When Court Certified Isn’t Enough

I’m always glad when a potential client calls me for the first time to check availability and rates. And I really like it when they also ask, “By the way, you are court certified, right?” This tells me the client is interested in doing things right—my kind of client. But, before I answer that question, I always have an internal debate over how detailed my answer should be. Normally, I conclude that they just want to know if I’m qualified to interpret for the assignment they are asking me about. So, I just say, “Yes.”

But, at least here in Texas, this seemingly straightforward question is actually quite complicated. I hope this post will shed some light on qualifications for court interpreters in Texas.

The State of Texas uses two different terms for interpreters who work in courts:

  • “Certified Court Interpreter” refers exclusively to sign-language interpreters
  • “Licensed Court Interpreter” (“LCI”) refers exclusively to spoken-language interpreters

Texas Government Code, Title 2, Subtitle D, § 57.001 (1), (5).

Texas Court Interpreter Qualifications Quick Guide

Click for full size

So, technically speaking, no, I’m not “court-certified.” I’m “licensed.”

But the distinctions don’t stop there. In 2011, the Texas Legislature implemented a two-tier system for LCIs. Now, a licensure candidate can pass the licensing exam and receive one of two endorsements:

  • Basic Endorsement for candidates scoring 60-69%. An LCI with this endorsement is only authorized to work in courts that are not courts of record. Texas Government Code, Title 2, Subtitle D, § 57.043 (d)(1).
  • Master Endorsement for candidates scoring 70% or higher. An LCI with this endorsement is authorized to interpret “court proceedings in all courts in this state, including justice courts and municipal courts…” Texas Government Code, Title 2, Subtitle D, § 57.043 (d)(2).

With the implementation of the Basic License, it is all too easy for an interpreter to honestly answer in the affirmative when asked if he is an LCI. This may be a way to get around the fact that misrepresentation of interpreter qualifications is a crime. Texas Government Code, Title 2, Subtitle D, § 57.049–050.

So, technically, I am an LCI with a Master Endorsement.

I once heard a comment that a licensed interpreter wasn’t necessary for an assignment that was “just a deposition.” But the law specifies that depositions are court proceedings. Texas Government Code, Title 2, Subtitle D, § 57.001. Practically speaking, the very first warning given to a deposition witness is that her testimony that day has the same force and effect as if it were given in a court of law. False testimony can result in criminal perjury charges. That deposition transcript might be used in lieu of live testimony if the witness cannot make it to trial. Moreover, if the witness testifies again at the trial, any inconsistencies with the deposition transcript can be used to impeach her credibility. The idea of an interpreter error introducing this type of inconsistency into a deposition transcript strikes fear into my heart, and I don’t think any law firm would knowingly pay an unlicensed or under-licensed interpreter to wing it through such an important proceeding.

It’s worth noting that the federal court system has its own interpreter-qualification process, and a successful federal candidate does earn a “certification.” An interpreter who has passed the notoriously difficult federal exam is called a Federally Certified Court Interpreter (FCCI) and is authorized to interpret in federal courts nationwide. In Texas, this credential qualifies the interpreter to obtain a state license without need for additional state testing. But the vast majority of working court interpreters are not FCCIs, so this credential does not come into play in most discussions.

To add a final dimension of confusion, licensing exams in Texas are not available for all languages. Interpreters in other languages can still obtain a license using alternative qualifications (for example, previous FBI language testing). However, there are thousands of Languages of Lesser Diffusion (LLDs) that have no test available. LLD interpreters can still be screened based on their interpreting experience and training, which can help ensure that your interpreter understands the basics of interpreting court proceedings and interpreter ethics. Your best bet in these cases is to work with an interpreting agency specializing in LLDs or start your search with interpreters who are members of professional associations:

There are more changes on the horizon as oversight of the LCI program moves from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation to the Judicial Branch Certification Commission (effective September 1, 2014). The pertinent laws will also be relocated to another section of the Government Code. I’ll update this post as soon as I have the new citations.

In the meantime, I hope this post can shed some light on court interpreter qualifications in Texas and make it easier to hire the right interpreter for your next proceeding.

Is the nomenclature this convoluted in other states, too? I’d love to hear how it works in your state in the comments.

P.S. Wondering about certified translations of documents? Believe it or not, that’s a whole separate issue, which I hope to address in a future post.


[Update 4/14/15] The Judicial Branch Certification Commission has put together a great FAQ section here.



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