Khmer and Punjabi court interpreters raise concerns about tests

CFI President Mike Ferreira (far left) with Khmer interpreters Paline, Sina, Bo and Veasna.
CFI President Mike Ferreira (far left) with Khmer interpreters Paline Soth, Sina New, Bo Uce and Veasna Loek.


CFI has drafted a letter of support for these interpreters.  Find out more by clicking here.


SAN FRANCISCO – CFI President Michael Ferreira urged the Judicial Council on Tuesday to extend the grace period for Khmer and Punjabi interpreters to gain certification and convene a panel to review serious concerns about the testing process in both the languages.

California lost more than half of its already small Khmer employee interpreter force earlier this month when the court dismissed them for not passing the newly-required certification exam. The state is also in danger of losing 13 out of 15 Punjabi court interpreters who have not yet passed their newly-added certification exam. Those who failed the exam include interpreters with impressive credentials and decades of experience, raising questions about the testing and rating process.

“CFI has highlighted to the AOC and the council problems with the delivery and administration of interpreter services in the California court system,” Ferreira said. “Among these is a serious concern about the validity and fairness of the certification process and exam procedures.”

In the case of the Khmer exam, test takers say the certification exam included Anglicisms, incorrect grammar and use of idioms that don’t exist in the Khmer language, such as “It’s a piece of cake.” This left test candidates deciding whether to render an interpretation on what the test designer might have meant or to use the faulty phrasing in the exam.

Among those failed was Paline Soth, who developed the English-Khmer legal glossary for Washington state courts. In addition, Soth is the only Khmer interpreting instructor in California and has worked in the Los Angeles Superior Court for 28 years.

“My colleagues here are the cream of the crop Khmer interpreters. All rose from the ashes of the Killing Fields. All have university degrees … Sadly, we were all failed in this questionable exam,” Soth told the Council, while Khmer interpreters Bo Uce, Veasna Loek and Sina New stood behind him.

While Punjabi interpreters have until May to pass their certification exam, several interpreters have highlighted serious ongoing concerns about that exam.

In that case, local Punjabi interpreters were contracted to develop and rate their own colleagues and relatives. The first administration of the Punjabi certification exam had to be suspended amid questions about the integrity of the test development and rating process.

Diplomatic level interpreter Gurdeep Chawla became aware and reported the corruption in the exam preparation process. Despite having interpreted for the World Bank, the Indian Parliament and President Obama, Chawla has been failed twice on the Punjabi state court exam.

“On the one hand, I was selected by the U.S. State Department to interpret for the President and the AOC hired me to train interpreters, and on the other hand I was failed twice on an exam that was much less difficult than others I have passed,” Chawla told the council.

These questionable circumstances have caused the CFI to ask the Council to convene a panel of justice partners and stakeholders to look into the exam issues while extending the grace periods for Khmer and Punjabi interpreters by two testing cycles.

Judicial Council members said they would delve into the matter at the March meeting.

CFI leadership and staff continue working on the issue and will keep affected members updated.

The California Federation of Interpreters (CFI) is a unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild which represents nearly 900 court interpreters who work in more than 50 languages.


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Michael Applegate

Pacific Media Workers Executive Officer