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How to Become a Qualified Court Interpreter in Iowa

A. Overview: Qualities of a Competent Court Interpreter

Qualified and skilled court interpreters play a critical role in the Iowa courts’ mission to provide access to justice equally to all persons, including those with limited English proficiency (LEP).  Judges and juries need to obtain a complete and accurate interpretation of what LEP parties and witnesses say in a courtroom, and the LEP parties and witnesses also need an accurate and complete interpretation of what judges, attorneys, and witnesses say. Errors and omissions by a court interpreter can lead to errors in a judge’s or a jury’s understanding of statements by LEP witnesses or parties, which can lead to errors in decisions by judges and juries.  For example, an LEP criminal defendant could be wrongfully convicted or wrongfully acquitted.  The stakes are very high indeed.

To achieve a level of expertise to interpret completely and accurately, without adding, changing, or omitting the meaning of words or phrases in court, an interpreter should have the following knowledge and skills:

  • Native-like mastery of both English and a second language
  • Wide general knowledge -- characteristic of a person with at least two years of college
  • Extensive vocabularies - including legal terms and slang -- in two languages
  • Excellent memory skills, plus mental and verbal agility
  • At least some training and experience 

Only certified court interpreters have demonstrated this level of interpreting knowledge and ability by passing a nationally-recognized interpreting exam.Unfortunately, certified interpreters are not available for every language for which interpreters are needed in court, so the Iowa Supreme Court established minimum qualifications (see section B) and intermediate qualifications (see section C) for interpreters.

Section 47.2 of the Iowa Court Rules establishes the minimum qualifications for court interpreters (see section C, below), but the courts aspire to appoint interpreters with more education and other qualifications than just the minimum qualifications.Iowa Court Rules in 47.3(4) and 47.3(5) establish multiple classifications for both oral and sign language interpreters. See the tables in section G, below.

B. Application, Orientation Program Registration, and Test Registration forms

After reading sections C and D (below), persons who believe they are qualified to interpret in Iowa’s court must submit an application to be an oral or sign language court interpreter by using the appropriate form below:

  1. Application to be an Oral Language Court Interpreter (PDF)
  2. Application to be a Sign Language Court Interpreter (PDF)

    Oral and sign language interpreters who wish to be listed on the Iowa courts’ official Roster of Court Interpreters must complete an orientation program and pass two multiple-choice exams in English: 

  3. Registration for the Court Interpreter Orientation Program – see the Iowa Interpreters and Translators Association website
  4. Registration form for the written exams for court interpreters (PDF)

    Oral language interpreters who wish to be listed on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters must also pass an oral proficiency interview (OPI) test of listening and speaking skills in their non-English language:

  5. Registration Form for the ALTA Listening and Speaking Exam (PDF)

    For more information about the ALTA exam, click here: ALTA exam information

    Oral language interpreters with exceptional skills should also take the oral interpretation exam for court interpreter certification:

  6. Registration for the Oral Exam for Court Interpreter Certification (PDF)

    See section E, below

C. Minimum Qualifications to be a Court Interpreter in Iowa

When there are no certified court interpreters available, and no interpreters available who have completed at least sufficient training and testing to be on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters (see section D, below), Iowa’s courts seek interpreters who meet at least the following minimum qualifications established in Iowa Court Rule 47.2.“Unclassified” interpreters meet only these minimum qualifications:

  1. Age: Be at least 21 years old.
  2. Education:  Have the equivalent of two years or 48 credit hours of college courses, or have completed the requirements to qualify for the Iowa Roster of Court Interpreters (see section D,  below). 
  3. Application form:  Have completed an official Application to be an Oral (or Sign) Language Court Interpreter - where interpreters provide information on their education and other qualifications to be court interpreters.  (See the section B, above for an application form.)
  4. Oath:  Sign an oath to abide by the Code of Professional Conduct for Judicial Branch Interpreters (Chapter 48 of the Iowa Court Rules); the oath is included at the end of the application to be a court interpreter (available in section B, above). 
  5. Background check:  Interpreters must complete a Release/Waiver" Form -- included with the interpreter application form -- to authorize the Office of Professional Regulation to conduct the criminal history search. NOTE: Persons convicted of a felony, or convicted of any less serious crime that involves dishonesty or moral turpitude, are prohibited from interpreting in Iowa's courts unless the Office of Professional Regulation (OPR) determines otherwise. 
  6. Guide for Iowa Court Interpreters

D. Requirements for Being on the Iowa's Roster of Court Interpreters

The Iowa courts seek to employ interpreters who meet more than just the minimum qualifications listed above.  In an effort to improve the quality of court interpreting, Iowa established training and testing requirements for interpreters to be listed on the Iowa courts’ roster of court interpreters (see Iowa Court Rule 47.6). In addition to meeting the minimum requirements (see section C, above), an interpreter must complete the following requirements to be listed on the Iowa’s roster of court interpreters:

  1. Court interpreter orientation program:  Both oral language and sign language interpreters must complete a two-day court interpreter orientation program, which is offered twice each year (spring and fall) in Des Moines.  The program is typically conducted by two very experienced certified court interpreters.  Registrations are coordinated by the Iowa Interpreters and Translators Association (https://iitanet.org/). Aspiring court interpreters should attend an orientation program as soon as possible after submitting an Application to be a Court Interpreter (available in section B, above).  Interpreters must attend an orientation program before they can take the written tests for court interpreters (below). 
     
  2. Pass three exams for court interpreters [see section B, above, to obtain test registration forms.]  
    Both oral language interpreters and sign language interpreters must pass written Exams 1 and 2:
    1. Exam 1 (written) – Achieve a score of at least 80 percent correct on the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) standard multiple-choice exam (in English) with a total of 135 questions. It tests an interpreter's knowledge of general English vocabulary, slang, legal terminology, and court-related issues.
      Interpreters who have passed the NCSC’s multiple-choice exam with 135 questions in another state have fulfilled that requirement for being listed on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters, but they still need to pass the ethics test and meet the other requirements to be listed on Iowa’s roster.
    2. Exam 2 (written) -- Achieve a score of at least 75 percent correct on a multiple-choice exam (25 questions) on court interpreter ethics.
    3. Exam 3 (oral) – Only oral language interpreters must take ALTA Language Services’ oral proficiency interview (OPI), which is a test of speaking and listening skills. An interpreter must achieve a score of at least 11 on a scale of 12.  For more information on this exam, see section B.5, above.
    4. Attend six hours of continuing education each year after being listed on the roster of court interpreters. (See the Information for Current Court Interpreters on the information page)

E. Certification for Court Interpreters

Pursuant to the Iowa Court Rules 47.3(4) and (5), Iowa’s courts will appoint a certified court interpreter, if one is reasonably available, before they will appoint a noncertified interpreter. Certified court interpreters also receive a significantly higher hourly fee than noncertified interpreters. 

  1. Certification of oral language interpreters  
    Oral language interpreters in Iowa can take the interpretation exam for court interpreter certification in Iowa only if they have met the requirements to be listed on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters – or – equivalent requirements in another state (see section D., above).  An interpreter can meet the oral language interpreter certification test requirement by passing an exam developed by: the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), the Federal Court Interpreter Program, or the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). See Iowa Court Rule 47.4(1).

    Iowa’s Office of Professional Regulation administers the National Center for State Courts’ (NCSC) oral interpretation exams for court interpreter certification, which are currently available in 20 different languages. The oral exams are conducted twice each year in Iowa, usually in May and September.  For the certification exam schedule, see the Information for Current Court Interpreters page.

    The NCSC’s oral interpretation certification exam contains three components:

    Oral interpretation of two written documents (one in English and one in the interpreter’s other language)
    Consecutive interpretation of digitally recorded witness testimony 
    Simultaneous (continuous) interpretation, typically involving a digitally recorded attorney’s closing argument or other continuous statement in court.

    To pass the oral language certification exam in Iowa, an interpreter must correctly interpret at least 70 percent of the “scoring units” (words and phrases pre-selected by language testing professionals) in each section of the exam – during a single test session.  Test scoring is done by certified court interpreters trained by the NCSC to be certification exam evaluators. 

    Note:  This is a difficult exam.  Nationwide only eight to twenty percent of interpreters who take the NCSC’s oral interpretation exams for court interpreter certification pass the exam, depending on the language.

    Some states that offer the NCSC’s oral interpreter certification exams allow interpreters to pass the three parts of the exam in multiple test sessions within a limited period of time (e.g., an interpreter takes all three parts, but pass only one part at that time; the interpreter must take and pass the remaining parts of the exam within six months).  If an interpreter is certified in another state by passing the three parts of the exam in multiple test sessions, the interpreter will be considered a Class B interpreter in Iowa. (See section G, below.)
     
  2. Certification of sign language interpreters

    The Iowa judicial branch does not conduct the sign language performance testing for sign language interpreters who seek to be listed on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters.  For information on the testing required to be certified sign language interpreter, see Iowa Court Rule 47.5 and section G.2, below.  Also see the Department of Human Rights (DHR) – Office of Deaf Services website

F. Policies on Re-Taking the Written and Oral Exams for Court Interpreters

  1. Written exams 

    As indicated in section D.2 (above), there are two written exams that both oral language and sign language court interpreters must pass to be listed on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters: 
    -NCSC’s standard multiple-choice exam with 135 multiple-choice questions
    -An ethics exam with 25 multiple choice questions

    Interpreters who pass only one or the two written exams during the initial written exam session must re-take just the exam they did not pass in the first test session.  According to the NCSC’s guidelines, an interpreter can take the same version of a written exam only one time in a 12-month period and should never be allowed to take the same version more than twice. Interpreters who do not pass both multiple-choice exams (above) within 24 months from the first test session must re-take both exams. 

    There are only two versions of the NCSC’s multiple-choice test (135 multi-choice questions). 

    Interpreters who have passed the NCSC’s multiple-choice exam with 135 questions in another state have fulfilled that requirement for being listed on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters, but they still need to pass the ethics test and meet the other requirements to be listed on Iowa’s roster.
     
  2. Oral interpretation (“certification”) exams

    In Iowa, interpreters may not take the same version of the certification exam more than once in a 12-month period.  There are multiple versions of the Spanish certification exam, and two versions for a few other languages. But for some languages, there is only one version of the certification exam. The Office of Professional Regulation regularly rotates the versions of the exams for which there are multiple versions.

G. Classification of Court Interpreters

Iowa Court Rules 47.4 and 47.5 establish classes of court interpreters based on the level of testing and training successfully completed. The courts must appoint the interpreter with the highest classification among those who are reasonably available, giving preference within each class to interpreters who are on Iowa's roster of court interpreters. The tables below summarize the qualifications for each class.

  1. Oral language court interpreter classifications (see Court Rule 47.4)
     
    Class Level of Training and Testing
    A (certified) Meets the basic qualifications to be on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters (or equivalent qualifications in another state) and passed a nationally recognized oral language interpretation exam by passing all three parts in a single test session.
    B (noncertified) Meets the basic qualifications to be on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters (or equivalent qualifications in another state) and: (1) took a court interpreter certification exam, failed to pass it, but achieved an average score of at least 65% correct on all three parts of the exam – or – (2) completed a college level court interpreter training program (e.g., Des Moines Area Community College) and achieved a 3.0 GPA or higher – or – (3) passed the NCSC’s oral exam for court interpretation in another by meeting standards for passing the exam that were less stringent than Iowa’s standards for passing the exam (e.g., passed the three parts of the exam over multiple test sessions).
    C (noncertified) Meets the basic qualifications to be on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters or equivalent qualifications or is listed on the roster of court interpreters in another state.
    Unclassified Has not met the requirements to be on Iowa’s roster of court interpreters or the requirements to be on the roster of court interpreters in any other state.

     

  2. Sign language court interpreter classifications in Iowa (see Court Rule 47.5)
    Class Level of Training and Testing
    A (certified) a. Holds a permanent license issued by the Iowa Board of Sign Language Interpreters and Transliterators and a “specialist certificate: legal (SC:L)” or a conditional legal interpreting permit—relay (CLIP-R) from the National Testing System of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID); or 
    b. Is a licensed sign language court interpreter in a state other than Iowa that has licensing requirements comparable to the requirements in Iowa Code section 154E.3 and holds a valid SC:L from the RID.  An interpreter who meets these requirements may interpret in Iowa for up to 14 days per year without obtaining an Iowa license (see Code section 154E.4(2)(a)).
    B (noncertified) a. Holds a permanent license issued by the Iowa Board of Sign Language Interpreters and Transliterators and has at least one of the following certificates: a certificate based on the National Interpreter Certification (NIC) examination; an advanced (NAD IV) or master (NAD V) certificate from the National Association for the Deaf (NAD); a valid comprehensive skills certificate (CSC), a master comprehensive skills certificate (MCSC), both a certificate of interpretation (CI) and a certificate of transliteration (CT), or a certified deaf interpreter (CDI) certificate from the National Testing System of the RID; or 
    b. Is a licensed sign language court interpreter in a state other than Iowa that has licensing requirements comparable to the requirements in Iowa Code section 154E.3, and holds one of the certificates or qualifications identified in rule 47.5(2)(a), and is on a list of noncertified sign language interpreters (without an SC:L) approved by the state court interpreter program in another state. Pursuant to Iowa Code section 154E.4(2)(a) an interpreter who meets these requirements may interpret in Iowa for up to 14 days per year without obtaining an Iowa license.

H. Education and Training Resources for Court Interpreters

The following documents contain very useful information for court interpreters and translators, including bi-lingual glossaries of legal terms, interpreter training institutions, test preparation materials, and more: 

  1. NCSC Resource Guide for Court Interpreters (PDF)
  2. In the Loop: Reference Guide to American English Idioms and Slang (PDF)
  3. National Center for State Courts: Resources for Court Interpreters -- can be found at: http://www.ncsc.org/Education-and-Careers/State-Interpreter-Certification.aspx

    Note:  Interpreters who are listed on the roster of court must attend six hours of continuing education (CE) courses each year to remain on the roster. For more information on the CE requirements, see Information for Current Court Interpreters on this website.
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