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The Conundrum of Certification

The word "certification" is used frequently in the translation profession, and is often mentioned in news reports about interpreters, particularly for medical and court interpreters. However, the meaning of this word is quite vague, and its use may impact translators, interpreters, and their profession in unexpected ways.

As should be clear, there is no universally accepted form of certification or accreditation for translators or interpreters in the United States at present. Instead, a variety of different forms exist, from the ATA's certification exam for translators to various state and federal exams for medical and court interpreters, as well as certification in the abstract sense of the word, here meaning completion of a training program such as is offered at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Kent State University, or New York University, to name but a few. These programs offer various degrees and certification courses for translators and interpreters.

There is widespread recognition in the industry that a translator or interpreter with a Master's degree from the Monterey Institute or Kent State, or a certificate from NYU, is far more trained and qualified than someone with equal professional experience and the ATA certification. Although the ATA exam may have some value as a measure of a translator's ability, and is all but required for Spanish translators, it is generally regarded as limited, and by some as useless.

Other exams, including the State Department's exams for interpreters, the United Nations' exams for translators, and various state and federal exams for medical and court interpreters are used as a form of certification, though not officially. Translators and interpreters will note on their resumes such "certification", though everyone in the industry realizes that these exams are taken by experienced, seasoned professionals, and in some cases cannot be taken until one has several years of specialized experience. So passage of these exams can serve two purposes: recognition of ability in a given field and acknowledgement of experience in the profession. Employers naturally appreciate all this.

But we are seeing the start of local and regional certification for various specialties within translation and interpretation. At present it is most noticeable in the medical interpreting field, in which several states are now proposing or establishing exams to certify medical interpreters. Further, more states are creating or revamping court interpreter exams and standards. Although there is as yet no talk of similar exams for translators, the possibility certainly exists, and may well become a reality, at least in fields like medical and legal translation.

Such a development poses interesting questions. First, will certification be transferable? In other words, for instance, will an interpreter certified for medical work in one state be able to work in another state without taking a similar battery of exams? Second, will such certification be for life, or will continuing education, as required by the ATA for its certification, be required? Third, how will information about who is certified for what be distributed and kept accurate? Fourth, and most important, will employers care about such certification?

Ultimately, in the United States the market decides. Translators and interpreters are not allowed on their own to form unions or set rates for their work. The ATA is similarly prohibited from doing so, this a result of a Department of Justice ruling against the ATA over 10 years ago after it attempted to publish a list of recommended rates for translation. The motivation of the DoJ is unclear, since many other professions are allowed to organize, unionize, bargain collectively, and set or recommend rates for their members. However, the likely motivation is that the U.S. federal government is the world’s largest employer of translators, and a sudden unionization and its attendant bargaining power is too much to be allowed.

So translators and interpreters are left on their own, with a variety of possible routes to various forms of certification, and no way of knowing ahead of time which certification will be worth what in the industry in one, five, or ten years. Since certification is hardly free and has yet to be proven to lead to greater income or job stability, translators and interpreters are likely to shy away from the process unless it is absolutely required for their work. Since certification has yet to be shown to guarantee quality, at least outside of the realm of court interpreting, employers at present have little interest in it, though they have a deepening interest in hiring translators and interpreters with professional-level training of some form.

Where this will lead is anyone's guess. The Department of Justice ruling from the 1990s virtually guarantees that no national-level certification or accreditation system will emerge for translators or interpreters. At the same time, various states are implementing programs that, if mutually recognized across state boundaries, could become de facto national standards for particular fields of interpretation. So for now the best strategy for translators and interpreters is to build up a substantial resume that includes professional training and lots of experience, plus some continuing education in the form of coursework related to the subject areas they work in. As the market changes, this strategy may be replaced, but for now it is the one most likely to lead to greater income and job stability.

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