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.

Teacher’s Top Ten: Business Practices

One of the main reasons we encourage students to join ATA is to take advantage of the wellspring of knowledge surrounding best practices—the kind that make working for yourself a smooth ride rather than one riddled with potholes.

Over the years, I have assembled a collection of ATA materials that I share with students and mentees alike. Because when we present ourselves as professionals, we all benefit.

Here then are my top ten professional business practices resources:

10. Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Project This blog post gets you started building a checklist that you should consult when communicating with a client about a potential project. I had a checklist next to my phone for years until I committed it to memory.

09. Translation Certificate vs. Certification This one pairs nicely with What is a Certified Translation. If you’re still confused about the difference between a certificate, certification and a certified translation after reading this, go back and read them again.

08. “Hot” Specializations Past President Corinne McKay takes on the question of specializing in her ATA Chronicle column.

07. Transitioning from Classroom to Career in Translation A free ATA webinar from someone who made the transition herself, packed with practical information.

06. Tips For Navigating Your First ATA Conference A rite of passage for many students, the ATA Conference is a transformational experience that for many marks the beginning of their professional career. Because it’s an investment, it’s a good idea to come prepared, which is what this free ATA webinar does.

05. Preparing to take the ATA Certification Exam While it’s intended to be a mid-career exam, many talented students will sit for the exam after a few years. Watching this free ATA webinar will give you an idea of whether you are ready to take the exam, and how to prepare for it if you are ready to take the plunge.

04. ATA Compensation Survey (the Executive Summary is free, and the full report is available to members) One of the hardest issues T&I practitioners wrestle with is how much to charge. The ATA compensation survey provides a context for understanding what colleagues are charging. The full survey breaks things down by language and geography, and is also useful for influencing policy makers. Be sure to spend some quality time with it before you get to number 3:

03. Setting a Fair Price: It’s All About You A classic article by veteran translator Jonathan Hine that walks you through the full process of setting your rates. Bonus hint: look on the ATA website for the US CalPro Worksheet, a spreadsheet file that does the math for you.

02. ATA Guide to a Translation Services Agreement and ATA Guide to an Interpreting Services Agreement Free, editable downloads of modular contract language that you can include and customize to meet your own needs and situation.

And the number one resource I want every student of translation and interpreting to have:

01. The ATA Code of Ethics and Professional Practice and Commentary Far from being a dry, lifeless legal document, the ATA CEPP embodies our professionalism. The accompanying commentary is a living document that illustrates the concepts with easy-to-grasp situations. Since you signed on to uphold it when you joined ATA, you should probably be very familiar with it—and bookmark it.

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About the author: Caitilin Walsh is an ATA-Certified French-English translator who delights in producing publication-quality translations for the computer industry and food lovers alike. A graduate of Willamette University (OR) and the Université de Strasbourg (France), and a past-President of the American Translators Association, she currently chairs the ATA Education & Pedagogy Committee. She brings her strong opinions on professionalism as an instructor of Ethics and Business Practices at the Translation and Interpreting Institute at Bellevue College, Chair of the T&I Advisory Committee for the Puget Sound Skills Center (both in Washington State), the ALC Bridge Committee, and the Executive Board of the Joint National Committee for Language (JNCL-NCLIS). When not at her computer, she can be found pursuing creative endeavors from orchestra to the kitchen. She can be emailed at cwalsh@nwlink.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @caitilinwalsh.

Common Errors Found in the English>Spanish Certification Exam

Reblogged from The ATA Chronicle, with permission

ATA certification continues to be a sought-after credential. As a way to prepare for this demanding exam, ATA has been offering practice tests for many years, which are real exam passages that have been “retired.” In addition to the practice test, ATA has been offering exam preparation workshops taught by ATA exam graders to help candidates better understand how to prepare for the exam. In the past three years, ATA has offered regional workshops in Boston, Alexandria, Houston, and Mexico City. These workshops are also offered at ATA’s Annual Conference, including this year in Palm Springs.

The three-hour workshop for Spanish<>English includes an analysis of the different error categories and a practice test that registered participants are invited to complete and submit prior to the workshop. The graded practice tests are returned during the workshop and used as the basis for discussion of the passage. Here are some of the most common errors made by candidates in the English>Spanish combination.

Mimicking English Syntax: Many candidates mimic the English syntax without stopping to consider that Spanish sentences often have to be organized differently. English is a more concise language than Spanish, and sometimes it’s necessary to change word order in a translation, or to provide a verb or an article that is not present in English. Common errors include the absence of definite and indefinite articles, the mimicking of the passive voice, and the use of prepositions that don’t reflect Spanish usage.

False Friends: These are English words that resemble Spanish words in their spelling, but have a different, sometimes opposite, meaning. As their name indicates, these words are very untrustworthy. Many candidates tend to choose the word that looks like the English for their translation, and, in so doing, make a transfer error. The more an English word resembles a Spanish one, the more necessary it is to verify that the meaning is the one that we need in the target language. Always confirm this using a monolingual dictionary.

Incorrect Use of Present Continuous Tense and Gerund/Present Participle: This is one aspect of grammar that’s very different in English and Spanish. Most of the time, in Spanish we cannot imitate the use of the present continuous tense or gerund/present participle. In fact, this is an aspect of Spanish grammar that requires study and practice. Just because you see a verb ending in –ing in English doesn’t mean you can replicate it in Spanish. Candidates lose a lot of points because they don’t understand the correct use of the present continuous tense and gerund/present participle in Spanish.

Mechanical Errors: These are what we call “controllable” errors. Mechanical errors are those evident to a Spanish reader without having to compare the text to the English original. Such errors include punctuation, capitalization, spelling, diacritical marks, grammar, and syntax. I say they are “controllable” because ATA’s certification exam is an open-book exam. It is therefore possible, and encouraged, for candidates to consult dictionaries, grammar books, and style manuals during the exam. As graders, we’ve found a number of candidates who fail due to mechanical errors. In other words, the candidate transfers the meaning well from English into Spanish, but makes too many mechanical errors.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you’re planning to take the certification exam in the English>Spanish combination, a practice test is the place to start. Brush up on your Spanish grammar and consult some style manuals to guide you in avoiding mechanical errors. And if you’re able, attend one of the regional workshops that are being offered a few times a year in different parts of the country and at ATA’s Annual Conference in the fall.


Mercedes De la Rosa-Sherman, CT has been a professional translator for over 30 years. An ATA-certified English>Spanish translator and a member of ATA’s Certification Committee, she has been a grader for ATA’s English>Spanish certification exam for over 10 years. She is also a state and federally certified court interpreter. She has a master’s degree in medical translation. Contact: delarosasherman@gmail.com.

My personal style guide for the ATA translation exam into Spanish

This post was originally published on the Gaucha Translations blog. It is reposted with permission from the author.

Based on the comments from a failed exam. I am writing this to help others not fail the same way!

  1. Include necessary clarifying information to reduce ambiguity. (register former inmates/registrar para votar a los que habían sido…) (spread the word to thousands… /informarles la decisión a decenas de miles…) Keep it to a minimum. The translation should stand on its own. Sometimes a cultural point needs to be made or an explanation given, but the passages are carefully selected so that does NOT have to be done.
  2. Make sure caps and punctuation follow Spanish rules. Double check RAE resources in case of doubt. (el partido demócrata: capitalize. Es nombre propio. Partido Demócrata)
  3. Get your quote marks in the Spanish order! Dijo, “Esto no me gusta un comino”. (las comillas van antes de las comas y los puntos en castellano, al revés que en inglés.
  4. Words in the RAE dictionary count for sure. Word creation counts, even using Spanish morphology rules, but they have to follow accepted Spanish morphology rules, and words shouldn’t be created when other words already exist in the dictionaries of reference. (former prisoners/excarcelados: corrected to exreclusos, antiguos reos).
  5. Maintain the register.
  6. Use proper Spanish syntax. (reconoce es posible: reconoce que es posible)
  7. Word Reference is a good starting terminology resource. Verify its terms with a second source.
  8. Don’t get more creative than necessary. Often a literal translation is the best. (might soften their image/que posiblemente matice su imagen:corrected to suavice)
  9. Check the monolingual dictionary, but not just for the meaning of a word. Check it for usage: is it transitive? How does it fit in a sentence? (spread the word to thousands… /informarles a miles… : informarles la decisión a decenas de miles…) informar is a transitive verb.
  10. Don’t stutter! (presos en las prisiones)
  11. Spelling! (libertado condicional: libertad condicional)
  12. Faux ami (non violent drug offenses/ofensas no violentas: delitos no violentos) Las ofensas son algo totalmente distinto en castellano.
  13. Printed resources are another reliable choice. Having printed resources also keeps you from going back and forth from your document to another screen, which is hard with the laptop. My favorites:
    • Alcaraz-Varó legal and business (those are two separate dictionaries), but the Merl Bilingual Law Dictionary by Cuauthemoc Gallegos actually had the best answers in all cases and was easier to sort through the answers. The Business Spanish Dictionary, by Peter Collin Publishing is equivalent to the Merl in my opinion. For the general texts, we shouldn’t need anything in greater depth than these dictionaries. Cabanellas is great, but they are unidirectional volumes, so you have to buy both volumes to have both directions.
    • CLAVE (monolingual Spanish), DELE (Diccionario de la Lengua Española – latest version of the RAE dictionary): take them both.
    • Webster’s New World International Spanish Dictionary. I like this dictionary because it includes a lot of technical terminology, so most technical terms we run into are likely to be here.
    • El buen uso del español. This book has a two-page spread on the main issues of Spanish grammar and spelling. It was published by RAE in 2013, after all the new Gramática and Ortografía works of 2010 were completed, with the intention of being a quick reference.
    • Ortografía escolar de la lengua española. Published by RAE for students in 2013 as a quick reference.
    • The American Heritage College Dictionary (English monolingual)
  14. Remember, the general text can have a lot of specialist content in it. Don’t count on general texts not including technical vocabulary. Be ready for basic technical vocabulary. What you won’t have to do is deal with formulaic technical texts.
  15. Good book for learning Spanish writing: Curso de Redacción – Teoría y Practica, by Gonzalo Martín Vivaldi
  16. Now, go and beat it! May this experience help you!

Image source: Pixabay

Ergonomics for ATA’s Certification Exam: Unspoken Advice with Untold Benefits

Reblogged from The ATA Chronicle, with permission

Shortly after I took the computerized version of ATA’s certification exam in 2017, I received an e-mail from one of the proctors—whom I had thanked for stepping up to proctor at the last minute—in which she commented on the contrast between my “ergonomic” setup and the hunched posture of my fellow test takers. It would make for a great ad, she mused.

I had to laugh. I didn’t go into the exam with ergonomics in mind, but having seen the difference a few ergonomic upgrades to my home office earlier that year had made in my focus and overall well-being, it seemed like a no-brainer to apply the same principles to ensure my comfort and efficiency during the exam.

It may have seemed silly to focus on the details of a workstation I would only use for three hours, but the proctor was right: it ended up making all the difference, not only in terms of comfort, but more importantly, in terms of efficiency and state of mind. If you’re anything like me, sitting up straight and looking directly ahead fosters greater confidence and alertness than does being stooped over a mess of pages and books. Perhaps there’s something to be said after all for social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s widely discussed research on the impact of body position on our confidence and, in turn, our chances of success.1

While ergonomics wasn’t at the forefront of my mind going into the exam, it’s now the first thing I mention when colleagues ask for advice on how to prepare. There’s plenty of guidance out there on the theoretical side of the assessment, but how often do we hear about the importance of a comfortable and efficient workspace?

By sharing some of what worked for me on exam day, I hope to encourage others to discover the difference that straightening up and finding comfort and confidence can make, both during the exam and in our everyday work.

Use a stand to keep your computer screen at eye level and a page holder to prop up the text.

Ergonomics: It’s About More than Comfort

Before we get into the details, let’s consider why ergonomics matters. In short, it goes well beyond physical comfort.

First, what is ergonomics? The authors of an article in the January/February 2017 issue of The ATA Chronicle point out that the concept encompasses more than “office chairs, keyboards, and computer mice.”2 As cited in that article, the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) defines ergonomics as being concerned with the optimization of “human well-being and overall system performance”3—that is, it’s about a lot more than a comfortable office chair.

In fact, one of the three branches defined by IEA is “cognitive ergonomics,” which is concerned with mental workload, human reliability, and the interaction between humans and computers. We’ll come back to this later.

For now, let’s look at recommendations for improving efficiency and performance through one of the more obvious branches: physical ergonomics.

Laptop Height: My number one recommendation is to ensure that your computer screen is at eye level. Most of us set our laptops directly on the desk in front of us, forcing us to angle our necks downward to see the screen—a posture that has been shown to exert a detrimental amount of strain on the neck over time.4

If you work with a laptop on a regular basis, you might consider investing in a laptop stand, which will serve you well not only on exam day, but also in your everyday work. There are many to choose from, but it’s worth procuring one that you can easily carry with you to the exam or when working away from home. I use the Roost Stand,5 a favorite among digital nomads for its transportability: it collapses into a baton that’s just over a foot long and it weighs a feathery 5.5 ounces. It’s also height adjustable. (See photo at left.)

If you’re in a pinch on exam day or you aren’t sold on investing in a new gadget, you could just as well set your laptop on a large book or two—dictionaries work wonderfully.

Do keep in mind that you’ll need an external keyboard and mouse for either of these setups. There are affordable options out there, and I consider it a worthwhile investment, price notwithstanding.

Page Holder: Unlike the source texts in a translator’s daily work, which are almost invariably in digital format, exam passages are on paper and cannot be typed into the computer.

So what to do? Ideally, for the same reasons discussed above, the source text should be positioned at eye level. For this purpose, I used a small, dome-shaped page holder during the exam to prop up the source texts. (See photo above.) I purchased mine on www.etsy.com, but you can find one at just about any major office-supply retailer by searching for a “page-up holder.” Most are priced at under $10. You may need to set the holder on top of a dictionary to match your screen height.

Not only will this relieve neck pressure, it’ll save you time and trouble when glancing from sheet to screen.

Earplugs: Consider bringing earplugs to the exam to block out noise. Chances are you’ll be absorbed in your work, but you never know when the clickety-clack of a keyboard or the hum of a fluorescent light will distract you. Here’s where cognitive ergonomics come in: decreasing distraction lightens cognitive load, allowing you to focus on the task at hand.

Review Techniques: Speaking of cognitive ergonomics, the exam involves the demanding cognitive task of not only translating, but also reviewing, two dense texts in the span of three short hours. This means no opportunity to review with fresh eyes, which is a crucial step in actual practice. And without a computer-assisted translation tool or other application to help break the text into segments, the task becomes even more prone to errors. The accidental omission of a word or an entire line of text can be hugely detrimental. The good news is that these errors can be avoided by employing some simple review techniques.

One of these is to enlarge your font size: try increasing it 300% by using the zoom feature on your word processor (i.e., WordPad or TextEdit, the two applications permitted for use on the exam), or by increasing the font size to 72 points. This will help you catch errors you may otherwise overlook after staring at your translation for so long.

Another tip for getting a fresh perspective: change the typeface itself.

Finally, try reading the completed text “aloud” in your head, or reading it backwards—two old copy-editor’s tricks.

Miscellaneous: With the big ones out of the way, here are a few final pieces of advice to optimize ergonomics during the exam and help you focus on your work:

  • Keep your feet flat on the floor, if possible. You may be able to choose from different chairs the day of the exam, but don’t count on it.
  • Make sure your elbows are at a right angle when typing. Consider bringing a pillow to sit on for this purpose.
  • Have water on hand (drink it).
  • Take at least one stretch break. Do a forward bend and gently stretch your arms, legs, and neck to get your blood flowing before returning to the task with fresh eyes.

Final Word

As the authors of the aforementioned article in The ATA Chronicle propose, taking ergonomics into account “will allow translators to do what they do best instead of wasting time and energy dealing with non-ergonomic conditions, interfaces, and tools.” What better opportunity to conserve time and energy than during the rigorous three-hour ATA certification exam?

I may have been amused by the proctor’s comment about my setup, but it cost me nothing to implement these simple principles, and the benefits of certification are already evident just one year later.

Notes
  1. Cuddy, Amy. “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.” TEDGlobal Video (June 2012), http://bit.ly/Cuddy-body-language.
  2. O’Brien, Sharon, and Maureen Ehrensberger-Dow. “Why Ergonomics Matters to Professional Translators.” The ATA Chronicle (January/February 2017), 12, http://bit.ly/Chronicle-ergonomics.
  3. “Definition and Domains of Ergonomics” (International Ergonomics Association), www.iea.cc/whats.
  4. Bever, Lindsey. “‘Text Neck’ Is Becoming An ‘Epidemic’ and Could Wreck Your Spine,” The Washington Post (November 20, 2014), http://bit.ly/Bever-text-neck.
  5. Roost, www.therooststand.com.

Header image source: Pixabay