Everyone Wants Certification, But It's Not That Easy

By Katharine Allen

Interpreters and translators in education want to professionalize. The school districts that hire them want proof of their competence. The most understood and accepted way for any professional to prove their skill set is to be able to say, "I am certified."

It seems natural, then, to put the creation of a national certification at the top of AAITE's to-do list. If only it were that simple.

This article walks us through what interpreter and translator certification is, what it takes to create a certification process, and how AAITE is approaching this essential building block in the professionalization of educational interpreters and translators.

What Is Certification?

First, let’s get our terms straight. There is a lot of confusion about what a certification actually is. The National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare defines certification as:
A process by which a governmental or professional organization attests to or certifies that an individual is qualified to provide a particular service. Certification calls for formal assessment, using an instrument that has been tested for validity and reliability, so that the certifying body can be confident that the individuals it certifies hold the qualifications needed to do the job. Sometimes called qualification [emphasis added]. www.ncihc.org
Certification can be offered through a government body, nationally or at the state or local level. It can also be run through a professional association or organization accredited to administer the certification test. In the U.S, interpreter and translator certifications are mostly offered through organizations, though several are offered through state governments.
 One step beyond certification is licensure. Where certification attests to a person's abilities to perform the required professional skill set, licensure confers the legal ability to practice a profession. For example, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists and accountants all need a license to be able to legally practice in the United States. In contrast, while hospitals may prefer hiring a certified medical interpreter, there is no law prohibiting them from hiring interpreters who are not certified. Our profession is not regulated. Not yet.

Interpreter and Translator Certifications in the U.S.

Valid certification exams for interpreters include (assuming English as the other working language):

For translators, the American Translators Association offers the sole nationally-recognized certification in the United States.

What Gives Certification Exams Validity?

The exams listed above are all, for the most part, nationally recognized certification processes. But of all these nationally-recognized certifications, only CCHI is "using an instrument that has been tested for validity and reliability" by a recognized external authority. The CoreCHI™ and CHI™-Spanish exams are currently the only interpreting certifications that have been accredited by the NCCA (National Commission for Certifying Agencies).(2)

Most established professions have certification or licensure exams that are themselves validated by a third party. NCCA is such a third party.

"NCCA accredited programs certify individuals in a wide range of professions and occupations including nurses, automotive professionals, respiratory therapists, counselors, emergency technicians, crane operators and more. To date, NCCA has accredited more than 315 programs from more than 130 organizations.

Accreditation for professional or personnel certification programs provides impartial, third-party validation that your program has met recognized national and international credentialing industry standards for development, implementation, and maintenance of certification programs." (https://www.credentialingexcellence.org/ncca)

What does it mean that the CCHI certification is itself accredited? A certification exam validated through accreditation means that the exam assesses the individual’s skills according to validated criteria established to practice the profession. For example, this means that when candidates pass an exam testing consecutive interpreting skills, they have proven their ability to actually interpret in consecutive mode.

Confused? Think of it this way. Many organizations still, to this day, will determine a job candidate's proficiency in another language through an interview process conducted by another bilingual employee. They may even have a language test that was developed in-house. But what scoring criteria is being used and does it mean anything?

If Test A results say, “Qualified” while Test B results say “Certified” and Test C says, “Scored 80%/Pass” and Test D says “Level 2” and Test E says “9 on a scale of 12," we have no idea if these results are somewhat equivalent or completely different—even for the same candidate who chose to take all these tests.

Unless the interview process or in-house test follows some kind of validated and researched criteria for what "proficient" means, the test has little to no prospect of reliably identifying their true degree of bilingual skill.

You might think, so what? The credibility and validity of the tests we take to measure our skills matter. We expect the doctors we see to treat us with proven medical expertise. We trust that the teachers who instruct our children have the pedagogical skills to do so, and we pay accountants for their expertise in navigating complicated tax codes. Furthermore, we expect their expertise to be at the same level whether they practice in California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Puerto Rico or New York.

For interpreting and translation to be seen as the knowledge-based practice professions they are, our practitioners have to be able to provide reliably consistent linguistic services across different language pairs and in the varied environments where they work.

Certification for Interpreters and Translators Is Complicated

Valid certifications for interpreters and translators have to encompass a more complex and varied landscape than most professions. Our fields in the U.S.:
  • have hundreds of language combinations

  • have multiple specializations (medical, legal, conference, educational, business, etc.)

  • are embedded in the industries where practitioners work

  • are governed by a patchwork of federal and state laws

  • have no universal pathway to skill acquisition (through training or academia)

  • have no single set of generalist requirements, qualifications or certification (except for American Sign Language)

Dr. Bill Rivers, language policy expert, wrote in a recent white paper on language access in California:

Moreover, the development of occupationally valid certification tests requires a sample of at least 100 examinees, in order to validate the test, and often requires more than $250,000 per test. As more than 350 languages are spoken in the US, the costs for developing certifications in every language and every domain (legal, medical, and others) is prohibitive, and for many languages there are not enough interpreters and translators available to validate a test. It is simply not feasible to test and certify every language needed.(3)

In other words, the multilingual nature of our professions, in and of itself, presents one of the biggest challenges to creating a widely-available, credible certification instrument.

Furthermore, we are just beginning to understand the essential skills interpreters and translators in education should have to competently do their jobs. All settings have their challenges, but the K-12 school environment stretches any linguist to their limits.

Educational interpreters have to, at the very least:

  • expertly perform the consecutive, simultaneous and sight translation modes.

  • know how to interpret in teams.

  • manage the communication flow for small and large group meetings.

  • interpret public meetings and press conferences.

  • apply community, medical and conference interpreting ethics.

  • understand the legal, policy, community and social underpinnings of the U.S. education system, including special education mandates and disciplinary policies.

  • balance conflicting professional roles (if they are bilingual employees).

  • increasingly, provide interpreting services remotely and manage the required technology.

Educational translators handle topics that cover almost anything - from basic informational flyers to complex developmental and medical information to highly-legal special education, school disciplinary and educational law materials. If working onsite, they have to coordinate the complex document production at schools to ensure that limited-English-speaking families receive access to the information essential to their children's education. Translators also translate social media posts and handle messaging between school staff and families and community members.

This analysis does not mean certification for interpreters and translators in education is an impossible dream, far from it. But to be done right, it cannot be achieved overnight.

AAITE's Approach to Certification

Since mid-2019, everyone involved in AAITE (formerly the ITE Workgroup) has been focused on a single goal - to professionalize interpreters and translators in education.


We knew from the outset that others have walked this path before us, most recently, healthcare interpreters. We took the time to understand which building blocks are needed to credibly professionalize interpreting and translation in education. They include:

  • agreement on the interpreter's and translator's professional role

  • a comprehensive code of ethics

  • standards of practice

  • standards for training

  • certification

That analysis led to the establishment of the Job Task Analysis (JTA) Committee and the Ethics and Standards Committee. While our Bylaws and Leadership Committees focused for months on the organization-building tasks necessary to found the AAITE, the JTA and Ethics committees have been conducting research on a national level to understand what educational interpreters and translators actually do on the job.


A Job Task Analysis is:

An analysis that draws on multiple sources of data to establish the Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, and Tasks (KSATs) that interpreters must possess or meet in order to competently discharge the responsibilities of their position. (National Center for Interpretation, University of Arizona)


Correspondingly, the JTA Committee's mission is "to conduct a national analysis of the duties, responsibilities, and working conditions of interpreters and translators who provide language and communication access in education to students and their families, and to offer guidance based on the results."


As a first step in obtaining this data, the JTA Committee conducted a comprehensive survey of job descriptions for interpreters and translators in school districts across the country.


The graphic below provides a sample of the kind of data the committee has gathered:


As you can see, even this preliminary data helps us better understand the primary settings and key interpreter skills in educational interpreting. It might surprise many, for example that special education meetings do not make up the majority of interpreting encounters.


The Ethics and Standards Committee's mission is "to lead a national analysis of existing code of ethics and standards of practices in education for interpreters and translators, and offer recommendations to the AAITE Board of Directors towards the adoption of a code of ethics and standards of practices tailored to the professional responsibilities of interpreters and translators in education in the United States."


In other words, before we can put forth a credible code of ethics, we need to define the scope of ethical practice relevant for educational interpreters and translators. To that end, our Ethics and Standards Committee has been working to understand the requirements of educational settings. This graphic shows the series of steps it is following to gain this understanding.


The Path Forward

AAITE is dedicated to creating, at a national level, the resources individual practitioners need, from ethics, standards of practice, training and conferences, to networking, advocacy and connecting to work opportunities. An important part of this work is to build relationships with key stakeholders, associations and groups to effectively advocate for more recognition and better working conditions.


A house needs a foundation and frame before the roof goes on. Step by step, we are building the foundation for a creating a viable, credible and comprehensive certification process that reflects the skills and professional conduct truly needed in K-12 education settings.

(1) Allen, Katharine and Bancroft, Marjory. (2015). Chapter 1: Introduction to Community Interpreting. In M. A. Bancroft (Ed.), The Community Interpreter®: An International Textbook (p. 65). Columbia, Maryland: Culture & Language Press.

(2) The National Board Certification (CMI) was previously accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). In January 2018, the National Board elected to no longer pursue accreditation by the NCCA for the National Board's Spanish language medical interpreter oral certification.

(3) Protecting Language Access in California: Professionalism, Certification, and Standards for Translators and Interpreters, by Dr. Bill Rivers, PhD, 2020. Retrieved from: http://coalitionptic.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Rivers-On-Certification-White-Paper-.pdf

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