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08/08/2014 9:07 PM | Anonymous


By Witold Napiorkowski, a State of Wisconsin Certified, Federally qualified, and Cook County, IL qualified Polish court interpreter

The issue of inter-state interpreter certification has been on the agenda for a while now. It has acquired a measure of new importance with the progress of the Cook County, Illinois court interpreter (CWA/CNG) contract negotiations. The interpreter negotiations team’s goal here is to (eventually) negotiate additional compensation for interpreters who acquire NCSC (National Center for State Courts – “the Consortium”) certified status. Though most of us are way beyond the test-taking public education phase of our lives, professional development is actually something that employment experts – as well as seasoned veterans – recommend, both for the sake of keeping skills as sharp as possible and maintaining healthy self-esteem, but also for “not losing the habit” of learning new things. It is hardly news to say that most professionals these days are facing a steady stream of new information which needs to be integrated into their job routines. In many professions, “continuing education credits” are a requisite to maintain job status. The only way to NOT see this as a burden is to enthusiastically embrace the boost in self-esteem that comes with acquiring new skills, and honing old ones.
Two-day orientation, then written and oral examinations.

The way to do this is to attend a two-day orientation and then “sit for” a written and an oral examination. In the case of Illinois court interpreters, since the test is still NOT being offered by the Illinois Court System – the exams may be taken in either Indiana or Wisconsin. It was my own fortunate – I maintain – choice to become more acquainted with the latter, this spring and summer.


The program (CIP – Court Interpreter Program) administered by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, is coordinated and animated with gusto by Ms. Carmel Capati, a Wisconsin attorney, who shows a calling and passion for languages and securing a level playing field for the non-English-speaking user of the justice system. Carmel makes the entire experience an uplifting one. This was especially so for a Cook County interpreter – almost accustomed to a certain casual LACK of respect for the profession in our own bailiwick. In this regard, participation in the Wisconsin program seems a breath of fresh Northwoods air.

STEP 1: Two-day orientation

Though I had signed up and paid the orientation fee in August-September of 2012, for personal scheduling reasons it only became possible to make the necessary time this last March. The two-day orientation I chose was offered in Milwaukee – on the campus of University of Wisconsin, held, as they always are, over a weekend. Happily, the I-94 drive from Chicagoland, on both Saturday and Sunday, winds up being user-friendly, and not a contributor to hypertension at all. Summer highway construction does need to be factored in, though. To anyone used to professional conferences, the setting of the training is immediately familiar. The 40 or so orientation attendees were set up in a large hotel lobby-like hall, with self-serve bagels, fruit and coffee in the back of the room, and an easy chat-with-thy-new-neighbor ambient atmosphere helping while away the 30 or so minutes before the official beginning of the presentations. I found a good geographic mix of attendees from all corners of Wisconsin, and several smaller towns in Illinois. Age groups varied widely indeed, as did professions. English-Spanish was, as ever, the dominant language combination. As it happened, I found not a single Polish co-linguist, but Korean, Arabic, Mandarin, Serbo-Croatian, Japanese, and even Albanian were represented. I sat next to Alex - a very sociable Arabic interpreter, an eager conversationalist, in his mid-40s, who drives a limo as his second job. A down-to earth regular-people kind of vibe each way you turned, certainly no excuse for anyone to feel timid. Topics of informal table discussion revolved around real-life real-people situations, foreign accents were many and some sported with relish.

Orientation: Well organized, interesting, and varied

One thing which made the time go by relatively fast was the careful structuring of both days to incorporate large group presentations, Q & A, and class debate, with breakout sessions addressing specific courtroom skills. The whole-group presentations delved into organizational rudiments of the US / Wisconsin state court systems, interpreter ethics, common challenging situations. Included were presentations by court personnel, a short lecture by a State of Wisconsin judge, a court clerk, as well as by other linguists from the UW faculty.

Breakout sessions: Vital skills practice, confidence booster

To this relatively old hand, the breakout sessions felt particularly worthwhile. These were typically composed of 6 – 8 people and led by a moderator. The particular group I wound up in was that of the “exotic” languages – in short, any languages other than Spanish and Mandarin. The animator of our group, seasoned Spanish court interpreter Enrique, proved himself to be the consummate professional, in language as well as in teaching and his “classroom management” skills. Each of us had ample time and opportunity to try our hand at both the consecutive and the simultaneous mode – in both routine and sudden challenging “out of left field” situations. A good measure of class comradeship built up, with some humor / lighthearted fun and creativity elicited. I found the exercises with consecutive note–taking and mnemonic techniques especially helpful, and remember later feeling grateful to Enrique for the practice at my oral exam in June. Retention of longer chunks of highly specific information is my special challenge, and it turned out I was not alone in this. Most of you know what I am referring to. Feeling lost in a sea of numbers and proper names, while keeping up with a fast-talking witness is not particularly relaxing or even motivating. In all, the two eight-hour classroom days went by surprisingly quickly and painlessly.

Wisconsin test-taking sites:

As for venues, it was good to attend the training in a none-too-distant location like Milwaukee, given that I was short of time, and appreciated not having to set up at a hotel. Of course the annual schedule provides for other locations – as far away as Appleton and Wausau, which can be a nice choice for a metro-Chicagoan looking for a chance to break away from chores and change of scenery for a weekend.

STEP 2: Written examination component: 2 options, or bothundefinedyour choice

Upon completion of the orientation the next phase of the process was the prequalifying written examination. There are actually two options given to prequalify. One is the long-form multiple choice exam consisting of 135 questions covering primarily English language proficiency – with reading comprehension and vocabulary/terminology most stressed – but also with components of knowledge about the court system and interpreter ethics. The amount of time afforded certainly felt generous, for answering and reviewing/changing the responses. The other qualifying option was a translation test INTO your target language (other than English) consisting of 10 short paragraphs. It is remarkable how many people opt for BOTH – since the process allows it, and – as a practical matter – receiving a passing grade on at least ONE of these is virtually guaranteed. Peace of mind for the more timid among us, and a straight path to the BIG ONE – the actual oral interpreting exam, offered on another date as the third and final stage in the process.

Exam payment tips

A practical note is in order here: The organizers stipulate that you MUST HAVE RECEIVED a passing grade on the written component to even REGISTER for the oral. In practice, 4-6 weeks of time is provided for the graders to return their evaluation. Given that the overall process is stretched out over time and can easily take 10 months or more – it is a good idea to have your check covering the next phase in the process ready at the close of each preceding stage. The grading CAN take 4-6 weeks, but grades can sometimes be turned in much earlier. Then, subject to availability of a spot, you can “jump ahead” and select the next available date, a welcome surprise for this rather impatient writer. I found always having payment at the ready to be a strategy worthy of recommending (checks/money orders are best). Pass/fail notices arrive in the mail promptly at the address you had given them at the outset (make sure, if you are moving, to provide both old and new address).

STEP 3: Oral examination component

Well, the days and weeks have flown by, and finally, you have arrived at the date of the BIG ONE. In the meantime, of course, you practiced your note-taking and recall skills, listened to the ACEBO tapes/discs several times over in your car (what else is there to do on our long commutes, right?). Crucially, you got PLENTY of sleep the night before – mindful that this exam relies heavily on recall skills – THE FIRST skill affected by lack of adequate rest – you allowed a cushion of time for traffic, baaaad GPS directions, and finding parking . The latter can be taxing in more ways than one (loud and proud Chicagoans take heed – downtown Madison is not a one-horse town, by any means). Face it – at this late hour you should not be frantically reviewing your study materials – you should be calmly focusing, humming quietly and “remembering to breathe.” This is a time to release your Inner Buddhist. Arriving stressed out, sweating and panting is for the sophomoric amateur – you, on the other hand, are a calm and collected pro, thinking ahead and taking your challenges in stride.

Relax, breathe deeply, and other useful test taking “tips”

So, you have found the exam room, signed in, and are now running on autopilot. The setting is relaxing, with adequate lighting and temperature. Your name is called, you greet the Proctor, and are given a couple of minutes to settle in and familiarize yourself with the microphones and lay of the land. Before you know it, the exam has started. Sight translation is the first component, one page into your target language, one into English. You gladly observe in passing that the 6 minute time limit on each is generous, and the first two minutes given to reading the text silently and making any margin notes have allowed you to wisely note any unfamiliar terms/phrases and make a decision about their treatment. Your confidence is boosted sufficiently to attack the consecutive section. You will need every ounce of it, and all the focus you can muster – for this is the toughie of the whole deal. You listen to the source sentences, give yourself a few seconds, then smoothly render into the target language. While listening you may be furiously taking notes – perhaps lagging behind a bit and reconstructing the content. You pat yourself on the back for having gotten that full night’s sleep, and keep focusing on what is AHEAD. Without sufficient focus, here is where it is easiest to make the point-costly mistakes – dates, family names, addresses, business names, professional titles. Your writing hand begins to smart a little from the death-grip on your pen or pencil, you cringe a bit at the items you inevitably missed, but still keep focused on the balls being pitched your way. Those of us NOT blessed with a steel-trap of a short-term memory need to fall back on a reliable fast note-taking system. Which I recommend anyone to spend some study-time developing in preparation. You take comfort in the 20% margin – you need an 80% overall grade to pass. If you had been diligently accumulating points on your written (you had!) and on the sight-translation component (you had better!), then you have a comfortable buffer, and just do your best on recalling and rendering content in the consecutive, without agonizing or stressing out. In fairness, the length of the sections is not excessive – less, as I recall than on the State Department’s oral exam, for instance. You do get two repetitions – which come in VERY handy, and which I used up rather early in the process.

Walk around, and breathe deeply!

Time flies by, and you are done with the consecutive (roughly 20+ minutes). I found it helpful to ask my friendly exam proctor for permission to walk around a little. Take deep, relaxing breaths. Physical motion in general can help to make your speech patterns more rhythmical, which in turn boosts confidence! You are likely quite keyed up, but some of that is actually an advantage for the simultaneous section – you will establish some automatism, and perhaps faster speed. Same concept – one part into English, the other into your chosen language. After just a few phrases, you find yourself going into “the zone” – routine and automation take over, and “take you home”. Rather than reflecting, you “just do it”, perhaps surprising yourself that you knew the terms that just “came to you” of themselves – more fruit of sound preparation and good rest. The walking around has helped you with breath control, you are in your element. Before you know it, there is silence on the tape, you look up to see the Proctor’s smiling face. You are DONE. You promise yourself that whatever the outcome, you DO NOT want to do this over in the near future. Your mind wanders toward a suitable treat, rewarding all the diligence and hard work. And well you deserve it, my Friend! Another Season, Another Hoop Jumped in the saga of Unending Professional Development. Yes, but why me? Well, (in deep baritones), dear Language Professional, “this is the life you chose….”


You have, till now, kept the entire project to a band of very close friends – no benefit in adding to the stress by advertising. But the wheels have been turning. They have looked up your (non-existent) rap sheet, and vetted your good character (of course it is good!). A short two months later, your name is in the Supreme Court of Wisconsin’s database and website of interpreters qualified to stand before their Supreme Court (and all their courts of common pleas you can name). Also importantly, you have done something for yourself, taken steps to increase your market value. Slowed the ageing of your brain’s synapses, struck a blow against early-onset Alzheimer’s (documented – simultaneous interpreting ranks among ten leading dementia-fighting professions). So in the intervening weeks – you won’t spend time fretting TOO much about failing or passing – this was a good wholesome exercise in its own right, something you needed for yourself. And for the standing of your much-underappreciated colleagues. And, surely, for those less fortunate ones who can use a leg up in the halls of justice – and whose voice sounds remarkably like your own .

Additional information

State of Wisconsin certification
(Click “WI court system”, then “Services”, then “For interpreters”)

State of Indiana certification

**Cook County interpreter certification cost partial reimbursement policy** Our Chicago Newspaper Guild (CNG/CWA) contract specifies that up to 10 interpreters per year (may be full-time or sessions employees, first come, first served) may seek partial reimbursement for certification costs. Proof of registration for orientation, and for each examination component, as well as successful exam scores (certificate) on written and oral exam components, must be presented on the 33rd floor of Daley Center, Human Resources. Ask for the 3 “professional development” pre-approval forms you must fill out. Or you may use the cost of becoming certified as a professional development tax credit.

Please note that the State of Indiana has its own orientation, testing, and certification costs. For further information, see the website referenced above.

With County reimbursement, what would your total State of Wisconsin certification costs be? Let’s do the math:

$175.00 2-day orientation
45.00 Written examination into your target language [if chosen]
0.00 Multiple choice exam on court procedures and ethics
225.00 Oral examination [simultaneous/consecutive/sight translation portions]

$300.00 CNG/CWA union contract specified County reimbursement
$145.00 Grand Total after County reimbursement

**To qualify for the reimbursement, you must strictly adhere to the application deadline and proof or registration/payment/passing scores, etc., specified by Human Resources in Daley Center [inquire at Reception, or ask to speak to Helen Barker**]. It is easy to get turned down for this reimbursement, though. There is still an open issue with the County about when to submit the reimbursement request. Technically, you are required to do it within 30 days of the “beginning of the course” (the reimbursement format is still for “educational courses”). Yet, you also need to submit a “certificate of completion”. Which works out as a sort of Catch-22, especially since the process is necessarily a drawn-out one in terms of time. The Union will be working on this with the County Administration.

Currently, the Cook County interpreters Contract negotiations team is attempting to negotiate higher pay rates for full-time and sessions employees who acquire State of Wisconsin, State of Indiana, or Federal certification. Stay tuned for progress in this area!


  • 08/16/2014 8:14 AM | Anonymous
    This is all great information--I concur with everything said. I am NCSC certified for French, and I would add that, if you're looking to get certified in a lesser-diffused language (such as French), finding resources to prepare for the oral exam can be a challenge. There are no ACEBO resources for French, so I had to "cobble together" my own "training program" resources, which I did with the help of the Canada courts websites that had some audio files of cases in both French and English, as well as other audio files from Internet. I used Audacity to record myself simultaneously or consecutively, depending on the type of hearing, as I listened to those sound files. I gleaned vocabulary lists from a number of websites and a few hard copy reference books.

    I would also add that, being on the WI courts roster has made me more visible for also getting medical and community interpreting jobs, and I'm hoping to get medical (CHI) certification in the near future. Good luck to everyone in completing the training and taking the exam!
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