“I failed the certification exam. Now what do I do?”

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One of the most commonly asked questions we receive at Interpreter Education Online is,”I just took the certification exam and failed. Now what do I do?” To answer this, we turned to our Russian interpretation instructor, evaluator, and mentor Irina Jesionowski. Irina, a certified interpreter, has worked with many students who were unable to pass a certification exam the first time and has helped them strengthen their skills so they were better prepared for the test the next time around.


So, you just found out that you failed a certification exam. This is definitely a trying time, but as the saying goes, “success is not built on success; it’s built on failure.” Take this failure as an opportunity to learn how to perform better.


1.  Identify Your Deficiencies   

Your exam evaluation form is a great starting point. Read it carefully and determine which skills and knowledge you are lacking. Most likely, you need to deal with a combination of challenges:

–       Insufficient proficiency in the subject matter, be it law, health care, or   

        international relations – in both of your working languages

–       Insufficient command of your working languages, language A included

–       Inadequate interpretation skills

There are no easy fixes for any of these problems. However, if you don’t know what went wrong and are not willing to be brutally honest with yourself, there will be no progress in your professional development.

Probably the hardest question you need to ask yourself is whether you indeed have the aptitude for this profession. Interpreting is a performing art, and it is perfectly normal that many people are just not born with the ability to acquire interpretation skills. How upset are you with the fact that you are not a consummate violin player or a ballerina? I am not upset at all. Well, maybe just a little bit…     


2. Come up with a Game Plan

In my opinion, the first thing you need to determine is whether you feel confident continuing with self-study and self-training or would you benefit from the help of a competent mentor and a structured training program?

Despite passing three different qualification/certification exams on the first try without completing a single formal educational course in interpreting or working with an instructor, I have grown to treasure both. In fact, every exam, albeit successfully passed, made me acutely aware of the depth of my ignorance and imperfection of my skills. This very experience prompted me to seek opportunities for continuing my education at the postgraduate level and for engaging experts as my private mentors. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we won’t know that until someone points it out to us. Studying under the guidance of qualified specialists will allow you to achieve the required level of competency quicker and easier.

If continuing on your own, you need to set specific training goals and the timeframe for accomplishing them. Identify the best resources for each area you need to improve and use them. For example, if you are preparing for a court interpreting exam, find study books on the U.S. justice system and read them carefully; find corresponding texts in your other working language; research challenging expressions, compile glossaries, and perform terminology drills. If you need to improve your interpretation skills, practice every day – purposely and deliberately. Grit and doggedness are essential for achieving excellence. Find self-assessment tools to monitor your progress.


3. Be Prepared to Repeat All the Above for the Rest of Your Career

In my book, passing a certification exam is not a reason to celebrate. After all, these exams are designed to show that candidates are merely minimally qualified for performing the duty of a language interpreter. The challenges we face in our professional practice far exceed the qualification exams’ level of difficulty. No one in a courtroom speaks at the rate of 120 words per minute and many litigants don’t complete their sentences. The concepts we need to render are much more complex than those included into exam texts. After the initial acquisition of interpretation skills, we need to work hard in order to maintain and perfect them. Languages are constantly evolving, and we have to keep abreast of all new developments. No rest for the weary. But isn’t that what makes our profession so exhilarating?

Happy interpreting!

Irina Jesionowski