Interpreting in the U.S. #2 – Training and Certification

Greetings from sunny Columbus, Ohio. My name is Allyson and I work here as a conference interpreter. Over the next 9 articles, I will be giving you an honest, at times critical, overview of the Japanese interpreting market in the US. Today, we tackle training and certification for interpreters. As I mentioned in my last article, I did not have the requisite training when I started working as an in-house interpreter for a manufacturing company. Since the company that hired me didn’t have any other interpreters to train me, I had to piece together my own training through books, seminars, and hours of practice. Therefore, interpreter training has become a passion of mine. Sadly, the rest of the US doesn’t seem to feel the same way.

The Current State of Interpreter Training in the U.S.

While the US has many interpreting degree programs at the graduate level, the vast majority do not cover the Japanese-English language pair. In addition, there are very few short-term certificate or training programs like those offered at schools such as Simul Academy or Inter School. Individuals who want to become Japanese interpreters are essentially left with three options. Get a master’s degree, get trained in Japan, or go without training. Most choose the later.

Degree and Certificate Programs

As far as master’s degree programs go, I believe it goes without saying that the premier program for Japanese interpreting in the US is at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey or MIIS. Since there is an abundance of information about this program available in both languages, I will not belabor the point here. Simply put, it is the only internationally renowned school that teaches conference interpreting in the Japanese-English language pair and terminates in a master’s degree.

The other option at the university level is the University of Hawaii – Manoa. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in Interpreting and/or Translation, they have a short-term training program in interpreting which even covers booth work. They also offer a one-year certificate in community interpreting.

If you are in the US and do not have the means to attend one of those schools, another option would be the online master’s, or undergraduate/graduate certificate from the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign. This program does not have an instructor dedicated to Japanese interpreting and translation, but they partner with the university’s language program to work with a variety of language pairs. In other words, an interpreter would teach your class, but a language teacher would check your work.

Language Departments are Catching-up

On that note, we should also acknowledge the initiatives of Japanese language departments at various universities around the country. Knowing that interpreting and translation is one of the potential career paths for their graduates, many university Japanese language departments have started to offer individual courses on translation and interpreting. These are usually taught by language professors who may or may not have practical work experience in the field. However, it is a step in the right direction as it brings focus to the profession and could lead to the creation of more complete training programs that incorporate the standards of our industry, instead of focusing on T&I as a means to language acquisition.

Interpreter Certification

In addition to limited training opportunities, there are very few certification options that evaluate Japanese<>English interpreting performance. There are a few tests and qualifications that one can achieve. Unfortunately, these do not carry the same weight in the US as the government certification that is available in a language like Spanish.

Let’s start with the courts. In the US, state court interpreter certification is mostly done through a consortium of member states. These states came together to agree on how to test court interpreters and which languages should be tested. Since Japanese is not a highly represented language in the majority of the US, it was not included in the consortium certification program. California had implemented their own oral certification exam for Japanese, but it was discontinued some time ago. There is also the Federal Court Interpreter program. While it does not certify in Japanese, it does offer the designation “Professionally Qualified Interpreter” to those of any language pair who have one of the following credentials: 1) passed the UN interpreter test (not in Japanese), 2) are a member in good standing of AIIC or TAALS, or 3) have been certified by the US State Department.

That brings us to the one, sure-fire certification available in our language pair. The State Department interpreting test is separated into 3 levels: liaison, seminar, and conference. The lower level “liaison” tests only consecutive, while the upper levels test simultaneous at various degrees of difficulty (the conference designation being for high-level diplomacy). An applicant may apply to test for the level s/he thinks fits s/him best, but the State Department may choose to test that applicant at a higher or lower level depending on their previous experience. Passing the test will mean a few perks for the interpreter. First, providing that they pass a background check, they will be allowed to take contracts from the State Department. As mentioned above, they would also be eligible to become a Professionally Qualified Court Interpreter. Lastly, passing the test allows them to be listed as a Credentialed Interpreter on the American Translators Association directory. Currently, no other certification will grant that designation to a Japanese interpreter.

If you simply want to get your skills evaluated and not go through the bureaucratic red tape, there is also the option of private certifications through from Pacific Interpreters and EJ Expert. These can give you an edge in employment if you don’t have the requisite work experience. Pacific Interpreters is one of the more common certifications used in the medical field to prove bilingual proficiency as a prerequisite for interpreter training. On the flip side, EJ Expert is doing something truly unprecedented for Japanese interpreters. Their private certification program involves not only a test of interpreting skills, but also taking several online courses on interpreting, English accent reduction, Japanese speaking skills, and business/marketing skills for interpreters. While their Certified Japanese Interpreter designation is not widely known in the market, in my opinion, it is one of the more thorough and credible certifications for our language pair.

Interpreter, Train Thyself!

So, after all that explanation, you might be wondering; how exactly did this girl get to where she is? What makes her qualified to write articles if she didn’t go through all that training and certification? Would you accept the answer of dazzling whit and a bit of luck? No? Well, the real answer would be much too long for an article that is already at risk of being labeled TLDR. So, I will just give you a brief overview of how I essentially patched together a training program for myself.

Desire to Learn

When I got my first job as an interpreter, I was painfully aware that I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no knowledge of basic interpreting techniques, such as deverbalization, note taking, and prediction. What’s more, I knew nothing about ethics or best practices, not to mention how to conduct myself professionally in meetings. The only thing I had going for me was that I wanted to learn.

Professional Help

So, like any reasonable millennial, I turned to the internet. There I found the Japan Association of Translators (JAT). Through this organization, I was able to ask questions to experienced interpreters on their forum (or mailing list at the time). I also attended IJET in my first year working. This was a wonderful opportunity to learn new things. Many of the gaps in my knowledge were filled in just one session by Izumi Suzuki! However, I also began to realize how much I still didn’t know.

Tons of Reading

From there, I turned to books to find the answers. Back in 2009, there weren’t as many Japanese books on interpreting as there are today. There was a recent boom in publishing books related to interpreting, most likely riding the hype leading up to the 2020 Olympics. However, at that time, every professional I asked pointed me to the out-of-print books by the forerunner in our profession, Nishiyama Sen. Unfortunately, these hard to find in the US, so I turned first to the European market.

Roderick Jones’ book Conference Interpreting Explained,  is an extremely thorough and succinct overview of the profession. Reading that lead me to James Nolan’s Interpretation: Techniques and Exercises (Professional Interpreting in the Real World), which goes into a little more of the theory and hands-on practice that all interpreters need. To learn more about the industry in Japan, I turned to the 通訳翻訳ジャーナル, and more specifically their book  『通訳の仕事 始め方・稼ぎ方』.

About that time, I found a YouTube channel where someone had uploaded 通訳練習テープ講座 which features both the aforementioned Nishiyama Sen and Kanayama Nobuo. The two of them, along with other guest speakers, lead new interpreters through practice exercises and give some of the best advice on interpreting that you could ask for. I practiced along with each of these tapes and the experience was invaluable.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice.

When doing this kind of self-practice activity, I can’t stress enough how important it is to record yourself. Any practice you do, whether interpreting, shadowing, or quick response, will do you no good if you can’t review it afterward. So, always have your IC recorder on. Here are some quick and easy guidelines to help you practice.

  • When you finish a practice interpreting session, always listen to your recording and give yourself feedback.
    • Look at the things you could have done better on the macro scale. Don’t nitpick about single words or numbers you missed, evaluate your overall communication of meaning.
      • Are you forgetting to complete sentences?
      • Is there a specific grammar point that you repeatedly struggle with?
      • Is there a certain sound or pronunciation that is not coming across clearly to your listeners?
    • Always work through the same assignment a several times, so you can work on fixing the errors.
    • When you feel that you have done your best possible interpretation of that speech, have another interpreter check your recording. Preferably a native speaker of your B language, as they will be able to check if your core understanding is correct and if all the nuances of the original are coming across. (Assuming you are interpreting B>A which is always the best place to start.)
    • Then, move on to a new speech while you are waiting for feedback.

Practicing for interpreting is just like playing scales on the piano: you may never have to play scales in front of an audience, but the more you practice them, the better your songs will sound when you do perform.

Be the Training You Want to See

Once I had gone as far as I could go doing my own study, I started organizing practice sessions and seminars in my area. I founded the Midwest Activities Committee (a regional branch of JAT) and built connections at The Ohio State University, who were also interested in building T&I training opportunities for their students. I brought in speakers and organized seminars and workshops for the dozens of in-house interpreters in my area. I am happy to say that this has become quite an active community with multiple events each year.

Even if you do not live in an area where that level of activity would be feasible, you can easily coordinate webinars and online practice through sites like Interpretime and eCPD. The up-shot is this: if someone else isn’t offering you the training you want, use your skills and make the training yourself!


What I want you to take away from this article is that you can train yourself, but it takes time and lots of effort and help from friends. It would be nice if there were more training opportunities available in the US, particularly online like the ones EJ Expert does. But whether you have been interpreting for 30 years or 3, you have the obligation to grow your skills. Don’t let yourself be complacent just because you have regular clients and there is no easy training in your area. You can always get better!

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Allyson Larimer

Allyson Larimer is a freelance conference interpreter based in the U.S. She worked for two Honda suppliers for 7 years doing in-house translation and interpretation before branching out on her own in 2017. She is dedicated to promoting training opportunities for translators and interpreters in the Midwestern states of the U.S. She founded and chairs the Midwest Activities Committee for JAT.

Allyson holds a BA in International Studies with an East Asian focus and an MA in TESOL. Her Japanese language study began at age 16 when she was dreaming of becoming an animator. While that dream faded, she continued to study the language throughout her post graduate schooling. She did a short home-stay in Okinawa during high school and 2 half-year study abroad trips in college and graduate school (both in Aichi). Despite having a TESOL degree and Japanese proficiency, she did not end up working in Japan. During the economic downturn, she found an opportunity working for a U.S. based Japanese company and has continued down the interpreting path ever since.