Four Myths about ATA’s Certification Exam

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

ATA’s certification exam was instituted in 1973. Its purpose is “to elevate professional standards, enhance individual performance, and identify translators who demonstrate professional level translation skills.”1 Every year, a large number of professional translators and aspiring translators take the exam in one of the 27 language combinations currently available.

Considering that ATA certification is one of the industry’s most respected and recognized credentials, there are many benefits for those who hold it.

Client Recognition: ATA certification is a voluntary credential; as such, it reflects an individual’s strong commitment to the profession and its ethical practice—a distinction that can open doors to new business and higher compensation. While ATA certification does not guarantee you work, it does help.

CT Designation: An ATA-certified translator may use the letters “CT” as a designation of certification status. It is, in a sense, a “seal of approval” from your colleagues that says you are competent to do the job.2

Directory Listing: Users of ATA’s Directory of Translators and Interpreters can limit their search results to those members who are ATA-certified—a definite edge in standing out from the competition.

Voting Rights: ATA voting rights are conferred automatically on translators who pass the certification exam. Voting members have the opportunity to participate in the election of Board members.

To earn ATA certification, a translator must pass a challenging three-hour exam. The exam assesses the language skills of a professional translator: comprehension of the source-language text, translation techniques, and writing in the target language. Precisely because of the high standards of the exam, there is also a low percentage of people who pass (under 20% overall). Understandably, many people who fail feel disappointed and wonder why, especially if they have many years of experience. Here are four myths that have developed regarding the difficulty level of ATA’s exam.

  1. ATA’s exam is graded on a whim.

Translation, by its very nature, is somewhat subjective (there is more than one way of expressing something correctly). ATA has worked long and hard to make the grading process as objective as possible. ATA has developed two tools that are applied to all exams for a neutral, consistent assessment of errors. One is the Flowchart for Error Point Decisions, which helps graders answer the question of whether there is a “mechanical” error or a “transfer” error.3 A mechanical error is one that affects the way the target language is written, and can be identified without viewing the source text. A transfer error affects the meaning and it is found by comparing the target to the source.

Once the grader determines the type of error, she or he then needs to consult the Framework for Standardized Error Marking.4 This tool defines the error categories and points the grader in the right direction. Once the grader finds the category, she or he goes back to the flowchart to determine how many points to allocate to the error.

All graders in each language combination must follow these two tools closely. As an additional safeguard against subjective evaluation, there are always two graders for each exam. If for some reason the initial two graders cannot agree on a grade, the exam is sent to a third grader for final determination.

  1. Grading is artificially skewed to keep the number of certified professionals low.

This practice would be dishonest. Graders work very closely in pairs in order to determine an accurate assessment. Many people are surprised when they receive a “Fail” grade and cannot understand why, especially if they have been working as translators for many years. But there are people in the field who have not received formal translation training, and perhaps this is the first time they have been evaluated by a professional translator.

Translation is an activity that people from other educational backgrounds can start at any time without necessarily going to school for that purpose. For example, you cannot decide suddenly that, starting tomorrow, you will be a lawyer. Being a lawyer requires years of formal training. But many people who speak two or more languages believe, often mistakenly, that this alone qualifies them to be professional translators, so they apply for ATA certification. Many of them fail and are disappointed. Being a good professional translator also requires years of training, practice, and experience. This is what ATA’s certification exam measures. In other words, you take the exam to prove what your years of experience have taught you, not to get a piece of paper to start your career.

  1. The practice tests intentionally do not reflect the difficulty of the real exam.

That simply is not true. All practice tests are real exams that were used in previous years. For security purposes, the exams are changed every calendar year. So, as graders retire exams, they begin using old exams as practice tests. Also, the same methodology and tools mentioned above are used to grade practice tests. The people who grade practice tests are the same graders of the real exam.

  1. Exam passages have hidden tricks. The passages selected go through rigorous scrutiny by graders, not to insert tricks, but to identify proper and realistic challenges that translators face in real life. They are selected by graders and approved by the Passage Selection Task Force. Part of the process of measuring someone’s ability to translate is to find out if the translator can transfer words and expressions in the context of the topic accurately. For example, the so-called “false friends” or Anglicisms in a language other than English are usually a good way to identify a good (or a bad) translator. The seasoned professional will not write the first word that comes to mind in the target language because it resembles the source, but will think in his or her target language in order to find the right equivalent.

There are challenges in the exam, not tricks, and that is why it is highly recommended that people take the practice test first. The practice test is a lot cheaper, will be graded by the same graders, and will be returned to the examinee corrected so that he or she can determine readiness for the real thing.5

There is nothing easy about the certification exam, but the sense of accomplishment earned is something you will value throughout your career. At present, certification is offered in the following language combinations:

  • Into English from: Arabic, Croatian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.
  • From English into: Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Ukrainian. You can find much more information about the certification exam from ATA’s website: http://www.atanet.org/ certification.

Notes

  1. ATA Certification Overview
  2. ATA-Certified Translator Seal
  3. Flowchart for Error Point Decisions
  4. Framework for Standardized Error Marking
  5. Practice Test Information

Author bio

Mercedes De la Rosa-Sherman is an ATA-certified English>Spanish translator and a member of ATA’s Certification Committee. Contact: delarosasherman@gmail.com.

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