Are you who you say you are? Being honest about your credentials and skills

You turn on your computer, take a sip of coffee and see a potential project come in. What are the chances, knowing nothing about the project, that you will accept it? If your answer is close to 100%, it might be time to re-think your strategy. You may be providing subpar service to your clients and hurting your potential future in the translation and interpreting (T&I) industry.

Is this assignment a good fit for you?

I regularly turn down work when I don’t have the expertise for it, don’t have the exact qualifications they are needing, or don’t have the time to give the client the quality I expect of myself. Is it that my business is already so solid I can’t take on any more work? Absolutely not. Don’t I have bills to pay? Of course I do! The thing is, I care about what I do and I insist on providing excellent service to my clients. As a result, when I know, for one reason or another, that I can’t do that, I believe the best thing for my long-term business and my clients is to turn down the assignment, even when it hurts. I also take the ATA & NAJIT Codes of Ethics seriously and both require that translators and interpreters accurately represent their credentials.

Some assignments are easy for me to turn down: You need a Spanish into French translator? I translate Spanish and French into English. You need a French court interpreter? I am a Spanish court interpreter, but don’t interpret in French. Some jobs are harder to turn down, though. Take, for example, a French transcription that I received from a favorite client of mine, a few days after doing a similar French transcription for them. I always try to prioritize this client’s assignments; I hate saying no to them and luckily almost never have to. I listened to the file and just wasn’t confident, so I had to turn it down. I felt like I let them down and I hated that feeling. However, they were able to find someone else who was able to provide a better service, and my time was freed up for another assignment that came in just after that.

Misrepresenting your qualifications to get more work

Just don’t do it! Saying you’re a Certified Translator when you’re not puts you at risk of being called out publicly for an ethics violation and causes people to question those who do have that credential. If you’re serious about the T&I industry, you’re hurting your future self because people may not trust your credentials when you do attain them.

When helping others can hurt you

In Texas, in order to interpret at depositions, county courthouses, and in any court of record, the law states you must be a Master Licensed Court Interpreter (with a few exceptions that are beyond the scope of this article). I have a great relationship with a colleague who does not have this qualification. He recently got a call from a lawyer asking him to interpret at court. My colleague explained that he was not a Master Licensed Court Interpreter and the attorney told him he didn’t care. He told him it was an easy case and it was hard to find people with the right qualifications available for hearings. This colleague is the kind of guy you can count on⁠—he really wants to help people. He hates disappointing clients and he felt like this attorney needed him, so he was contemplating helping him. I pushed back and explained that this was his decision, not the attorney’s, and that he was better positioned to know the risks and consequences. I emphasized that he could get into trouble for taking on this assignment. I was shocked to be having that conversation with this person, whose ethics I normally admire. This just goes to show how “being helpful” can make us lose sight of real issues.

How to turn down work in a way that gets more work later

Remember that transcription assignment I mentioned earlier? Two weeks later, the client offered me the best assignment they’ve ever offered me, and I was ecstatic to take it on. They know that when I say I can do something I can do it!

Half the battle is getting a client to find you and reach out to you. Once you’ve won this part of the battle, use the opportunity to talk about what you can do for them. Rather than ignoring the email, respond back and let them know that while you don’t have the expertise or qualifications needed for this assignment, you can do XYZ.

It’s also a good idea to network with other colleagues in your language pair, and in the opposite language pair, so that you don’t have to leave clients out in the cold. A few weeks ago, I was asked to do 30 pages of handwritten medical reports by a client from whom I was really hoping to get some repeat business. I like electronic medical reports, but I just could not decipher these handwritten ones. I did a search in the ATA directory and found two people I thought were qualified. I took the risk and told a client with whom I really wanted to build a better relationship that I couldn’t decipher the handwritten medical reports and gave them the names of people who I thought could. I wanted them to get the best translation they could get, and I highlighted what I can do for them in the future, as well as my desire to continue working with them. Fingers crossed—hopefully they learned they can trust me.


It’s important to grow your business in ways that bring back more business. That means only advertising on your business card, website, LinkedIn profile, CV, etc. qualifications and certifications you actually have. Take a good look at assignments before accepting them and don’t take jobs you know you aren’t qualified for, hoping you’ll just figure it out, or think that the client won’t know the difference. Remember, if this is the career of your dreams and it gives you the lifestyle and intellectual challenges you want, focus on the long-term: creating a reputation for excellent work and helpful customer service.

Image source: Pixabay

Author bio

Jessica Hartstein is an ATA-Certified Translator (Spanish>English, French>English) and a Texas Master Licensed Court Interpreter (Spanish-English). She holds an MA in Conference Interpreting and Translation Studies from the University of Leeds and graduated Cum Laude with a BA from Rice University.

Prior to working freelance, she held full-time, in-house translation positions at a marketing firm in Luxembourg and an oil and gas engineering company in Houston. Jessica specializes in legal, medical, asylum, and oil and gas translation and interpreting projects. She has been fortunate to have lived abroad in Spain, China, Japan, England, and Luxembourg.

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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.