Getting Started in Academic Translation: Working with Credentials

By Carolyn Yohn

Credential translation can be a great way to transition into your new career as a translator. Besides acting as a bridge to your previous career as a student, this work really pushes you to hone your research skills and proofreading eye. The manageable length will keep you from feeling overwhelmed, and the variety of clients you can help will keep you feeling satisfied.

Be forewarned: credential translation is unlike most, if not all, of the translations you may have done during your university coursework. Translating diplomas, transcripts, and other credentials is the least literary type of translation you will ever produce, because it is only an intermediary step in the life of this document. Unlike most translation work, in which your target text will be used as a text in its own right, in credential translation, your work will be used by a professional evaluator to make a judgement about the original text.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators says this about the role of the translator versus the role of the evaluator during credential reviews (emphasis added):

In general, translation services only translate documents from one language to another without applying interpretative judgment, while credential evaluation services apply informed judgments to the interpretation of credentials and determination of the equivalency of educational programs, degrees awarded, and/or grades achieved to international and/or US standards. (source)

In short, leave the evaluating to the evaluator. Unless you, as a translator, are also qualified to work as a credential evaluator (which takes five to ten years to learn properly), it is unlikely that you have a deep enough understanding of all the information conveyed by the document to stray from the source at all. This is not the time to use translator footnotes or add in an extra line or phrase explaining the cultural nuance of some title or word choice. Evaluators are carefully trained to access this information on their own using your literal translation and their extensive background knowledge.

So, then, what is the right way to translate a credential? The first steps are probably already familiar—conduct background research and create a draft. Look up the administrative bodies and institutions involved in conferring this credential. Many education systems are geared toward welcoming international students, so there probably already are official translations for the department names, staff titles, or even course titles that crop up in your credential. Check everything, even the more “obvious” titles.

If you’re stuck in your hunt for a particular school system or administrative body (and it sometimes does take a bit of time to find a bilingual resource on these institutions), the following might help:

  • The UN has a searchable glossary of education-related terms on their statistics site, if you need help deciding whether a certain grade is considered primary, secondary, or tertiary, for instance. They also publish profiles of education by country.
  • World Education Services has collected links on the education systems in most of the world’s countries.
  • Credential Consultants, which sent representatives to the last ATA conference, has posted the list of resources they shared during their November 2013 presentation on the resources page of their website.

Be sure to budget ample time to replicate the source formatting as carefully as you can—this helps evaluators quickly and accurately compare the different parts of the source and target documents. Don’t be frightened by the more intricate credential layouts! Optical character recognition (OCR) tools can give you a great head start on the formatting work involved, and it can (usually) save you a lot of time. My OCR software of choice is ABBYY FineReader, but do your own research and see what you like best. Alternatively, you can charge by the hour for your time.

A word of warning: if you use an OCR tool to help with formatting, don’t copy images from the original source. Copying logos, stamps, and signature scribbles might be a great added value to corporate or other texts, but not so with credentials. Evaluators and judges appreciate knowing at a single glance which is the translation and which is the original. Unless your client specifically requests that you copy the images over to the target document, stick to the simple [seal/stamp/signature: text] formula.

Look back at the original document for multiple rounds of quality control to make sure that you have translated all of the stamps, seals, and scribbles. Even if all you see is some obscure chicken scratch in a corner of the document, note it using brackets as [illegible handwriting], for instance. Every drop of ink may convey information about the provenance of the credential and the person it describes, and every piece of information might be critical in informing the evaluator’s decision.

The final, optional step in credential translation is to provide a statement of accuracy along with your target text. Jill Sommer has provided some good example statements on her blog (the comments to this post are equally useful!). Note that, in the United States, you do not need to be certified by an official body (like the ATA) to certify your work in this way. Some American law firms or agencies require it, but no law exists to that effect. If you live outside of the United States, check your national legislation before you dive in.

About the author: Carolyn Yohn is a legal and academic translator in Granite Bay, CA. She works with individuals, lawyers, and agencies to help make immigration and business in the US easier for French and Hungarian speakers. Carolyn also provides translations pro bono for, promoting and defending children’s rights around the world.


2 thoughts on “Getting Started in Academic Translation: Working with Credentials

  1. Pingback: Credential translation tips | translation, untangled

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