A Positive Change – An American Sign Language/English Interpreter’s Perspective on the Benefits of Becoming a Certified Interpreter

A Positive Change – An American Sign Language/English Interpreter’s Perspective on the Benefits of Becoming a Certified Interpreter

Tucked behind my University of Michigan Health and Hospital System ID badge lays my interpreter certification card. Most people won’t ever see it, but for me it’s my greatest professional possession. Now, more than ten years into my career, I can look back and say with certainty that as a young, untested interpreter I took for granted everything that this plastic and seemingly ordinary card represented.

So, why IS certification important? Some spoken language interpreters have debated:

  • Faithfully rendering the content of a message doesn’t depend on whether or not I have such a card in my pocket.
  • Keeping information confidential is not a skill that depends on a certification test.
  • I can easily keep studying and further my skills without needing to pay yearly dues to various organizations such as the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI), the National Board of Certification of Medical Interpreters (NBCMI), the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), or Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. (RID).
  • Testing is too expensive and my state doesn’t require me to be certified to work, so I’ll save my money.
  • Certification creates a barrier between me and the community I interpret for. They see me now as an outsider.

The above sentiments are problematic due to the lack of measured accountability and professional responsibility both aspects being vital to the advancement of individual interpreters as well as our chosen profession as a whole.  The field of language communication will stay viable and be able to thrive as long as we keep ourselves accountable and professionally responsible.

Globalization and technological innovations have forced interpreting into the 21st century. Our field is now one of the fastest growing professions of all occupations:

  • The US Census Bureau reports that between 1980 and 2010 the US non-English speaking population grew 140%.
  • The US department of Labor projects a 46% increase in employment growth between 2012 and 2022.

Contemporary interpreters may not be the pioneers of language facilitation but as our field flourishes during this remarkable growth spurt we can lead the way for positive change by becoming certified.

As an American Sign Language/English interpreter working in Michigan I am required, by both federal and state law, to be certified.  Conditions of certification requirement varies by state – for example: Michigan requires interpreters to hold state or national certification and recently implemented rules and regulations to deliver a higher quality of interpreting service, while neighboring Ohio currently grants no rights for ASL users to be provided with certified interpreters – according to the Disability Rights Ohio website.  Spoken language interpreters may not have a law that outlines the specifics of their professional responsibilities however, as hospitals and other institutions strive to comply with national accreditation standards, such as the Joint Commission, the need to ensure your credibility and skills as an interpreter is of paramount importance.

In the most superficial terms, certification allows for freelance interpreters to work for a larger client base and perhaps charge more money for work.  This benefits our livelihood, but it is critical to consider the following and strive for bigger and better outcomes for our entire interpreting community:

Certification proves you have a certain level of skill and knowledge.

If anyone questions your abilities as an interpreter you have concrete proof that shows you have been tested and satisfy the criteria to do your job effectively. If a patient has a positive experience with an interpreter who is certified they will begin to expect certified interpreters at future appointments. If you’re not certified and walk into an assignment with a client who expects a certified interpreter it affects the trust within your relationship. If you don’t have a certification card that shows you are a competent interpreter can the patient fully trust your skills to interpret appropriately?

Certification protects all stakeholders including you, the institutions who employ you, as well as those directly affected by your work.

Perhaps your state or region may not require you to be certified but take a glance at other professionals you work alongside. If doctors need to be certified and nurses need to pass exams for competency, why shouldn’t an interpreter be held to the same sanctions? If an interpreter is not certified any complaint filed against them could bring disastrous consequences. Instances of interpreters being sued, penalized financially, and experiencing damage to their reputation are not uncommon. Hospitals support licensed personnel. If a patient complains about an interpreter the liability falls with the hospital who hired them – not with the interpreter. This does not mean the interpreter will not be held accountable, it simply means that the hospital is held responsible since they hired an appropriately certified person.

Certification helps professionalize interpreter services.

On many occasions I have walked into a job, professionally dressed, and people ask me “Are you their daughter?” or they look at my interpreting bag and question “When will you be graduating?” This is when I turn around my hospital badge so they can see my certification card. It’s not enough to look and behave professionally. Credentials are essential for assuring others that you are a trained and experienced specialist. The more we professionalize, the more we will be seen as a need and not an appendage. This will foster more job opportunities and with those opportunities comes greater awareness of the need for certified interpreters.

Certification prevents harmful effects that commonly happen with untrained interpreters or family members used to interpret.

Speaking two languages does not qualify someone to be an interpreter. This is a popular misconception. Hospitals that use ad hoc interpreters (those without training – most often friends/family) face a myriad of possible problems. Not only is confidentiality an issue, but reliability is as well.  Certified interpreters help improve patient safety and alleviate frustrations and misconceptions between providers and patients.  There is no way to prove untrained interpreters and family members can render the message faithfully and accurately.  Again – fluency in two languages does not necessarily make someone a qualified interpreter.  Interpreter training helps improve our skills.  Certification helps foster trust.  Imagine you need heart surgery and when you arrive the hospital informs you that they can’t provide a thoracic surgeon and instead supply an eye doctor to do your procedure. The hospital argues that both doctors completed medical school. How comfortable would you feel?

Without proper training and certification, interpreters may be in danger of misunderstanding instructions on how the patient is to take their medication, doctors have given incorrect diagnoses having to rely on the ad hoc interpreters error in usage of terms, and even deaths have been caused by ad hoc interpreters. Shouldn’t saving lives compel interpreters to become certified?

An interpreter working without certification is equivalent to walking a tight rope over an abyss without a net. Not only do you put yourself in harm’s way, but you also put the lives of those braving the rope after you in a compromising position – thinking they can cross the dark abyss without the aid of safety measures as well. If you visited another country or became Deaf wouldn’t you want a certified interpreter?

If we, as interpreters strive to lift our own professional standards so, too, will the expectations of persons who require our services. It is important to remember that our clients include not only those persons with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) but also those people who are part of general American/hearing society. We constantly work between two languages – two worlds – equally facilitating communication between those who are LEP and those who speak English – the professors, the doctors, the lawyers, the bosses. Once you show them your certification card you become the greatest tool possible for everyone involved.

Today, many language champions still struggle to promote the idea of interpreting as a profession. For thousands of years, interpreters have been lending their talents for use. It’s only recently that it has begun developing into a structured occupation. From our first interpreting ancestor – trudging a muddy path between villages to perhaps nurture trades and negotiations between tribes OR family members supporting deaf relatives to make sense of our young civilization – our work bolstered self-sufficiency. For a long period of time we have had to rely on ourselves to create positive change, but now we have the opportunity to support each other to foster favorable advancements within our work – by becoming certified.  With my certification card available for all to see, I – for one – am happy to trudge through the mud.


Jamie Fidler, BA, NIC
American Sign Language/English Interpreter

University of Michigan Health System, Interpreter Services
Nationally Certified / State of Michigan Registered


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