So it's a 7 day countdown to the court interpreter oral examination of the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts. I passed the written exam in April of this year and have been preparing someone feverishly for the oral component on October 16 (in one week). I'd like to write about my experiences with the written examination and also about my preparation methods for the oral.

Here's a brief summary of how the exam series (written + oral) works in Washington: each component is offered once a year. You must pass the written to take the oral. During the orientation for the oral exam, we were told that this year the written exam had a pass rate of 35%, and that last year's past rate for the oral exam was 10%. If my math is correct, this puts the total pass rate at around 3.5%. Yikes. It cost me $75 to register for the written, and $300 for the oral.

To start off on a personal note, state court certification has been long entrenched in my psyche as a mythical behemoth of an exam. I hadn't even remotely considered registering, until one of my friend's at a local agency told me of the upcoming written component, and encouraged me to apply. Since it wasn't a hefty sum, I thought I'd go for it, at least to start to dip my toe into the legal pool. Court interpreters in my mind were at the very least superhuman, possibly demigods. And while I may not pass the oral exam on the first try, long story short, I'd like to explain how I've moved from seeing this exam as being a distant possibility in a future light years away, to actually viewing it as a conquerable challenge.

The written exam is monolingual and the same no matter what language combination you will be testing in for the oral. We were tested on ethics, general vocabulary, idioms, synonyms/antonyms, and legal terminology in multiple choice formats. My general impression is that the written exam was designed with the assumption that the majority of those taking it would be ESL speakers. Consequently, the goal is to assess for a high competency in English. In light of this, I don't think the written exam is especially challenging for most educated native English speakers. If an ESL speaker passes, he/she would be demonstrating from the outset an extraordinary command of his/her second language. For native English speakers, the display of bilingual skills will only manifest at the oral component.

All that to say, if you are a native English speaker considering court certification, have a look at some of the materials and the preparation manual on the AOC website. I attended a 2-day orientation for the written exam, but did no personal study or preparation outside of this, and passed without any problems. If you are a non-native speaker of English, I'm afraid I cannot advise you based on any personal experience.

After I passed the written, I began searching for study materials for the oral. I settled on an online courses from SCSI Media, an interpreting school based in Southern California. The SCSI court interpreter program has 4 units, designed to be taken over the course of about 12 weeks each, so basically a 9-month course. Now, I only received the results for my written exam at the end of May, which means I've had June, July, August, September, and half of October to prepare. What with working, it has not been feasible for me to go faster than the recommended speed for the course, so essentially I will be taking the oral exam after completing only half of this preparation course, that is to say 2 units.

The SCSI course has been invaluable in stretching and pushing me toward the skill level required to pass the exam. I've been very pleased in the structure and and quality of the course, and must credit SCSI for 90% of my preparation. It was demonstrated quickly that the legalese you encounter in a court room is actually fairly repetitive, and once the vocabulary hurdle was surpassed, I was able to see how the lion's share of preparation for this exam revolves around developing the necessary interpreting skills. I could have impeccable bilingual skills but still fall flat on my face when it comes to interpreting 160+ words a minute of advisement of rights or jury instructions, or remembering witness testimony segments of 50+ words. I've come to see this higher level of interpreting ability as much akin to learning an instrument. To play the piano at all you need hands. Though to play a piece beautifully, you need practice and repetition. In this comparison, your language skills are your hands, and the practice and repetition, as with an instrument, are what create solid performance. Before I started preparing, I would attempt to interpret material of this nature and level, fail miserably, and conclude that it was purely because my language skills were not up to par. I've realized that it has mostly to do with practice, practice, practice.

The SCSI course required probably about a 6-10 hour commitment per week. I wish there were more time between the written and oral to complete the final two units of the course, but I'll have to make do with the material up to this point. At the very least I feel it's given me a solid foundation to continue to pursue court certification if I do not pass the first time.

Additionally, over the past 4 months, I've tried to pay a weekly visit to the courthouse to pop in on proceedings and see how my preparation has been paying off. After observing live arraignments, pre-trial hearings, preliminary hearings, probation violation hearings and the like, I've found that what seem nightmarishly impossible 5 months ago, is actually now somewhat manageable. I'd highly recommend courtroom visits to anyone preparing for the exam. I just dress somewhat sharply, sit somewhere inconspicuous in the gallery, take out my notebook to jot down new vocabulary, and if the acoustics permit, interpret the proceedings silently to myself. In this time I've also had the privilege of observing Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and ASL interpreters at work, which has been a great inspiration and motivation.

I've also made occasional use of Acebo's The Interpreter's Edge and accompanying CDs, mostly to practice sight translation. The SCSI course gave me more than enough material for simultaneous and consecutive.

My advice to others in a similar position, that is, those interpreting in medical and community contexts, is to pursue court certification with approximately 1 year of preparation in mind. If you are succeeding and already confident in medical/social service settings, I don't think there's any reason why court certification isn't achievable. Don't make the silly assumption I did, that because you can't interpret proceedings of 180 wpm from the get-go, that you just need better language skills. True, we can always be improving our language skills, but I've found two of my favorite German proverbs very applicable for me during these months of preparation: Übung macht den Meister (practice makes the master), and Es ist noch kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen (No master has yet fallen from the sky).

Thank you for reading and please feel free to comment or ask any questions below.