1. Background and Overview

1.1 Background of the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Program

The Court Interpreters Act of 1978 and the subsequent Amendments of 1988 (28 U.S.C. §§ 1827-1828) require the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) to define criteria for certifying interpreters qualified to interpret in federal courts.  The Act also requires the Director to maintain a list of interpreters who have been certified.  Certified interpreters are placed on an eligibility list from which court interpreters may be selected by the local officials of the United States District Courts. 

One important impact of the 1978 federal law was the creation and implementation of the Spanish/English Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination (FCICE) in 1980.  The FCICE introduced to the court interpreting environment the concept of performance-based interpreter testing, which is based on rigorous testing practices.  The requirements for passing the examination and for becoming a Federally Certified Court Interpreter (FCCI) reflect the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for court interpreting and the difficulty of the work.  Consequently, the hundreds of interpreters who have passed the FCICE since 1980 have become an important resource throughout the country.  These FCCIs serve not only as practicing interpreters in the federal courts, but as test raters for the FCICE itself and for state court testing programs.  Many also serve as consultants for the development of tests of interpreting skills, and for training programs outside the federal courts.

The FCICE is offered only for Spanish/English, since that is the primary interpreting need in the federal judiciary.

1.2 What is court interpreting?

Interpretation is necessary during court proceedings when there are parties who speak only or primarily a language other than English.  The purpose of interpreting for defendants who do not speak English is to allow them to understand everything that is being said and to participate effectively in their defense.  When witnesses speak only or primarily a language other than English, an interpreter is required so that the person’s testimony can be understood and become evidence in the case.  If interpretation is inaccurate, defendants may misunderstand what is taking place, or the evidence heard by a judge and jury may be incomplete or distorted, if not significantly changed.  What the interpreter says in English following a witness’ testimony in another language is what is heard by the judge and jury as evidence, and it is what is recorded in the record of the proceedings.  Interpreters who work in court, therefore, have the weighty responsibility of interpreting everything that is said, without adding, deleting, altering or summarizing the content.  Court interpreters also must preserve the nuances and level of formality (or informality) of the speech.  Even insulting or embarrassing language, including profanity, must be accurately interpreted.  In addition to rendering spoken English into the foreign language and vice versa, court interpreters are sometimes required to perform sight translation, which is reading documents and interpreting them orally from English into the foreign language or the foreign language into English. 

1.3 What qualifications do court interpreters have?

The first prerequisite of professional court interpreters is to possess educated, native-like mastery of both English and a second language.  Mastery of languages at the level required for court interpreting requires reading and speaking the languages regularly in a wide variety of language contexts and usually years of formal education in both languages.  Mastery of both English and the other language includes the ability to speak each language in a way that does not interfere with understanding by native speakers of either language.  Thus, accented speech may be noticeable but must not pose problems for the listener.

Being a federal court interpreter requires not only a high level of proficiency in two languages but also an ability to perform the three modes of interpreting: consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting, and sight translation of documents.  Simultaneous interpreting is required in situations in which participants in the court proceedings may be speaking very rapidly.  Therefore, for the purpose of testing, being able to maintain speeds as high as 160 words per minute is required.  For consecutive interpreting, interpreters must be able to hear and retain in memory lengthy questions and responses.  Consequently, for purposes of testing, some utterances are as long as 50 words.  Efficient note-taking skills are often relied on by interpreters to supplement memory.  When performing a sight translation of a document, interpreters must be able to render the interpretation smoothly, without frequent false starts and in a way that reveals the true nature and content of the document.  Acquiring these specific performance skills presupposes some element of innate ability and extensive practice.

1.4 Are you qualified to be a certified federal court interpreter?

Federal court interpreters must possess a high level of language proficiency, and the nature of a federal court interpreter’s work is demanding.  Part 5 of this Examinee Handbook, entitled Self-Assessment of Readiness to Take the FCICE offers a self-assessment tool to help candidates decide whether to take the FCICE.    

1.5 Confidentiality of test content

The contents of the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination (FCICE) written and oral examinations are strictly confidential. Any person who takes an examination or who is authorized to have the examination in her or his possession, however briefly, must agree to protect the confidentiality of the examination. For examinees, this means that the contents of the examination shall not be discussed with or in any way divulged to any person, copied down, or recorded through any means whatsoever, without prior written authorization from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). This includes taking and keeping notes of test content, including notes in computer files. Oral or written disclosure or any use of any portion of these testing instruments without prior authorization from the AOUSC is strictly forbidden.

Any individual who violates this security policy or is found in possession of any equipment or materials that could be used to assist in taking the examination or to record or transmit any portion of the examination is subject to denial of certification and will be permanently disqualified from taking any test in the FCICE program.

Every examinee is required to sign an oath of confidentiality before taking an examination.

1.6 Overview of the examination

The FCICE is a two-phase examination of language proficiency and interpretation performance, consisting of a Written Examination and an Oral Examination.  The two examinations are administered in alternate years.  The first phase of the examination, referred to as the Written Examination, is a multiple-choice test of language proficiency in English and Spanish, and is offered in even-numbered years (2012, 2014, 2016, etc.)  The Written Examination emphasizes accuracy rather than speed.  However, there is a three-hour-and-fifteen-minute time limit for completing the test, excluding the time required for instructions and other procedural requirements.  As a practical matter, candidates should plan on devoting five hours to the examination. 

The second phase is an Oral Examination that simulates the work that interpreters do in court, and is offered in odd-numbered years (2013, 2015, 2017, etc.)  This examination takes about 45 minutes, excluding instructions and other procedural requirements.  Candidates should allow at least one hour to complete the Oral Examination. 

Candidates must pass the Phase One Written Examination to be eligible to take the Phase Two Oral Examination.  Candidates who pass the Oral Examination will receive a letter and certificate from the Director of the AO awarding certification as a Federally Certified Court Interpreter.  The passing score is 75 percent for the Written Examination and 80 percent for the Oral Examination.  The two phases of the examination are described in more detail later in this handbook.

The examination is administered under the supervision of the District Court Administration Division of the AO.  The AO, in turn, contracts with specialists in court interpretation and language testing for development and administration of the examination.  See Part 6 of this handbook, entitled Who is involved in the Development and Administration of the FCICE?,” for more information.

1.7 Practice Tests

Practice Tests for both the Written and Oral Examinations are available to candidates as part of this handbook in Parts 7 and 8 respectively.  Both exams are shorter than an actual examination. 

The Practice Tests were developed at the same time and in the same way as the relevant operational examinations that are still in use, and were designed to be equivalent to the operational forms except that the Practice Tests are shorter.  The Practice Tests include representative items from all sections of the equivalent operational forms for that phase, but the operational examinations are routinely reviewed and modified whereas the Practice Tests are not.

While the practice Written Examination is slightly shorter1 than the length of an actual examination, candidates are encouraged to take the practice Written Examination under the same constraints as the real examination (e.g., no dictionaries or other aids).  Please note that 2.5 hours should be allotted to take the Practice Test.  While there is no guarantee that results on the Practice Test will be the same as results on the official examination, the Practice Test provides a good way for candidates to estimate the likelihood that they are ready to perform successfully on the Written Examination portion of the FCICE.  Before registering for a written examination, candidates should ask themselves if they are truly ready for this exam:

  1. Have you read the entire Examinee Handbook?  Yes/No
  2. Did you complete the Self-Assessment Exercise, found in the Examinee Handbook?  Yes/No
  3. Did you take the Practice Written Examination, found in the Examinee Handbook?  Yes/No
  4. Do you feel qualified to take and pass the FCICE Written Examination and take and pass the FCICE Oral Examination?  Yes/No

  The practice Oral Examination is a one-half length simulation of an actual examination.  Taking the practice Oral Examination will help candidates estimate the likelihood that they are ready to pass the Oral Examination.  The practice Oral Examination includes both written text material and practice recordings that must be interpreted.  Practice recordings are provided on compact disks if the candidate purchases a hard copy of this handbook.  For those candidates viewing this handbook online, the recordings are provided via Windows Media Player or Real Audio Player and are available at the FCICE Web site at the “Oral Practice Exam” link.  For the practice Oral Examination material, candidates must tape record their own performance and play it back while scoring the performance.  Examples of scoring keys are provided to assist with self-scoring. 

If candidates doubt that they are ready to pass the oral examination, they should seriously consider whether to register for the written examination, since in order to become federally certified, one must pass both the written and the oral examination.  The operational exams have 100 items in the English section and 100 items in the Spanish section.  The practice test has 80 items in each section.


1 The operational exams have 100 items in the English section and 100 items in the Spanish section.  The practice test has 80 items in each section.