4. The oral examination

4.1  Description of the Oral Examination

Only those individuals who have previously passed the Phase One Written Examination are eligible to take the Phase Two Oral Examination.

The FCICE Oral Examination is a performance test that lasts approximately 45 minutes. The purpose of the federal certification program is to determine whether a person seeking certification is minimally competent for immediate work in the federal courts.  Consistent with this purpose, the Oral Examination assesses functional proficiency during actual task performances required for court interpretation.7

Functional proficiency means that the interpreter can accurately conserve the meaning of a source language when rendering it into a target language, without embellishments, without omissions, and without altering the style or “register” of speech.  The interpreter must be able to do this while keeping up with the routine pace of court proceedings.  The tasks required of interpreters in court include interpreting in the simultaneous and consecutive modes and sight translations of documents.  The criterion for minimal competency was determined by the original architects of the examination to be accuracy at the 80 percent level in a testing situation.  Therefore, the passing score on the examination is 80 percent as measured by preselected words or phrases that are embedded in the examination text for use as objective scoring units. 

The Oral Examination consists of five parts that represent activities interpreters are required to do in court, namely: interpreting in the consecutive mode, interpreting in two contexts in the simultaneous mode, and sight translation of documents (English to Spanish and Spanish to English).  The activity of simultaneous interpretation is performed in two contexts: the context of extended monologue speech and the context of witness examination, which involves relatively short exchanges between two speakers.  All test parts are simulations of what interpreters do in court. 

The five parts of the examination include:
Sight translation: English to Spanish
Sight translation: Spanish to English
Simultaneous interpretation into Spanish – monologue speech
Consecutive interpretation: Spanish to English; English to Spanish
Simultaneous interpretation into Spanish – witness testimony (question and answer)

4.2 Development of the Oral Examination

The Oral Examination specifications were written by expert interpreters with an extensive background in preparing and rating interpreter examinations for federal and state court systems.  The test writers were advised and assisted by a team of language professionals serving as an examination development advisory committee whose areas of expertise include court interpreting, linguistics, language testing, and language teaching.  The qualifications of test writers included the following, in approximate priority order:

  • practicing interpreter with federal certification;
  • prior test writing experience;
  • advanced degree in language;
  • experience as a test rater for FCICE or analogous state tests; and
  • experience as an interpreter trainer.

Members of the original examination development advisory committee reviewed and commented on examination design, considered and suggested policy regarding examination design and implementation, reviewed and commented on test content, and assisted in the collection of source texts for examination materials, evaluation of source text appropriateness, and in the identification of seminal Oral Examination raters.

Selection of base documents around which the test is constructed was the first substantive activity in test development.  Base documents were chosen from among a large corpus of federal court transcripts stored in digital form.  Source documents were edited to bring the document to the length (number of words) required by the structural specifications.  A second phase of editing took place as scoring units were selected and other fine-tuning was done to bring the text script into compliance with the structural specifications for the examination (for example, overall length, length of utterances in consecutive, and types and distribution of scoring units in each test part).

After a complete draft was created for a test part, test writers prepared examples of possible acceptable and unacceptable renderings of each scoring unit.  Every unit has at least one initial example of an acceptable rendering.  Most scoring units also had at least one example of an unacceptable rendering.  During field testing of each examination form and during pretest training of raters, additional examples of acceptable and unacceptable renderings were noted and compiled.  Field testing also revealed deficiencies in scoring units, and these units were replaced as a result.  Deficiencies might have included an unclear meaning of a word in the source text material, and too many or too few words included in the designated unit.

After the original test drafts were written, they were widely distributed for review.  There were three types of review: 1) a review by federal district court judges and lawyers that focused on the substantive appropriateness of texts and scoring units (content validity); 2) a linguistic review by professional interpreters and linguists familiar with varieties of Spanish usage and the specific linguistic challenges of Spanish-English interpreting; and 3) consideration of the cultural appropriateness of texts.  A major purpose of the review was to ensure that native speakers of both English and Spanish from many different parts of the country and different native origins agreed that the examination does not include words or phrases in either language that are arcane or used in a way that is unique to a particular region or country.  The standard was:  if all the reviewers were familiar with the meaning of the word or phrase in context as it appeared in the test text, then the unit was fairly and validly included in the examination. 

4.3 Examination validity, reliability, and field testing

As is true for the Written Examination described in Part 3, examination specifications also guide the development of the Oral Examination.  The specifications ensure that all versions of the examination are valid, reliable, and similar to each other in structure and content.  The meanings of test validity and reliability have been previously explained in 3.3 Development of the Written Examination and are not repeated here. 

Validity of the Oral Examinationis achieved by ensuring that the tasks candidates perform in the test match the tasks that interpreters must perform on the job, as described above in 4.1 Description of the Oral Examination.  Validity also requires the test content to be appropriate.  Appropriateness of texts used in the examination is achieved in two ways.  First, source material is based on actual court transcripts from federal courts or written documents presented in federal court.  Second, the test texts derived from these transcripts are reviewed by experienced professionals (federal judges, lawyers, and interpreters), who have consistently found them to be representative of the language typically encountered in federal court. 

The reliability of the examination is ensured through a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures.  Qualitative measures include standardized approaches to test writing and selection of the scoring units used for test rating, standardized guides for rating the scoring units, and intensive training of the raters who apply the guides.  Especially important to reliability in scoring is the use of multiple raters; the opinions of three federally certified interpreters who have received training as oral raters for the FCICE oral examination must converge in determining when interpretations of scoring units are correct or incorrect.  Quantitative measures include the collection and analysis of item-level rating data and the application of standard statistical techniques for test evaluation, including multiple measures of examination reliability, overall internal validity, and the correlation of test part scores to overall test scores.

Field testing is used prior to finalizing a new examination to verify that the procedural techniques used to ensure validity and reliability worked as intended.  There is more than one technique for field testing an oral examination.  One technique includes administering the completed examinations to a group of candidates who are as similar in composition as possible to the individuals who are expected to take the test routinely.  After the tests are administered, statistical and qualitative evaluations are completed to determine that the test content – especially the scoring units and scoring guides – are working as intended.  If necessary, adjustments may then be made prior to finalizing the test for routine administration.

4.4 Administering and scoring the Oral Examination

The Oral Examination is administered to candidates on an individual basis in testing rooms where the candidate and a proctor are present.  The proctor administers the examination to one candidate at a time.  Everything said in the testing room is recorded.  This means that the candidate’s performance is preserved for later scoring by a rating team.

At a later date, a team of three expert interpreter/raters will evaluate the candidate’s performance.  Each rater is a Federally Certified Court Interpreter who has completed intensive training as an oral rater for the FCICE.  All raters are trained as a group immediately prior to serving as test raters.

The Oral Examination is scored objectively using 220 pre-selected words and phrases that appear in the text and which are accompanied by documentation of examples of correct and incorrect interpreted renderings as a guide for the raters.  These are called “scoring units” or “keywords.”  The test raters listen to the candidate’s recorded performance to verify what was said if any question arises.  When the interpretation is into Spanish, the interpreters/raters consider correct any rendering that would be acceptable in any variety of Spanish where the word or expression is known to the raters as accepted usage and when it is found in a standard, reputable resource, providing that it is also at the appropriate register.  The criterion for passing the examination requires the candidate to render 80 percent of the scoring units correctly. 

As a matter of procedure, ten percent of the tests are chosen for re-scoring by a second team of raters.  Tests selected for re-score by a second team are those for which the original score was around the cut score, either above or below. As a supplement to the objective scoring procedure, raters also complete a structured holistic evaluation.  This holistic evaluation assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate’s performance that day with respect to qualities that do not compute directly into the objective score, such as language skills.  In rare cases, the holistic evaluation may also promote a candidate with an objective score that is below but very near the pass point into the “pass” category.  The holistic evaluation has rarely been used to lower a candidate’s score or to demote a candidate from pass to fail status.

If a candidate stops an administration before completion of the examination for any reason, the examination will not be rated and no score will be reported.

4.5 Discussion of the individual sections of the Oral Examination

Sight translation section (two parts)
Sight translation: English to Spanish
This part of the test requires the candidate to read an English document of approximately 230 words and interpret it aloud in Spanish.  This part of the test represents 10 percent of the test weight (22 scorable units), and the candidate is allowed 5 minutes to complete the task.  Documents used for this part of the examination are typically based on police reports, presentence investigation reports, or affidavits of witnesses.  These reports include a wide range of language and generally involve factual descriptions of events or personalities. 

Sight translation: Spanish to English
The Spanish to English sight translation is of the same length and weight as the English to Spanish sight translation.  Documents used for this part of the examination are typically based on formal legal documents that are written in fairly high register (formal) Spanish.  Examples would include affidavits taken before a notary, letters written to judges by educated individuals, or excerpts from legal documents.

Simultaneous interpretation section – monologue speech
This section of the examination requires the candidate to listen to and simultaneously interpret a recorded speech monologue by a lawyer.  The candidate wears a set of headphones to listen to the recording and speaks aloud so that her or his performance can be recorded on a separate recording machine.  The speech is entirely in English, and the interpreter interprets into Spanish as would be required to assist a Spanish speaking defendant during a trial.  The speech represents either an opening or closing argument to a jury and is approximately 840 words in length.  The recording is made at an average of 120 wpm and takes about 7 minutes.  Texts in this section are typical of discourse delivered to jurors who are average speakers of English.  Language register will vary between higher and lower registers as the lawyer covers matters of law and fact in combinations of formal and casual persuasive speech patterns.  Once this section of the test begins, the proctor may not stop the recording.  If you ask to have the recording stopped, everything from that point forward in this section will be counted as incorrect. 

Consecutive interpretation section
This section of the examination is administered as a role-play of the questioning of a witness by a lawyer.  It is about 875-925 words in length, and the candidate is allowed 18 minutes to complete this section of the test.  This section includes 76 scoring units, and represents 35 percent of the test weight.  Candidates may take notes.  The consecutive script is prerecorded and the test administrator(s) plays one segment at a time on an audio device, allowing the candidate to interpret from English into Spanish or from Spanish into English, as appropriate.  The script is recorded at a normal, conversational pace that would be typical during a witness’ testimony.  Later, during evaluation, the interpreters/raters will evaluate your ability to interpret all the details of the questions and the testimony accurately while maintaining the register of the original. Source texts for this section of the examination are transcripts from direct or cross-examination of a witness during actual trials where the testimony is given by a Spanish speaking person.  Texts in this portion of the examination always include examples of lower register speech, including profanity and idiomatic usage.  Candidates are allowed to ask the proctor for up to two repetitions during the consecutive section.

Simultaneous interpretation section – witness testimony (Q&A)
This section of the examination again requires the candidate to listen to recorded speech using a headphone set.  For this section of the test, however, the source texts are in question-and-answer form, taken from transcripts of testimony by English-speaking witnesses.  The text length is about 600 words at a varying speed of delivery that approximates normal courtroom speech, up to 160 wpm and takes about 5 minutes.  Often these source texts will include evidence presented by law enforcement officers or technical experts.  Vocabulary in these texts will include a greater amount of specialized terminology than in the consecutive interpreting task, but the texts do not include highly unusual or technical vocabulary that would be unfamiliar to educated native speakers of English.  Once this section of the test begins, the proctor may not stop the recording.  If you ask to have the recording stopped, everything from that point forward in this section will be counted as incorrect. 

4.6 More on scoring units

Scoring units are particular words and phrases that are selected because they represent various features of language that interpreters encounter in their work and must render accurately and completely without altering any of the meaning or style of speech.  The raters determine as a group whether each of the scoring units is interpreted correctly or incorrectly. 

Scoring units are classified into three general categories and nine specific types. 

Grammar and usage

  • Grammar/verbs
    Features of grammar, especially verbs, that should be handled appropriately by the sophisticated user of the two languages.
  • False cognates/interference/literalism
    Terms or phrases that should be interpreted correctly by a qualified interpreter despite interference by one language on the other (e.g., false cognates, awkward phrasing, or terms or phrases susceptible to literal renditions resulting in loss of precise meaning).

General lexical range

  • General vocabulary
    Vocabulary of general usage, including that of more and less well educated speakers, and any general lexical item or set of items not easily classified elsewhere among the scoring units.
  • Legal terms and phrases
    Any word or phrase of a legal or technical nature, or which is not common in everyday speech but is commonly used in legal settings.
  • Idioms/sayings
    Sets of words with a meaning that as a whole is different from the meaning of the individual words; famous sayings or quotes from literature or history.


  • Register and slang/colloquialisms
    Words and phases of unquestionably high or low register that can be preserved in that register in the target language by a qualified interpreter (e.g., curses, profanity, taboo words). 
  • Numbers/names
    Any number (e.g., street address, weight of person or object, measurements such as distance) or name (e.g., person, court, street, town).
  • Modifiers/intensifiers/emphases/interjections
    Adjectives and adverbs that increase or modify intensity or provide emphasis or precision to a description (e.g. adverbs that increase the intensity of adjectives, such as “absolutely,” “completely,” or “very”).  May include interjections (e.g. wow, yuk, oops, etc.).
  • Embeddings/positions
    Words or phrases that would not be omitted by a qualified interpreter due to position (e.g., at the beginning or in the middle of a long sentence; the second in a string of adjectives or adverbs) or function (e.g., tag questions).

4.7 Suggestions on how to prepare for the Oral Examination

The FCICE Oral Examination requires candidates to demonstrate their interpreting skills.  Because these skills need to be developed gradually and improved over time, it is not possible to prepare for the test at the last minute.  Reading widely and developing an extensive vocabulary in both English and Spanish is assumed to have been done already if the candidate has passed the prerequisite Written Examination.  Preparing for the Oral Examination should include an hour or two practicing interpreting skills every day.  Candidates should continue or even intensify these practices in the weeks or months before taking the Oral Examination. 

To make an initial assessment of readiness to take the Oral Examination, it is suggested that candidates refer to Part 5 of this Handbook, entitled Self-Assessment of Readiness to Take the FCICE.  A high score on both 5.2 and 5.3 means that a person may be ready to take the Practice Oral Examination Test found in Part 8 of this Handbook.  Otherwise, the candidate should work to improve skills before taking the Practice Test or the Oral Examination.  It is a good idea to practice sight translations (English to Spanish and Spanish to English) with a timer so that the candidate learns how long five minutes is and what can be accomplished in that time period. Simultaneous should be practiced using headphones and interpreting aloud.

4.8 Hints for the days before the Oral Examination

•    You are unlikely to gain anything by study or practice in the days just prior to examination day.  You will probably benefit more by relaxing and building confidence.

•    Before leaving home, double check to make sure you have identification with you and that you know where to go.

•    Leave dictionaries and reference materials at home.  Leave your watch or other timepiece, cell phone, electronic key fob, and other electronic devices at home or in the car.  These personal/ unauthorized items will not be permitted in the testing room, and test staff will not be responsible for their security while you are taking the examination.  If you have personal/unauthorized items, you will be asked to return these items to your car or leave these items in a zip lock bag to be held by the registration clerk until the test has concluded.  Test staff are not responsible for the security of personal/unauthorized items while you are taking the exam. 

•    Anyone found to have access to equipment or material that could be used to assist in taking the examination or that could be used to record or transmit any portion of an examination will be permanently disqualified from taking any test in the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination program.

•    Everything you need to take the test will be provided.

•    Water bottles will not be allowed into the testing room since water will be provided during the exam.  

•    Bring only a paper print-out of your Admission Letter and your ID to the testing site.  Remember that official photo identification will be required at check-in time, and that only the following will be accepted:

     Current Driver's license or State DMV I.D. card

     Current U.S. passport or passport issued by a foreign government

     Current U.S. Military I.D. card

    The name on the identification must match the name under which you registered for the examination.

•    Get a good night’s sleep before the examination.  Go to bed early.  Staying up late may leave you too tired to do your best work during the examination.  Relax.  Go to a movie, watch television, or read a book to take your mind off the exam.

4.9 Procedures for the day of the Oral Examination

On the day of the examination:

Before the test

  • Eat and drink something before the test.  You will not be allowed to bring food or drink into the test center, although water will be provided to you during the test.
  • Arrive early.  Leave nothing to chance in regard to the test appointment time!  Please plan to arrive at the test waiting area at least twenty minutes early.  Allow time to find the facility.  Locate the facility in advance if you do not know exactly where it is.  If the facility is a hotel or large courthouse, also allow time to find the specific room where the testing will take place.  If you drive to the site must make sure to park where you do not have to worry about getting a ticket.
  • Check the parking facilities, especially if you require a parking space reserved for the handicapped.  All facilities are required to provide handicap access and parking, but some facilities provide more spaces than others.  If it appears that there are few available parking spaces, check with the facility to see if a parking permit can be provided or if a space can be reserved for you.
  • Bring your Admission Letter with you to the test site. 
  • Remember that you will be admitted to the testing room only if you have an acceptable form of government-issued picture identification.
  • Use the restroom before the exam begins.  Stopping the exam will interrupt your pace, interfere with your concentration, and disrupt the testing schedule.
  • There will be a waiting area clearly marked with signs somewhere in the facility.  If the facility is a hotel, look for information on the hotel’s “events” bulletin board.  Otherwise, signs will be posted at the appropriate entrance of a public facility.  The examination waiting area will be indicated under the title “Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination” or “FCICE.”  The waiting area may be in a hallway and may not have many chairs or extra room; therefore, friends and spouses should not wait with you in the waiting area.
  • A proctor will register you, checking your Admission Letter and official identification, and providing you with the policy statement on test security and asking you to sign an oath of confidentiality.

During the test

  • You should expect to be at the test center for a minimum of one hour to complete pre-test and post-test tasks, but allow up to two hours in case there are unforeseen delays. 
  • Visitors are not permitted in the testing room, except for official observers.

4.10 The examination itself – what you can expect

The Oral Examination lasts about 45 minutes.  All portions of the examination are timed to ensure fairness, but keep in mind that because the exams are administered to one person at a time, proctors may be slightly behind or ahead of schedule.  All proctors strive to be available to start your examination at the scheduled time. When you enter the examining room, you will see a conference table, equipped with a tape or digital recorder to record your performance and a laptop computer or other audio device that will play the consecutive and simultaneous sections of the examination that you will interpret.  The proctor will introduce him/herself and will indicate where you are to sit.  The proctor will begin recording the session as soon as you are seated, and will ask you to identify yourself for the recording.  You will identify yourself by stating the identification number found on your Admission Letter.  The next step is to give you instructions on taking the exam. Then the actual examination will begin.

Sight translation
Before you begin, the instructions for the sight translation will be read to you.  When the instructions are over, you will be given the first text, a one-page, double-spaced document for translation from English to Spanish.   It will be a report or affidavit containing colloquial language and perhaps some justice system jargon. The purpose of this text is to determine whether you have a good command of language typically found in police reports, pre-sentence investigative reports, or witness affidavits, and to see if you are able to maintain the register, or language level, of the original in your interpreted version. You will be allowed exactly five minutes to render the translation. A timer will be set before you begin.  First you should read through the text to be translated; if you have not begun your translation within a minute and a half, you will be told to begin. If you have not finished your sight translation in the allotted five minutes, you will be told to stop.
Next you will be given the text for sight translation from Spanish to English. This will be a one-page, double-spaced document dealing with a law-related context.  It could be an affidavit taken before a notary public, a letter written to a judge by an educated individual, or an excerpt from a legal document.  The procedure for this part will be the same as for the English to Spanish sight translation:  you will have five minutes altogether, and if you have not started interpreting after a minute and a half, you will be asked to start. 

Simultaneous interpretation – monologue
This portion of the examination will take about seven minutes, with about one additional minute of introductory speech on the recording.  Like the others, it begins with explicit instructions that will be read to you by the proctor. Then you will be given a set of headphones, and the recording will be played for you to interpret. The recording will begin with some introductory matter to allow you to adjust the volume and get a sense of the pace of the speech. Then you will be advised when the test itself is about to begin and after that you will begin interpreting from English to Spanish. The text will be an opening or closing statement by an attorney. The register will vary from highly formal language to colloquial usage, and you will be expected to remain true to the style and tone of the source-language message in your interpretation. The speed of this portion of the exam, 120 words per minute, is slower than speech in an actual courtroom setting.  Repetitions will not be provided.

Consecutive interpretation
The consecutive interpretation portion may last up to 18 minutes. Again, the proctor will read you the instructions for this section, and then you will begin the consecutive portion.  The consecutive portion will simulate a trial setting in which an English-speaking attorney asks questions of a Spanish-speaking witness.  The proctor will play the prerecorded segments of the script.  Some statements will be very long (up to 50 words in length), and you will not be allowed to interrupt the speakers. Therefore, you will be allowed to take notes. 

During the consecutive section of the exam, you will be allowed to ask for up to two repetitions. If you do ask for a repetition, the proctor will replay the entire question or answer, not just the segment you missed. You must interpret the entire repetition, even if you have interpreted part of the question or answer already.  Extra time will not be allowed for repetitions

Simultaneous interpretation of witness testimony (Simultaneous Q&A)
The consecutive section is followed by another simultaneous interpretation section, this one about six minutes long.  Again, the proctor will read instructions to you before you begin interpreting.  Then you will be given the headphones, and the proctor will play the recording.  There will again be an introduction before you must begin interpreting, but somewhat shorter than the introduction to the monologue.  When the examination recording begins, you will hear an attorney cross-examining a witness, and all questions and answers will be in English, to be interpreted into Spanish. As with the consecutive portion, one speaker will speak at an informal level, and the other will be more formal.  This section of the examination is faster than the simultaneous monologue, up to 160 words per minute and an average of 150 words per minute.  Because it involves testimony, the speakers will alternate in rapid succession, and you will have to pay close attention to follow the exchange. They will most likely be dealing with technical subjects (expert witness testimony on laboratory tests, for example).  Repetitions will not be provided.

Conclusion of the examination
The test is over when you finish the simultaneous witness testimony section.  You should expect the proctor to check the recording before you exit the room.  Then you will collect your belongings and be escorted from the room.  You will be asked to leave the waiting area and refrain from any discussions with other examinees. 

4.11 Sources for practice materials

Preparing for the Oral Examination involves intensive practice.  Although the AO does not endorse any particular practice materials and more may be available, some practice materials for court interpreting are available through ACEBO, a private company, and from the University of Arizona Agnese Haury Institute for Court Interpretation.  The Interpreter’s Edge Third Edition, Interpreter’s Edge Turbo Supplement, and The Interpreter’s Companion are distributed by ACEBO.  Interpretapes (vols. I, II, III) are available from the University of Arizona.  The materials can be obtained by writing, calling, or ordering by e-mail using the information provided below.  Both resources also provide detailed information about their products on their web sites.  Web site addresses are also provided below. 

Post Office Box 7485,
Spreckels, California 93962, USA
Phone: (831) 455-1507
FAX: (831) 455-1541
E-mail:  orders@acebo.com
Web site:  http://www.acebo.com

Agnese Haury Institute for Court Interpretation
University of Arizona
Modern Languages Building, Room 445
Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA
Phone (520) 621-3615
FAX (520) 624-8130
Web site: http://nci.arizona.edu/fcice

An Oral Examination Practice Test8 is provided as part of this handbook (Part 8).  The Practice Test was developed in parallel with the actual tests and is very similar to them.  Some parts are not as long as the actual tests.  The Practice Test material also includes recorded examples of passing performances.  Candidates who faithfully follow the Practice Test procedure will be in a good position to gauge how they might perform on an actual test, although the Practice Test is not intended to be diagnostic. 

7 Arjona, Etilvia. 1985. “The Court Interpreters Certification Test Design.” In Lucía Elías-Olivares, et al., eds. Spanish Language Use and Public Life in the United States. New York: Mouton Publishers. 185.

8  http://www.ncsc.org/fcice/About-the-program/8-Oral-Practice-Exam.aspx