Washington State May Be First US State to Require Licenses for Translators, Interpreters

Washington State May Be First US State to Require Licenses for Translators, Interpreters

Washington State is currently considering a bill that would establish professional licenses for spoken language translators and interpreters (T&Is).

Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle) sponsored the bill, Senate Bill 5995, which passed the State Senate on February 2, 2024, on a 31-19 vote.

“If enacted, this legislation would make Washington the first state to officially recognize interpreters and translators as licensed professionals, emphasizing the importance of their role,” stated a writeup from Saldaña’s party, in which the bill is described as a step in improving language access for individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP). 

According to the text of the bill itself, however, SB 5995 is intended to standardize the requirements and processes across several state agencies using T&Is. In practice, it would introduce an additional layer of bureaucracy for T&Is, and possibly language services providers (LSPs), operating in Washington.

In a newsletter for the Association of Language Companies, Advocacy Consultant Bill Rivers wrote that the bill might require remote interpreters to obtain a Washington state license — even if located outside of the state — in order to interpret for these state agencies. 

In Washington, the Department of Social and Health Services. the Health Care Authority, the Office of Administrative Hearings, and the Administrative Office of the Courts are all required to provide translation and interpreting for users of their services with LEP. (Notably, SB 5995 would not apply to American Sign Language Interpreters.) 

Requirements for T&Is, however, vary by agency. For example, the Administrative Office of the Courts, for instance, certifies interpreters, but also works with “qualified” linguists who lack that specific certification. Bilingual workers or contract linguists for the Health Care Authority, by contrast, can either be certified via a program or simply deemed “competent” in a language by an outside association or organization with a reputation for determining the qualifications of T&Is.

Exams

SB 5995 would charge Washington’s Department of Licensing (DOL) with creating an advisory committee on this issue; developing and administering exams; issuing and denying licenses; and compiling and maintaining an up-to-date list of licensed T&Is.

The DOL would also determine reciprocity, identifying the states with equivalent credentialing requirements and issuing licenses to applicants accordingly. Interpreters certified by certain national healthcare interpreting certification bodies would be exempt from the licensure requirement but might choose to obtain licensure without taking the exam.

Exams would initially be adapted from the Department of Social and Health Services’ existing Language Testing and Certification Program, with the possibility of modifications with input from the advisory committee.

The DOL would be required to administer exams for licensure in at least Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese. 

The result of the bill would be a hierarchy of T&Is: licensed translators; licensed, certified interpreters; and licensed, “authorized” interpreters. 

Of course, the DOL is also expected to establish “reasonable” exam, licensing, and renewal fees; while not yet specified, a fiscal note summary estimated that about USD 4.74m would be earned through the T&I licensing program by 2029.

If passed, SB 5995 would require the advisory committee to take form by July 1, 2025. Its members would include T&Is; a member of a community organization serving LEP populations; three healthcare providers; three representatives of interpreter groups; members of the state departments affected by the licensing program; and two members representing local community and technical colleges.

State agencies would mandate the exclusive use of licensed interpreters and translators beginning January 1, 2029.