An Introduction to Becoming a U.S. Federal Court Interpreter

If you want to make money as a freelance interpreter, there are a couple of paths you can take.

You can become a corporate interpreter.

You can become a state interpreter. For example, here’s how you can become an interpreter in the state of Texas.

You can work for the United Nations.

Or you can become a U.S. federal court interpreter.

Before you do, though, remember. Becoming a federal interpreter is not an easy process.

If you thought it was hard to become an interpreter for your state’s court system, the federal court system process can be even harder.

But it is doable.

And it can be rewarding.

More so than other interpreting gigs.

Here’s what you need to know.

Federal Court Interpreter Certification Process

The first thing to know is that the process is run by the U.S. Court System Administrative Office, which administers the exam and qualifies interpreters.

The way that the office qualifies interpreters is by dividing them into three categories.

  1. Certified Interpreters
  2. Professionally Qualified Interpreters
  3. Language Skilled or Ad Hoc Interpreters

Knowing the difference between these categories is important, because each type has different qualifications.

Additionally, these different categories determine how much money you’ll be paid for your work as a federal court interpreter.

Certified Interpreters

The “certified interpreter” category is only available for Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Navajo.

This isn’t entirely true, though, because the U.S. Court System Administrative Office only offers the qualifying test in Spanish.

So if you don’t interpret Spanish, then you’re out of luck getting the certified interpreter designation.

If you do speak Spanish, though, you have to take and pass the  Spanish-English Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination.

I won’t go into detail about the test except to say that you first have to pass a written test before you can take the oral part.

If you want to know more about the test, you can find more at the test’s site.

Another important thing to know is that becoming a certified process is not a quick process.

Each part of the exam is traditionally only offered every other year.

That means if you take and pass the written test this year, you won’t be taking the oral part until the following year.

Professionally Qualified Interpreters

OK, so if you’re not a Spanish, Haitian Creole, or Navajo interpreter, you’ll have to settle for the designation as a professionally qualified interpreter.

What does that mean?

It means that instead of taking a designated U.S. Court System exam, you’ll have to prove your interpretation awesomeness in other ways.

If you’re a sign language interpreter, you’ll have to prove that you have a Specialist Certificate: Legal (SC:L) from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

If you’re an interpreter in a spoken language, you’ve got three options:

  • Show that you’ve passed the United Nations interpreter test in English to and from your language.
  • Show that you’ve passed a U.S. State Department seminar or conference interpreter test. One of the language pair has to be English. Note that you can’t count the escort interpreter test.
  • Prove that you’re a member of good standing of either of the following two interpretation organizations:
    • American Association of Language Specialists
    • Association Internationale des Interprètes de Conférence

Language Skilled/Ad Hoc Interpreters

The final category of interpreters that can translate for the U.S. federal court system are those that fit into the language skilled category.

There is no specific exam or certification process for becoming a language skilled interpreter.

Instead, it’s up to each federal court to determine this category.

The way this is determined is an arbitrary process, and is defined as follows:

an interpreter who can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the court the ability to interpret court proceedings from English to a designated language and from that language into English

Pretty vague, right?

Most of the more well-known and used languages used by the federal court system rely on certified or professionally qualified interpreters.

However, if you can interpret in a less-commonly taught language, and don’t have any of the requirements outlined for professionally qualified interpreters, you could find some work as a language skilled interpreter.

Getting Paid as  Freelance Federal Court Interpreter

All right, so if you fit into one of these categories, let’s look at the important thing: what you’ll earn.


This is straight from the U.S. Court interpreter website:

Federal Court Interpreter Fees

And that’s it.

Now, remember, that as a federal court interpreter, you won’t be working every day of the year.

And you’ll have to travel to your court location for your job.

However, many cases last more than a single day, and the money can add up.

Until next time.

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