Certifications played an important role in interpreting and translation becoming professionalized. They also represent a commitment to professional standards and create the illusion of a certain quality promise. As nice as that sounds, it’s not that simple. For three main reasons:
It is important to note the difference between certifications and certificates. For linguists who wish to stay ahead of the game and remain relevant, there is a need for continued education, and many institutions provide continued education courses that culminate with a certificate to prove that you have taken the weekend-long or week-long course. There are thousands of such certificates. However, these certificates are not the same as a certification.
Certifications are a third-party attestation to an individual’s knowledge and proficiency in a given industry or profession. Certifications by definition are time-limited and often expire after a certain number of years – continuing education and renewing certifications are usually part of the process. Certifications within the language services industry are often affiliated with associations or industry organizations with a stake in raising industry standards.
Looking at these figures, it is clear that the math does not add up. The existing certifications do not even come close to covering all language access needs in the US.
The next two graphs illustrate this further. The first graph compares the languages other than English (LOTE) spoken in homes in the United States vs. the number of languages available for interpreter certification, per certifying body. The second graph shows the number of languages lacking interpreter certification, per certifying body.
According to the US Census Bureau, 44.6 percent of California residents speak a language other than English at home. With 18.6 percent, California is also the state with the largest population of residents who are limited English proficient (LEP) — 10 percent more than the national average.
In addition, the California Department of Mental Health (DMH) reports that forty-nine of fifty-eight California counties meet the minimum requirement for the threshold language definition. A threshold language is defined as being spoken by at least 3,000 beneficiaries of the Medi-Cal Eligibility Data System (MEDS), or five percent of the population in a certain geographical area, whichever is lower. Thirteen distinct languages qualified as threshold languages in California.
In other words, there is a significant demand for translation and interpreting services in California, which are required in order to comply with language access regulations. Yet, the number of certified interpreters and translators is extremely low.
Using data from the US Census Bureau, and registries from associations and professional organizations, we estimate that there are around 38,600 qualified (not certified) translators and interpreters in California. We are using one estimated figure for both professions, as there can be a significant overlap between the two. This is because while someone might predominantly work as an interpreter, they also have the ability to work as a translator and vice versa.
Throughout all of California, only about 12.6 percent of these 38,600 interpreters and translators hold a certification. This is not for lack of skill and professionalism but due to a lack of certifications for language combinations and specializations and the catch-22 of work experience and certification requirements mentioned above. The two graphs below show the number of certified interpreters and translators in California by certifying body in total figures. The certifying bodies represented in the graphs are:
Certifications are by no means a bad thing. As stated above, they significantly contribute to the professionalization of translation and interpreting, which in turn comes with certain industry standards and status. However, making certifications mandatory for the delivery of language services would actually prevent language access.
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