What Do Language Certifications Attest that a Person Can Do? - Translation Skills Training

What Do Language Certifications Attest that a Person Can Do?

The Versatile Verb “Dejar” – Part 1
December 29, 2018
The Versatile Verb “Dejar” – part 2
January 6, 2019

Bilingual people who are interested in monetizing their skills by professionalizing them need to consider how they intend to achieve this career goal.  The answer to this question involves self-reflection and serious examination of one’s bilingualism, coupled with brutal honesty.  Another consideration is lifestyle and how different types of language needs are met by different types of language specialists.  Once those questions are answered, a bilingual person can more easily seek the training and certification to open the door to the professional path in life he or she wants.

This Week’s Blog is intended to help bilingual people, language teachers, professors and career counselors by presenting an overview of professional language certifications, show how they differ and the types of careers they can lead to.  By way of contrast with other types of certifications for other purposes, at the end of this blog, we will present a very brief description of the training, testing and certifications developed by Translation Skills Training (TST) and administered under the auspices of Montclair State University (MSU) in New Jersey.

There are many types of professional language certifications.  They do not all certify that a bilingual person can do all the same things with their language skills.  In other words, they are not interchangeable; one professional language certification does not qualify its possessor to apply it to just any type of work requiring bilingualism.

This exploration of the bewildering geography of Babel begins from familiar territory.

The Advanced Placement Exam for Spanish Language and Literature, known as the AP, is not a certification.  I decided to begin discussing language certifications with this exam because it is one that many non-specialist readers will be familiar with, and thus provides a convenient terminus a quo for examining certifications.  As most readers know, either through their own high school experience or someone they know, there are many AP exams available on many subjects, all of which are taken after students have completed courses in their high school that qualify for the distinction of Advanced Placement, as you can see by exploring the right-hand column of this Wikipedia entry about the AP Spanish Exam.

From my 35+ years of experience as a university professor, I can say that successful scores on the AP (4 and 5), are strong indicators of student success in taking university-level Spanish courses.  Such students almost always bypass the first year of university language study and many can qualify to begin coursework, particularly literature course, at the third-year level.

Like the AP, the Diploma del Español como Lengua Extranjera, known as the DELE, is not a certification either.  It is truly a diploma – to attests that successful examinees are able to handle college-level work – in Peninsular (Spain) Spanish (yes, examinees must be able to understand and properly respond in contexts where vosotros and its related pronominal and verbal forms are used).  The DELE is an official diploma issued upon successful completion by the Instituto Cervantes, on behalf of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science.

The DELE is comparable to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) because of its primary function.  Like the TOEFL in the USA, a strong performance on the DELE is required of foreigners seeking admission into Spain’s universities when they come from countries where the national language is not Spanish.  The DELE, then, is a university-level exam, not a high school one and examinees must be at least 16 years old to take it.  The DELE is a lengthy exam, taking up a whole day.  It covers all the basic skills: grammar, reading comprehension, written composition (in addition to essays, examinees must write a business letter), listening comprehension (to a recording of a radio broadcast) and finally (at the end of the day), speaking, which is interactive and done in front of a panel of judges.  Since the DELE is designed to determine if a person can handle college-level work in Spanish, the speaking portion simulates a somewhat relaxed classroom setting.

The Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), developed by and administered under the auspices of the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) provides a rating of an individual’s speaking proficiency.  As its name states, the exam is conducted in the form of an interview, are about 15-20 minutes long and generally live, either face-to-face or, more frequently, over the phone.  The OPI ratings adhere strictly to the proficiency guidelines established by the Interagency Language Roundtable and are recognized by entities in the public and private sectors.  For this reason, those who obtain OPI ratings, particularly ratings above the Intermediate range, are wise to include it on their résumés.

To many examinees, the OPI feels like a slightly odd conversation, because the interviewer has the not-so-subtle motive of discovering examinees’ points of linguistic breakdown – the moment when they are no longer able to use their second language to perform certain types of linguistic tasks in response to prompts designed to elicit them.  For instance, when the interview is to determine Spanish fluency, a strong command of past tenses is important for narration (as it is in English for Analytic Linguists when they must write a summary of a monitored call).  If an examinee cannot manage the subtleties of the preterit and imperfect, this would indicate a moment of linguistic breakdown.  The topics of the interview change often, loop back and dig deeper here and there.  The rankings are given names, corresponding to the ILR numbering system and include sublevels, such as “Intermediate plus” (equal to ILR 2+).  ACTFL also has developed a computer interface to simulate interaction with a live, human interviewer.

In passing, please note that other languages have entities with comparable exams and which offer instruction, such as those given for French by the L’Alliance Française and for German by the Goethe-Institut.  Having looked at three very important and well known types of instruments for assessing language proficiency for the purpose of continuing study in or about Spanish, we can begin looking at genuine, professional language certifications.

Before examining them, we must make a few observations about the common but simplistic notion that there are only two types of language professionals: interpreters and translators.  Despite its simplicity, this distinction is a convenient place to start because many people use those terms interchangeably (even language professionals, in casual conversation often are guilty of this confusion).  It is easy and quite accurate to point out that interpreters work with spoken language and translators work with printed texts.  However, the subject matter, the protocols and conventions of spoken and written language vary greatly, depending on the content and the context (social and professional) in which language is used.  Consider how physicians at a bar talking with friends about a health problem, or lawyers in a similar setting talking about legal issues, are not going to use the same type of language as they must when they write professional articles, argue a case in a courtroom or give a presentation at a professional conference.

It is so frequently observed as to be accurate to say that few people are both interpreters and translators.  Most people prefer one over the other or, when asked, will say that the choice is a matter of temperament at least as much as it is of talent.  Not surprisingly then, interpreters tend to be sociable, extroverted and willing to take risks.  Translators tend to like to work alone, although they may otherwise be extroverted.  Translators do not like to take risks and are more bookish than most interpreters, at least where their professional work is concerned.

In terms of their professional significance for language professionals, professional certifications for language specialists are analogous to the exams taken by accountants who seek the prestigious designation of Certified Public Accountant (CPA).   As professional designations which are recognized, whether by law or by wide-spread prestige, they assure clients that the person under consideration for a job requiring certain level(s) of language skills is qualified to do the kind of work expected.  Since there are so many different social and professional settings in which specific types of expert language skills are required, different types of certifications have been developed, by various types of organizations of language professionals.  Logically, the exams these organizations have developed focus on, or emphasize the language skills most needed for their specific types of work.

Many foreigners are surprised (or amused) to find out that in the USA, although interpreters in federal and state courts and most medical interpreters have to be certified, translation and interpretation outside these areas is mostly unregulated by law.

The number of languages for which different testing entities have exams is impressive and growing, but there are some Languages of Lesser (or Limited) Diffusion (LLD) that have no exam yet and even a few on which even experts on those languages have not come to agreement regarding proficiency standards.  Not all testing organizations have the same lists of languages beyond the major world languages.  So, with no particular order or ranking, following is a list of the most common professional organizations of, and certifications for, language professionals in the USA:

American Translators Association (ATA)

As its name states, the American Translators Association (ATA) certifies translators, not interpreters.  It is important to point out that an ATA certification does not attest to a person being a capable literary translator (although the translation of a literary piece is an option among the several types of texts that examinees must select when they take the exam).  ATA translators are almost all technical translators, and most specialize in a handful of areas of expertise, such as for legal, financial, or medical purposes.  An ATA certification attests that an individual has proven, by examination, his or her ability to translate in one specific language combination and direction, e.g., from English into Spanish.  If the same person wishes to obtain certification for translation from Spanish into English, he or she must take the ATA designed for that combination and direction.  The ATA describes its rigorous certification process here.  In a way similar to many professional certifications, the ATA also requires certified members to accumulate 30 continuing education credits during successive three-year periods until age 60, after which, they are no longer required to do so.

National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT)

In like manner, the name of the National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) tells us that it certifies people as either (or both) interpreters and translators – and only for language work related to the law.  NAJIT describes the profession it serves thus: “The profession of judiciary interpreting and translating is set apart, and covers those professionals who work either in the court room interpreting legal proceedings, or those professionals who in quasi-judicial settings or out-of-court settings on legal cases or in law-enforcement situations.

“Court and legal interpreters are set apart because of the stringent ethical and professional standards they must meet.  These professionals are highly skilled individuals who fulfill an essential role in the administration of justice.  Limited-English-proficient (LEP) defendants, litigants, victims, and witnesses depend upon their services.  Court Interpreters must be impartial officers of the court, with a duty to serve the judicial process.”

NAJIT notes that “many states and the federal government have established certification requirements for professional court and legal interpreters.  These programs usually require interpreters to take a certification examination and to regularly take professional training in both interpretation techniques and ethics.”  The various types of exams that NAJIT uses are described here.

Medical Interpreters

Medical Interpreters naturally tend to work in hospital settings and, as interpreters, generally have no role in the translation of medical documents of any kind, although they frequently sight translate patients’ medical records for them (meaning that they read a medical record in English and tell a patient what it says in the patient’s language).  Medical interpreters tend to work as language liaisons between medical personnel, administrators and patients and their families.  Many states require certification in order to work in this sensitive line of language work, in which privacy laws must be strictly followed.  Certifications for this career tend to be similar to the one required in Washington State.

Working as medical interpreter can be quite lucrative; the work often involves travel and an unpredictable schedule, although some medical interpreters work remotely via phone or video remote interpreting (VRI).  Professional, certified medical interpreters also need to satisfy continuing education requirements.

Federal Court Interpreters

Interpreters who wish to work in federal courts must pass the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination (FCICE).  This exam was developed by the Arizona Federal Court Interpreter Project.   According to the US Courts website,  “The Court Interpreters Act, 28 U.S.C. §1827 provides that the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts shall prescribe, determine, and certify the qualifications of persons who may serve as certified interpreters.”  The history of the FCICE may be traced directly to the linguistic research of Dr. Roseann Dueñas González at the University of Arizona.  After the passage of the Court Interpreters Act in 1978, her work “became the foundation of federal court interpreter testing by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC),” and the National Center for Interpretation was founded soon thereafter, in 1979.  This exam is known as one of the most feared of interpreter certification exams because few people pass it, at least not on the first attempt.

State Court Interpreters

In addition to the federal court interpreter certification, there are also state-level certifications for court interpreters, such as the one obtained through California’s Court Interpreters Project (CIP).  The National Center for State Courts provides information about requirements in other states.   In several states, interpreters must be certified at both federal and state levels.

Translation Skills Training™ (TST)

Finally, this overview brings us to the training and testing developed by Translation Skills Training (TST).  TST’s certification is similar to some of the professional certifications, yet it differs in significant and very important ways.  For one thing, in order to become certified, prospective Analytic Linguists must successfully complete TST’s demanding course of study; no one can simply show up to take an exam, although it does have other exams for in-service (practicing) Analytic Linguists).  TST’s exams have been independently evaluated by psychometric experts and found to have an Alpha Reliability of 0.943 (on an ascending scale of 0 > 1).  TST is on a federal agency’s list of testing providers.

The Advanced Professional Analytic Linguist and the Professional Analytic Linguist certificates are issued by Montclair State University (MSU) in New Jersey, under whose auspices, the training, testing and certifications developed by TST are administered.  Currently, this training only is available to bilingual speakers of English and Spanish.

What makes TST’s training and testing unique is that it is unique!  No other program in the world trains and tests students, and then certifies that they have mastered the precise constellation of skills needed by Analytic Linguists who work in wire rooms in support of criminal investigations.  These skills naturally include translation skills – but not for translating the types of documents generally encountered by ATA-certified technical translators.  Graduates of TST’s program through MSU will be dealing with the language of the mean streetsAnalytic Linguists need to know how to properly transcribe this speech and other details about forensic transcription (i.e., verbatim written records of court-ordered non-consensual oral communication intercepts) and how to write precise, useful summaries in English of calls they are monitoring in Spanish – in real time.

One feature of TST’s training that makes it unique is that in order to develop its curriculum, TST had to re-examine and enhance the ILR rubrics for translation because the ILR assumes the existence of a written document (such as a novel or a letter) in the production of which, the translator has had no involvement.  TST’s course developers observed that the ILR had not addressed how a written document comes to be.  In the case of the work of Analytic Linguists, these documents are the very transcriptions the Analytic Linguists produce from audio or audiovisual recordings.  The skills necessary to produce transcriptions were identified and rubrics created to address each of them.  Furthermore, the transcriptions produced by Analytic Linguists working in wire rooms are not literary documents, yet they often do contain “colorful language” laden with rhetorical devices common to poetry (odd as that may seem).  Some of the language Analytic Linguists hear as they monitor calls is of such a nature that it cannot be aired on television at any time of the day or night.  Lastly, the work of Analytic Linguists who work full time in Spanish and English is lucrative, according to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics (scroll down to “interpreters and translators”).

It is hoped that this brief overview has cleared up any confusion that readers may have had about the kinds of careers that bilingual people can pursue, depending on the type certifications they earn.  Be sure to click on the many links in this blog for more in-depth coverage about them.  For information about specific companies that hire bilingual individuals with these various types of certifications, searches on Google will yield many results.

So if you or someone you know is bilingual, there is a career waiting – provided that ability gets certified in some way.  Those who are thinking of making a career out of their bilingualism should consider their interests and talents honestly and imagine the possibilities.  It is exciting to cultivate such a birthright, so be sure to return to our homepage and explore some more.

© 2019, Translation Skills Training (TST).

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: linkedin.com/in/ewvogt32 or tst-online.us/about-us

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