13 months, I have taken a total of four sets of exams (a set meaning one oral exam and one written exam). I have tested for Spanish medical, Spanish social services, German medical, and French medical. I passed all exams on my first attempt. The differences between the certified and screened exams are as follows:

  1. In regard to the written exam, the certified version is bilingual. You are required to answer multiple choice questions in both Spanish and English. The screened version is monolingual. You are tested in your knowledge of the English language and general medical vocabulary.
  2. In regard to the oral exam, the certified version is more comprehensive. You are required to complete two sight translations, one in each direction, on topics of thematic relevance, and perform a consecutive interpretation of a simulated encounter. In the Spanish social services exam, there was also a short simultaneous interpretation portion (of no more than two minutes). The screened oral exam requires you to perform a memory exercise in English and a sight translation of a series of individual sentences of thematic relevance from English into the target language. Your recorded sight translation is then played back to you and you are required to "back-translate" into English.

I thought it might be helpful to layout my experiences with these exams in an FAQ format. If you are preparing for these exams and there is something I do not cover in these answers, please comment or tweet @abanion and I'd be happy address anything in more detail.

When did you take which exam?

Spanish medical: June–July 2016; Spanish social services: March 2017; German medical: June 2017; French medical: June 2017.

What did you do to prepare?

For the Spanish medical, I signed on with a local agency that allowed non-certified interpreters to work in a limited capacity if they passed an in-house evaluation. This gave me between 5-10 hours of interpreting a week (entirely medical) for the three months leading up to exam. This was the bulk of my preparation. It quickly revealed any holes in my vocabulary, and helped me develop the basic memory skills necessary for medical interpretation. In the month leading up to the exam, I used exercises from Holly Mikkelson's The Interpreter's Rx. I completed maybe three or four exercises a week. I highly recommend this resource to anyone preparing for the Spanish medical exam.

For the Spanish social services, I must admit I did very little preparation. I think I exhausted the limited study material on the DSHS website, and perhaps did a couple longer consecutive exercises in the week before this exam.

For German medical, I purchased First German Medical Reader and reviewed it and made vocabulary notes in the two weeks leading up to the exam. This reader was a good resource and helped me to prepare, as it contained both vocabulary lists and dialogues. For French, I purchased this Hadley's French Medical Phrasebook and constructed my own personal glossaries (my vocabulary is most lacking in French). This phrasebook was minimally helpful, but did at least have categorized vocabulary lists.

How would you rate the difficulty of these exams?

I can address all the written exams (Spanish medical, Spanish social services, German and French medical) in one blanket statement: if you are an educated native speaker of English, I doubt that you will have much trouble passing any of the written portions. I have no background in medicine or social services, and found these exams straightforward. No big surprises and nothing overly challenging.

The Spanish medical oral exam was somewhat less challenging than I expected.  I don't remember any tricky vocabulary issues, and if you're confident in your Spanish, my advice is to definitely focus on your interpreting skills for this exam rather than worry excessively about vocabulary. I'd recommend memory exercises for the consecutive portions and practicing a smooth, uninterrupted sight translation. The Interpreter's Rx is the perfect resource for this. If you are moderately confident with the material in The Interpreter's Rx, you will have no trouble passing this exam.

The Spanish social services oral exam was somewhat more challenging than expected. No devastatingly difficult vocabulary (although I definitely made up the word enforzamiento during the simultaneous portion! Yikes!). The difficulty was in the length of the consecutive segments. A stronger consecutive than for the medical was definitely required.

The French and German oral exams were moderately challenging, but mostly due to the rusty state of my French and German. I took these two orals immediately back-to-back, and because of  disuse, my brain was not prepared for German word order in the sight translation, and I definitely performed a choppy rendition into German, as I several times left verbs dangling until after an awkward pause.

What are some possible things to watch out for/potential surprises?

If you feel you're completely clueless about basic medical issues and conditions, I would suggest buffing up on this for the written portions. I was a little bit caught off guard by the specificity of certain answers that were required. For example (not a real exam question), do you just know that leukemia is a kind of cancer, or do you know specifically what kind of cancer it is? If you answer the former, you might be somewhat caught off guard. Reviewing Greek and Latin suffixes and prefixes would help with this.

Any bits of general advice?

Professionalism and confidence are huge. Give your rendition, and don't apologize, wince, or backtrack excessively if you make a mistake. Don't apologize if you need to use one of your repetitions. Just say, "The interpreter would like to request a repetition." The proctor who records you will in all likelihood not speak the target language. So rest easy, and don't forget to breath.

Like I said, please do let me know if you have any questions that weren't addressed above. I'm eager to help make this process as smooth as possible for other beginners. Thank you for reading and stay tuned for my next entry regarding court interpreter certification.