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How Do I Become a Certified Interpreter for the Federal Courts?

by Fred Decker, studioD

One fundamental principle of the justice system is that all the parties to a court case should be able to understand the proceedings. Since many cases involve people who don't speak English or speak it poorly, the legal system needs a supply of qualified interpreters. The federal court system has its own certification examinations for interpreters in Spanish, Navajo and Haitian Creole. Only the Spanish examinations are held regularly, on a two-year cycle.

Order the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination examinee handbook from the program's website, or request a printed copy by mail.

Complete the self-assessment section of the handbook, and take the 80 question practice exam. Evaluate your own abilities honestly, and decide if you're capable of passing the examination without further training.

Take additional language-training classes, if necessary, to bring your proficiency up to the level necessary for interpreting in the federal courts.

Apply and take the written exam. It's available only in even-numbered years, and consists of 100 multiple-choice questions that assess your understanding of English and Spanish. The passing mark is 75 percent, and unless you pass, you won't be permitted to take the oral exam.

Take and pass the oral exam, available only during odd-numbered years. It lasts 45 minutes, and requires you to provide sight translation and verbal interpretation between English and Spanish in both directions. The passing mark is 80 percent. If you pass, you'll be certified as a federal court interpreter.


  • Although certified interpreters in Navajo and Haitian Creole are still recognized, certification iwas not being offered as of 2013.
  • For languages other than Spanish, Navajo or Creole, the federal courts accept interpreters with other suitable credentials. If it's impossible to find a credentialed interpreter for a given language, federal courts have the discretion to use any person with an acceptable level of expertise in both languages.


  • If you don't pass the written examination, you'll have to wait two years before you can reapply. It's important to take the self-assessment seriously and be honest with yourself, so you can address any gaps in your understanding of English or Spanish before the examination.

About the Author

Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Photo Credits

  • Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images