By Marion Rhodes
CTA Social Media Director
More than 2,000 members of the American Translators Association are certified in one or more languages. While an impressive number, that’s less than a fifth of the total membership of ATA, not to mention only a tiny fraction of linguists in the United States. What keeps people from earning this esteemed credential?
The Colorado Translators Association recently held a seminar on taking the ATA certification exam to inform local linguists about the process and debunk some of the myths surrounding the language test. More than 20 people attended the event, which was held in preparation for the ATA certification exam sitting during the CTA’s 3rd Annual Conference in Boulder on May 4 and 5. Three of CTA’s own members – Jutta Diel-Dominique, Hélène des Rosiers, and Jane Maier – provided information about the exam from their insiders’ perspectives. Diel-Dominique and Maier have been graders for the ATA certification exam for years, and des Rosiers is the certification director and exam proctor for the Colorado Translators Association.
One of the most important things to know about the exam, Diel-Dominique said, is that it is not an entry-level test. In fact, she recommends that newcomers to the profession should wait at least 2-3 years before attempting to take the exam, assuming they have steady translation work in the meantime to hone their skills.
That’s the kicker, of course – you don’t need to be certified by ATA in order to practice as a translator. Many translators earn a perfectly good living without this added credential. However, having passed the ATA certification exam gives translators a means to show their expertise in a field that is unregulated and flooded with bilingual wannabes. The reputation of ATA’s certification process is renowned beyond the borders of the United States, and other countries look up to ATA for its rigorous standard, Diel-Dominique said. “It’s a pioneer in the field.”
ATA implemented the certification program in 1973. So far, taking the exam is a privilege that’s open only to ATA members. However, the association is on the verge of opening exam sittings up to non-members, who just recently gained the opportunity to take the practice test.
The ATA certification exam is divided into three passages. The “A” passage consists of a general text, usually an essay written in journalistic style. It’s the passage most people fail, Diel-Dominique said, because it requires candidates to follow an argument and employ transfer strategies to overcome translation challenges.
The “B” and “C” passages consist of specialized texts, with “B” focusing on technical, scientific or medical content and “C” focusing on finance, business or legal. Candidates must complete the “A” passage but get to choose if they want to complete “B” or “C.” Each passage is between 225-275 words long. Total time for the test is 3 hours.
Anyone planning on taking the exam, which carries a hefty $300 fee, should consider taking the practice test first. At $50 per passage, it is “quite a deal” for potential candidates, who can take the test in the comfort of their own home but should try to emulate real exam conditions to get a better idea of their performance, Maier said.
Failure rates for people taking the exam are high. Unlike what people may think, though, graders are not out to fail candidates. “Believe it or not, graders do want exam candidates to pass,” Diel-Dominique said. Each exam is reviewed independently by two graders, and if they disagree, a third grader is brought in. The grading process is not arbitrary and has come a long way over the years, Maier said. Graders have to follow strict guidelines, which are published on the ATA website. “The whole program is so much more transparent,” said Maier.
Most exam sittings require candidates to write their translations by hand, although keyboarded exams have recently been introduced by ATA. Neatness doesn’t count, but your handwriting must be legible. Candidates may bring any dictionary, glossary or terminology sheet they want as long as it is not in electronic format, as all electronic devices will be confiscated upon entering the exam room. A good, hard-copy, generalized dictionary is usually sufficient, Diel-Dominique said. The texts are carefully selected to ensure they aren’t too specialized. “We test for generalists, not for experts in the field.” A monolingual dictionary in your target language is also a good idea, since you won’t be able to rely on spell check.
While passing the exam may give you bragging rights and oftentimes allow you to charge considerably higher rates for your translation work, failing it doesn’t mean you are a bad translator. All it means is that this particular translation did not meet the high standards of the American Translators Association. “It is a snapshot of your performance at a certain time,” Diel-Dominique said. If you do fail, you are free to try again at another sitting – although you may only take one exam in the same language combination each year.
Power Point: Tips for taking the ATA Certification Exam