Proust Questionnaire – feat. Ben Karl

ata-fld-newsletter-logo[Editor’s note: This is my last post as the editor of À Propos. I am stepping down in order to focus on my upcoming duties as Assistant Administrator of the French Language Division. The FLD is proud to announce that Ben Karl will be taking over as editor-in-chief as of our Annual Division Meeting on Thursday, October 25 at 12:30 PM, held as part of the ATA conference in New Orleans. Welcome to the team, Ben! –Andie Ho]


Ben Karl, MBA, CT is a French and Mandarin to English translator based in Reno, Nevada who specializes in marketing, financial, and creative content. Visit his blog, Ben Translates, or connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

How did you get involved in translation?

I knew I wanted to be a translator even as a teenager. I pursued an undergraduate degree in lettres et traduction françaises, which was very well rounded in terms of theory and stylistics, but not so useful in terms of real, practical application (my instructors never once mentioned CAT tools, for example). I also studied Chinese, so I moved to China after university and continued my language studies there for two years before moving back to the US. I found work as a project manager at one of the top three LSPs, and just over five years ago, I transitioned to freelancing. I haven’t looked back!

What subject areas do you translate?

I focus on financial, corporate communications, and marketing. Three years ago, I decided that I wanted to up my game and my subject-matter expertise, so I went back to school for an MBA. It was a really invaluable experience for me, not only as a translator, but also as a business owner. Most of us are not business-minded people (we’re language people!), so learning about business in such a rigorous environment was really eye-opening and useful.

What’s your favorite word or phrase in French or English?

I’ve always loved the expression Il ne faut pas mettre le doigt entre l’arbre et l’écorce. I find it elicits such a beautiful image. My favorite English words are cahoots (back when I was little, I would always picture two owls talking secretively to each other) and slough (i.e. the verb slʌf, not the noun slu), which has a great sound and also elicits a great mental picture, especially when used figuratively.

Do you have a favorite French or English book?

My favorite book of all time is The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov (I love the Pevear–Volokhonsky translation), but it’s neither an English nor a French book! When I try to think of my favorite books or movies, my mind always seems to settle on something I’ve seen or read recently. I was very shaken and moved by En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule by Edouard Louis and have also really enjoyed Joël Dicker’s page-turners La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert and Le livre des Baltimore. Reading about an America imagined by a Swiss author is fascinating and very entertaining! Translating a book like that would definitely be my dream project.

Tell us something surprising about yourself.

I have a twin sister! Not only that, we were among the first IVF babies born in the United States and were featured in the New York Times as infants. She also speaks Danish, which I’ve always thought is really cool.

International Translation Day 2018: You’re Invited!

ata-fld-newsletter-logoThe following is a reprint of an email blast sent out by Jamie Hartz at Tilde Language and Molly Yurick at Yurick Translations.

Let’s make this year’s International Translation Day all about reaching out and raising awareness of our professions. We can change the way the world views translators and interpreters, but we need your help to do it!

What’s the plan?

On Friday, September 28, the American Translators Association (ATA) will be unveiling a series of six infographics intended to answer frequently asked questions about translation and interpreting. From the difference between translation and interpreting to why it’s important to use a professional for language service needs, the infographics will help get the word out about our profession.

I’m in. What do I need to do?

Follow ATA on social media and share, retweet, and repin their posts throughout the day on Friday, September 28 [ Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Instagram | Pinterest ]

Fellow translators and interpreters may wish to find out if your local ATA Chapter or affiliated group will be hosting a gathering to celebrate translators and interpreters; if not, consider hosting one yourself! ITD is also a great opportunity to schedule a School Outreach presentation. Now is the time to teach the next generation of translators and interpreters about our exciting and growing profession. Materials and inspiration can be found at the School Outreach webpage.

What’s the big deal?

Our goal is to use the platform of ITD 2018 to raise awareness for the profession within our personal networks using this social media blitz. We have an incredible opportunity to change the way the world views translators and interpreters just by sharing more about our jobs. Answering these simple questions and debunking misunderstandings about translation and interpreting will help pave the way for a better future for our profession, and it can start right here in our own backyards. So mark your calendars, follow ATA on social media, and help spread the word by participating in the blitz on Friday, September 28, 2018!


Jamie Hartz and Molly Yurick

Sessions by FLD Members at ATA59

The FLD will be well represented when it comes to speakers at this year’s ATA conference in New Orleans. Here are the FLD members that will be speaking:

Congratulations all!

Excerpt from “Un bonbon sur la langue”

ata-fld-newsletter-logoBy Muriel Gilbert

The following is an excerpt from the soon-to-be-released Un bonbon sur la langue by Muriel Gilbert, the FLD’s Distinguished Speaker at the upcoming ATA conference in New Orleans. Her new book comes out this month.

Quand une colère verte retombe soi-disant comme un soufflet

Les expressions, c’est une de mes marottes : les bras m’en tombent, les yeux plus gros que le ventre, tout ça. Ces images sont le sel de la langue. On les appelle « expressions idiomatiques », non parce qu’elles sont idiotes, comme leur nom semble l’indiquer, mais parce qu’elles sont caractéristiques d’un idiome, d’une langue. L’une de leurs particularités étant qu’il est impossible de les traduire littéralement de l’une à l’autre. Si vous dites à un Grand-Breton : « You’ve got a spider on your ceiling » (littéralement : « Vous avez une araignée au plafond »), c’est vous qu’il va prendre pour un fou – ou, dans le meilleur des cas, il va sortir son balai pour faire le ménage, parce que chez lui, cette expression se traduit par « avoir des chauves-souris dans le clocher » (to have bats in the belfry), ou « avoir une abeille dans le bonnet » (to have a bee in the bonnet), ou encore « avoir perdu ses billes » (to have lost one’s marbles) – parmi mille autres possibilités, la langue anglaise étant remarquablement fertile pour imager l’agitation du bocal.

Mais, y compris lorsque l’on n’essaie pas de les traduire, l’usage des expressions est très précis. Il s’agit de formules figées. On dira : « Muriel est dans une colère noire », ou « Elle est rouge de colère », mais jamais elle ne sera « noire de colère » ou « verte de colère ». La colère, en français, est rouge ou noire. Un point c’est tout. En revanche, on dit : « Bernard est vert de rage. » La rage française est verte.

Bien souvent, les idiotismes génèrent des erreurs… Cette semaine, j’ai corrigé deux fois des événements « retombés comme des soufflets ». L’expression exacte est bien entendu : « retomber comme un soufflé », cette délicieuse spécialité au fromage, pas comme un soufflet destiné à attiser le feu dans la cheminée… ou comme la gifle à l’ancienne des Petites Filles modèles.

On espère aussi souvent le « retour de l’enfant prodige »… Un enfant prodige est un lardon surdoué, tandis que l’enfant prodigue – par allusion à une parabole de l’Evangile –, c’est celui qui revient au domicile paternel après avoir dilapidé son bien, l’adjectif prodigue signifiant, précise Larousse, « qui dépense follement, sans retenue ».

J’ai encore entendu récemment : « Dustin Hoffman est dans l’œil du cyclone. » L’œil du cyclone, c’est justement cet instant de répit, cette zone de calme au cœur de la tempête, donc un splendide contresens quand on veut parler de quelqu’un qui traverse une mauvaise passe.

Allez, un rappel en bonus. On évite d’affirmer qu’« il y a deux alternatives », à moins d’avoir quatre solutions à proposer, car une alternative, ce sont déjà deux options.

Moins connu, peut-être, le piège de soi-disant. Soi-disant signifie « qui se prétend », ou « qui se dit ». N’évoquons donc pas un « soi-disant château », ou d’une « soi-disant bonne affaire », puisque le château ou la bonne affaire sont bien incapables de « dire » quoi que ce soit. On peut en revanche parler d’un « soi-disant érudit », d’une « soi-disant actrice », puisqu’ils sont doués de parole. Pour les objets, on dira : « un prétendu château », « une prétendue bonne affaire ».

© Vuibert, August 2018.

Tour à tour traductrice de presse et d’édition, secrétaire de rédaction et journaliste, Muriel Gilbert est aujourd’hui correctrice au quotidien Le Monde et chroniqueuse « langue française » sur RTL, la première radio française. Elle est l’auteure de :

  • Un bonbon sur la langue (La Librairie Vuibert-RTL septembre 2018)
  • Quand le pou éternuera – Expressions des peuples, génie des langues (Ateliers Henry Dougier, 2018)
  • Au bonheur des fautes – Confessions d’une dompteuse de mots (La Librairie Vuibert, 2017)
  • Que votre moustache pousse comme la broussaille ! – Expressions des peuples, génie des langues (Ateliers Henry Dougier, 2016)

International Trade as a Translation Specialization

ata-fld-newsletter-logoBy Amanda Williams

International trade and logistics translation bears a striking resemblance to scientific translation. Sound crazy? Bear with me a second.

Colleagues instinctively know not everyone has the subject matter expertise to translate chemistry-related texts. Although the same cannot necessarily be said for logistics company websites and shipping documents, that doesn’t make it any less true.

After giving a presentation on translation opportunities in the area of import/export in Colorado at the Colorado Translators Association’s Annual Conference in April 2018, a fellow FLD member approached me afterward to tell me she enjoyed my presentation and wanted to chat about how eerily similar her field of chemistry was to my field of international logistics and supply chain. We did a comparison:

Chemistry Translation International Logistics Translation
Highly specialized terminology
Has its own degree programs (undergrad through post-grad levels)
Prior experience in field preferred for translators
Highly government-regulated industry
Subject matter continuing education required

I believe international trade is a fascinating and complex area of specialization for a translator. And it is an area that offers substantial opportunities for those willing to put in the work to convince them of our value.

Finding My Niche

Ask some translators how they “picked” a specialization, and nine times out of ten, I bet they’d tell you their specialization picked them. That’s what happened to me. My experience in international trade didn’t come from a university. It came from working for one of the top 100 largest ocean importers into the United States. I was recruited to work there after college. I spent a couple years in sales, traveled to Chile to tour mills and see the manufacturing process, then I moved to the operations department where I managed imports into various regions in the US, oversaw third-party logistics provider (3PL) service levels, and handled any US customs issues that happened to pop up. Then one day, US customs came knocking on the door and announced their intention to conduct a focused assessment (the most intensive form of US customs audit) on the company. That was the “lucky” moment I was promoted to trade compliance manager and handed a nice big audit as a congratulatory gift. I spent the next two years working very closely with US customs auditors digging deep into several years of the company’s general ledgers, profit and loss statements and balance sheets to prove the legality of the company’s related-party transactions and their eligibility for the Chile Free Trade Agreement (CLFTA) and Generalized System of Preferences (another FTA).

As you can see from my varied experience, there’s a lot to this thing called international trade.

What Is International Trade?

Translators tend to think about the before and after of international trade – we think about translating the marketing materials, the websites where orders can be placed, the financial reporting after products are sold, but we often forget about what it takes to physically move cargo from one country to another, and there are mountains of paperwork and opportunities for translators during this phase of a product’s lifecycle.

Buying, selling and shipping and receiving goods across borders is not something you can just snap your fingers and do. It requires many partners (3PLs, a customs broker, maybe a freight forwarder, or a steam ship line contract if you’re not using a freight forwarder). Before you even start the physical process of importing goods, the seller and buyer have to define who will be responsible for each stage of the export and import process. An easy way to do that is agreeing on an Incoterm. Incoterms are rules created by the International Chamber of Commerce to facilitate the sale of goods. The terms were originally created in 1923, first published in 1936 and have been updated a handful of times since. You can buy a book explaining the incoterms from the ICC business bookstore. The latest update was released and published in 2010 and contains 11 different options that divide up which party is responsible for paying for each part of the export/import process. Below is an example of two different incoterms for illustration purposes:

CIF = Cost, Insurance and Freight
DDP = Delivery Duties Paid

Incoterm CIF DDP
Loading on truck Seller Seller
Export Customs Seller Seller
Transport to port of export Seller Seller
Unloading at port of export Seller Seller
Vessel loading at port of export Seller Seller
SSL fees (carriage fees) Seller Seller
Insurance Seller Seller
Vessel unloading Buyer Seller
Loading on truck at port of import Buyer Seller
Transport to dest. Buyer Seller
Import customs Buyer Seller
Import duties Buyer Seller

These terms have to be decided on no matter what type of relationship you have with the exporter. You could be buying and importing product from a random company, or you could be importing product from a subsidiary – either way, agreements and terms need to be negotiated on and drawn up, which creates contracts in another language that need to be translated.

How It Works

Below is a flowchart illustrating a simple import:

Remember — once cargo arrives to the United States, that’s not the end of its journey, but rather the beginning of a whole new supply chain journey over here that will most likely include distribution centers (DCs), smaller warehouses and either truck or rail shipments across the US.

Exporting is very similar to importing, but backwards. One difference is that US customs can hold and inspect your shipments before they leave the US, and then they also have to go through customs at the foreign destination. Customs wants to inspect outgoing cargo to make sure that no threats to national security are leaving the country.

Now that we’ve seen how to physically move cargo from one country to another, let’s take a look at the documentation US Customs and Border Protection requires each shipment to have in order to clear customs and enter the United States. Keep in mind that all of this documentation needs to be either translated or originally written in English. All of these documents come from the exporter:

And if an importer is lucky enough to be selected for a focused assessment, that list of documents required by CBP increases exponentially:

Other Opportunities in the Supply Chain

Most translation opportunities would come from the importer or exporter, but they are not the only parties involved in the process. There may be opportunities with some of the other parties involved in importing – especially with customs brokers and freight forwarders, because some importers and exporters are less knowledgeable than others and outsource the entire process to a freight forwarder or customs broker. Here is a list of all the different organizations that either create, process or review multilingual documents:

That being said, out of all the parties mentioned above, US Customs and Border Protection and other government entities that work alongside customs are the parties that will insist on quality translations when needed.

What Is US Customs and Border Protection?

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is the largest federal law enforcement agency in the US. Its primary objective is to prevent terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from entering the United States and it is also responsible for border patrol, regulating imports and exports, collecting duties, transportation checks, trade enforcement and trade facilitation.

When could CBP ask for translations?

  • During Quick Response Audits (very specific audits focusing on one single item)
  • During Focused Assessments
  • If an importer is working with CBP to join the Importer Self-Assessment Program (ISA)

In addition to Customs, the US government has other agencies that are responsible for enforcing trade laws and consumer protection laws, so these agencies work with customs during the import and clearance process as well:

Want to Learn More?

If you really want to go deep, several universities offer international logistics/supply chain programs. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State, Penn State and the University of Tennessee all have distinguished programs. There are also a lot of MOOCs related to international trade, import/export, etc. Check out Coursera and Springboard. Large customs brokers and international trade law firms offer online and in-person courses. Sandler and Travis (STTAS) offers webinars all the time. CBP, some customs brokers and some international trade law firms offer free newsletters you can sign up for. Check out the census bureau and CBP, Census Bureau, the Bureau of Industry and Security and other government entities offer abundant resources. Lastly, you can get certified – IIEI, the World Academy and other organizations offer various international trade certification courses (links are below).

Training Resources

Amanda N. Williams is an ATA-certified French to English translator specialized in business, international trade and financial translation. You can find her on Twitter as the Adorkable Translator (@Adorkable_Trans), on her website at or reach her via email at

Review of Translation Workshop: French to English (Organized by Corinne McKay)

ata-fld-newsletter-logoBy Beth Smith

When I learned that Corinne McKay was going to set up a translation skills class rather than a business-oriented class, I was intrigued. How would it be set up? Who would the instructors be? Then when I saw the details, I knew immediately that I had to try it, even though the first time around with a new course risks some bumps in the road and hiccups. I don’t know about how it looked from the instructor side, but from my point of view, it was hiccup-free.

The course ran for eight weeks, starting on April 23. There were four instructors in four different specializations, each of whom taught for two weeks, starting with Michèle Hansen for medical, then Karen Tkaczyk for science and technology, Judy Lyons for financial, and finally, Tom West for legal. There were two live (online) sessions per week. On Mondays, the instructors did PowerPoint “lectures,” presenting information about their specialties, such as types of texts involved in the specialization, specific issues or problems you might encounter, and resources. Then the Wednesday editions were more informal question and answer sessions, where they answered questions students had posted in the class’s Google Group as well as anything else that came up along the way. Some of these questions were about the week’s homework assignment, but the instructors were very willing to answer more general questions about how they work, what they personally work on the most, and more.

All of the instructors had a different presentation style and emphasized different things, but I enjoyed every single recorded session. It was clear that they had all spent lot of time preparing for their sessions (or if they didn’t, they were really good at winging it). Even though Corinne wasn’t actually teaching the content of the workshop, she played a vital role during the live sessions, as she acted as a host/facilitator, asked questions, and discussed various issues with the instructors. So as a student, I never had the feeling that the instructor was just droning along while showing PowerPoint slides. I wasn’t able to attend the live sessions due to prior commitments (like teaching my 3rd-period class!), but the sessions were recorded, so I had no trouble watching them later (and even re-watching, especially when I was trying to follow everything Tom was saying about various legal concepts).

The main reason I signed up for the course was for the chance to do a weekly translation assignment and get feedback on my work, but as soon as I had actually registered, I started panicking about that very thing. My main goal throughout the class was to not humiliate myself in front of any of the expert translators.  I’m going to refrain from asking any direct questions about my performance, but my feedback was generally pretty good. Since this wasn’t a college class, we didn’t receive letter grades for each assignment; instead, the instructors rated them as outstanding, good, acceptable, fair, or poor. Each of these ratings was accompanied by a brief description. For example, the description of a “good” translation was, “A translation that would probably be acceptable to a professional translation client with a reasonable or expected amount of editing, that displays a strong command of the passage’s subject matter, and that is very solid in terms of accuracy, style, and flow.” In addition, the translation review sheet included instructor comments about overall impression, typos, accuracy, and stylistic quality. Plus the instructors also made comments and corrections on the translations themselves. As for the actual texts, they included part of a patient record, a product data sheet for an adhesive, an excerpt from an annual report, and definitions from a legal dictionary. The texts weren’t impossibly long; I believe they were all under 400 words. But they were definitely chosen to contain as much tricky vocabulary as possible, or so it seemed. There were times when I spent half an hour researching a single term. Then again, if everything were easy and obvious, there wouldn’t be much point in taking the class.

I was very happy with the course, from the way it was set up to the instructor feedback. I don’t specialize in any of the four areas, so for me, it was not only an excellent opportunity to get feedback from top-level translators in various fields and to learn as much as possible about each specialization, but also to test the waters to see if I should think about working in any of those areas. I discovered that I’m better at medical and technical than I thought, but in most cases, I should leave the financial and legal translation to someone else. Okay, I actually suspected that about legal and financial, but this class confirmed what I thought. But if I should need to translate any financial or legal texts, I now have a ton of resources I didn’t have before, and as I said earlier, I enjoyed those online sessions. It just turns out that if I have to spend a bunch of time researching something, I’d prefer it to be a medical procedure or a thingamajig described in a product description than legal or financial terminology.

For someone who already specializes in one of the four areas, it might still be worth considering the class, as we got tons of information and resources. Some of my fellow students had extensive backgrounds in finance, but they still seemed very happy with the course. If you work in a completely different field and have no interest in exploring any of the ones covered in the class, then this course might not be for you. But if you are a generalist or if you work in any of the four specializations, you might want to check out the course if it’s offered again. I would definitely be interested in taking another translation workshop class in the future.

Beth Smith is a French to English translator specializing in tourism, advertising/marketing, and the psychology of happiness (an accidental specialization developed when translating the book The Finance of Happiness by Renaud Gaucher). She currently serves as the FLD’s Facebook page moderator.

FLD Dinner in New Orleans for ATA’s 59th Annual Conference – Sign Up Now!


The French Language Division’s dinner at the 2018 New Orleans conference will be held at the Creole House Restaurant and Oyster Bar. We hope to see you there!

Friday, October 26, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.

Creole House Restaurant and Oyster Bar
509 Canal St.
New Orleans, LA 70130



~ ENTRÉEyou will choose one of the following when you make your reservation with the FLD:

  • Shrimp & Grits
  • Blackened Redfish
  • Crabcake And Shrimp Alfredo
  • Jambalaya Pasta (not vegetarian)
  • Fried Fish & Shrimp Platter
  • Combination: Gumbo, Crawfish Etouffée, Red Beans & Rice, and Cajun Jambalaya.
  • Vegetarian or vegan dinner – please tell us this when you register for the dinner.

~ DESSERT – New Orleans Style Bread Pudding

Note: Soft drinks are included. All alcoholic beverages will be the diner’s responsibility and are *not* included. Any other drinks not included in the price are also the diner’s responsibility.


Price: $55.00 per person and this includes three-course dinner, tax, and gratuity.

Payment for the dinner must be made in advance by PayPal ( to and received, on or before Friday, October 12, or before the event sells out.

WHEN PAYING: 1) In the notes field on PayPal, please include which entrée (see bulleted list above) you wish for your dinner. 2) Please select the “send money to friends and family” option on PayPal so that the FLD is not charged additional PayPal fees.

IMPORTANT NOTE: We do not provide refunds. You may sell or give your ticket to another conference attendee to attend in your place. If you do so, please notify us of the update, but the FLD does not provide refunds once a spot for the dinner has been purchased.


The Creole House Restaurant and Oyster Bar is is across the street from the conference hotel (the New Orleans Marriott). The distance is walkable.


Contact us at


For information about the 59th Annual ATA Conference in New Orleans, please visit

FLD Member Updates – Second Quarter 2018

Members provide updates to share with the French Language Division. If you have a professional update you would like to share, please email it to us at

  • Nanette McGuinness‘s translation from the French of the graphic novel Luisa: Now and Then (adapted by Carol Maurel, released June 2018) received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
  • Adrianne Swartz was awarded the title of CoreCHI™ Professional by the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI) in the fall of 2017.
  • Carolyn Yohn‘s translation from the Hungarian of the book Soul Stories is now in print.
  • Stephanie Strobel‘s translation of  Bruce Benamran’s How to Speak Science: Gravity, Relativity, and Other Ideas That Were Crazy Until Proven Brilliant will be published on September 4, 2018. Enjoy a romp through science from Aristotle through Quantum Physics, and find out how magnets work, whether light is made of waves or particles, and more.

Congratulations on your achievements!

The ATA Certification Exam: My Journey from Pencil to Keyboard

ata-fld-newsletter-logoBy Meghan McCallum

Earlier this year, I was delighted to receive the news that I had passed the ATA French to English certification exam. I now have an official Certified Translator seal and the designation of “ATA-certified French to English translator” in my credentials. And, of course, I’m looking forward to sporting the “Certified” ribbon on my badge at ATA59 in October!

ATA certification has long been a hot topic among translators—even more so in recent years, as it has undergone significant changes in both the technology used and the content of the exam itself. And the certification program has additional changes ahead, such as an increased exam price of $525 coming in 2019 as well as tentative “decoupling”—meaning that non-ATA members would be able to take the exam starting in 2020.

My story with the ATA exam starts with a failed attempt back in the handwritten days, and success years later on the computerized exam. I’d like to share my own personal experience with the ATA certification exam for translators who are considering becoming certified, those who might be wondering what the computerized exam is like, or anyone else generally interested in the topic.

Why Get ATA Certified?

ATA certification had been on my professional bucket list ever since graduate school. As a student in a master’s program for translation, I learned early on that ATA certification is a great way to distinguish yourself not only as a serious professional, but also as someone who can be trusted to produce quality translations in a specific language pair. From that time, I knew that ATA certification was something I wanted to strive for in my career.

My general career plan for after graduate school was to work at an agency for a few years to learn the daily ins and outs of the business, before eventually moving on to freelancing. I knew that once I was working as a freelance translator, having ATA certification would allow me to stand out from the crowd.

First Things First

Before even considering taking the exam, however, there were a few other items I wanted to take care of. First on the list was becoming an ATA member and taking advantage of the organization’s many resources. I became a student member and started reading The Chronicle, getting involved in volunteer opportunities, and attending conferences. I learned more about the exam process by speaking with fellow members, reading articles and blog posts about certification, and attending an exam preparation session at a conference.

I graduated from my master’s program and started a job at a translation agency. I was enjoying getting to know the agency perspective, learning as much as I could to prepare for my future in freelance translation. When I saw that there was a certification exam coming up in my city, I registered and started preparing.

The Pre-Keyboard Era: Taking the Handwritten Exam

My biggest hesitation with the exam was that it was handwritten, and no electronic resources were allowed. I had rarely translated by hand in my graduate work, and I certainly didn’t have any handwritten tasks at my agency job. Quite the contrary: my days were spent on an e-mail platform, a web-based project management application, and a CAT tool. Writing a three-hour exam by hand did not seem representative of what was actually practiced by professional translators.

However, the exam was only offered in the handwritten format at that time, so I decided to give it a shot. I prepared using some texts recommended by a professor from my graduate program. I had heard of the practice tests offered by ATA, but decided to practice on my own without taking a practice test. I knew this was a risk, but I felt that I might as well take it and see how my skills measured up at the time.

Exam day eventually arrived. We all came into the room with our arms (or suitcases!) loaded down with dictionaries, notepaper, and pencils. The three hours went by in a flash. I remember scrambling to get my sentences in just the right order, flipping through dictionaries for terms and writing and re-writing passages as my hand started to cramp. In the end, I did not have a good feeling about it. Not only was I unaccustomed to the handwritten format and the exclusion of online resources, but I realized that I just wasn’t in the habit of translating on a full-time basis as I probably should have been to pass the exam.

I knew it could take up to a few months to receive my results, so I tried to push it to the back of my mind and wait to see what came in the mail. I still vividly remember my heart sinking as I opened the thin envelope from ATA headquarters and read the dreaded opening line: “Dear Colleague: I regret to inform you that your certification examination from French into English did not meet the standards for ATA certification.” I wasn’t completely surprised, as the exam hadn’t gone as well as I’d hoped, but of course I was still disappointed.

For me, this was confirmation that I still had much room for improvement, and I needed to practice translating on a regular basis before taking the exam again. And although I knew my translation skills weren’t quite where they needed to be yet, I also knew that my exam result was partially due to the format. I still felt strongly that the handwritten format was unrealistic, and promised myself that I wouldn’t reattempt the exam until it was in an electronic format.

Technology for the Win

Fortunately, the exam began shifting toward a computerized format in the years that followed. In the meantime, I spent a few more years working at the translation agency and eventually moved on to start my own business as a freelance translator. After I’d been freelancing for a little over two years, a promising opportunity came up. A computerized exam was going to be offered in my state, and I decided I was ready to try it again.

Leading up to the exam, I spent a lot of time translating in my daily work and reviewed all the exam information provided by ATA headquarters very carefully. The ATA-provided guidelines were extremely useful, outlining what exactly the exam tests for, online resources permitted, items to bring besides a computer, procedures required for saving the exam content to an external device for submission, what specific programs can be used to type the translation, and much more.

Again, I forewent the practice tests and took the risk of practicing on my own. I did feel much more prepared this time, however, as I had been keeping very busy with translation work and felt I had essentially been “practicing” full-time. Plus, I felt confident that I would perform much better in a format that more closely resembled my daily work; i.e., working on a computer instead of using pencil and paper.

The exam content had also changed since my first attempt several years earlier: instead of choosing between specialized texts categorized as medical/technical/scientific and legal/commercial/financial, exam candidates now select two of three general passages. This change eliminated the risk of me having to translate a passage from an area I don’t work in, such as legal or technical.

On the big day, I opened the exam packet and took out a detailed set of instructions. I read these instructions very carefully before starting, and consulted them several times throughout the exam to be sure I followed them. The instructions provided a specific use and audience for each passage so I could translate with this in mind. I also allowed myself a certain amount of time at the beginning of the exam to read through my three available passages and select the two I would translate. Before starting to translate, I made a list of key terms in the passages to ensure that I chose my English terms carefully and used them consistently throughout my translation.

Working with a computer and online resources indeed proved to be a better environment for me. I much preferred having the ability to type and make changes very quickly, as well as consult and compare a variety of resources. I felt much better during the actual exam, though I still worked very carefully.

Although typing saves a lot of time compared to writing a translation by hand, I still used the entire three hours to work on my exam. I reviewed each translated passage after finishing, and reviewed both translations again at the end when I had some time left. When reviewing, I went through a personal QA checklist, inspecting elements such as capitalization, numbers, punctuation, repeated words, etc. I also made sure to save my work regularly and prepared to load it onto the USB drive when the exam time was drawing to a close.

Although I wasn’t 100% sure what my result would be, I felt much better leaving the exam room this time around. Not only had I worked in an environment that was much closer to my actual day-to-day work, but I also had much more full-time translation experience under my belt.

Enjoying the CT Designation

This time, the envelope I received in the mail from ATA headquarters made me much happier—I passed! The best part of this moment was the feeling of accomplishing something that had been a personal career goal for many years.

Besides the personal accomplishment, I have also enjoyed immediate results in my work as a freelance translator. I made a point of updating my online profiles and website right away, and notified colleagues and clients as well. I have noticed an increase in messages from my website, and I’m now able to contact potential clients that only work with ATA-certified translators.

Another benefit to being an ATA-certified translator is the official seal. I like to use the seal in my e-mail signature as well as on official documents. I had a stamp made with the seal image, and I use it when I provide notarized statements of accuracy for personal translations.

Finally, as I mentioned before, I’m very much looking forward to having the “Certified” ribbon on my conference badge as well. I’m proud to join the ranks of ATA-certified translators and I look forward to carrying the designation as I continue my career for years to come.

Meghan McCallum is an ATA-certified French>English freelance translator specializing in corporate communications, human resources, marketing and financial documents. She holds an MA in language, literature, and translation (concentration in French>English translation) from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Before going freelance, she worked in-house for several years at a global language services provider, serving as a project manager and quality manager. She is the coordinator of ATA’s School Outreach Program. Website:

Proust Questionnaire – feat. Jenn Mercer

ata-fld-newsletter-logoThis is part of a continuing series of Proust questionnaires answered by members of the FLD Leadership Council. Jenn Mercer is a French to English translator specializing in Legal, Financial, and IT translation. She has degrees in French and English from NC State University and a Certificate in French to English Translation from New York University. She is the current Assistant Administrator of the French Language Division.

How did you get involved in translation?

Quite deliberately, but after a rambling path through more mundane professions – and when I say mundane I am not kidding. Other translators have exotic backstories that involve traveling around the world and herding llamas, I worked for an insurance company and later prepared taxes. I loved learning about taxes in a way that still frightens people close to me, but was a fair premonition of some of the things I enjoy about translation.

I love learning about complicated systems and how they fit together. This applies to both learning languages and the subject matter for the documents I translate. I don’t just learn the minimum, I delve into exotic areas with little immediate practical application (ask me about fuel tax exemptions for watercraft).

However, eventually I went back to school to finish my Bachelor’s degree and find an actual profession rather than just a job. I started out majoring in English because, well, have you ever seen me in a bookstore? It’s not a pretty picture unless you own the bookstore. I found a cool sounding course, Introduction to Translation, took, um, most of the French classes in preparation for it, so much so that I got a second major in French and started research on how to become a translator. There was even more work and studying after this, but my rambling path had paid off. I had detailed knowledge on a variety of subjects, particularly those others find boring, but are often more lucrative. I also had many business skills that I had learned in a cubicle, along with a firm desire to never again find myself back in one.

 What subject areas do you translate?

Legal, Financial, and IT. Legal and financial are easy enough to understand from my work background. IT makes sense because I studied programming for a few years (it was a rather rambling path) and one of my jobs was in Tech Support for an IT logistics company.

What talent would you most like to have?

 I’d like enough musical talent to at least be able to play an instrument. I tried the ukulele, which is supposed to be as easy as it gets and I can’t even tell when it’s in tune.

Tell us about a particularly interesting project you have worked on.

I’ve worked on translations of two books. One is “Can Finance Save the World” by Bertrand Badré, which I co-translated with Carolyn Yohn. It looks at what financial tools can do in an entirely different way and it was quite refreshing. I also was part of a team translating a “book” that is actually part of a video game. The language in it was deliberately archaic and over the top. It’s still in pre-release, but I’ve been able to see a few previews with people’s reactions to it, which is a lot of fun – particularly when you translate a lot of things that you are not sure anyone ever reads.

Where would you most like to live?

In a library, preferably an enormous one with comfy chairs and hidden passages.

Tell us something surprising about yourself.

I don’t know if either of these things are surprising, but I have a few passions that do not come up often in translation. I am a major comic book fan (mostly Marvel) and have a rather extensive pull list at my local comic book store. I also keep tropical fish, which is a nice quiet hobby for a translator.

What’s your favorite word or phrase in French or English? 

It is always hard to pick an absolute favorite anything, but I have “Au milieu de l’hiver, j’ai découvert en moi un invincible été” tattooed on my left shoulder, so that makes the cut. It is reminder to me that there is always light, even when things seem the bleakest. 

What is your favorite quote? 

On a lighter note, I have two movie quotes that motivate me as a freelancer:

  1. “Coffee is for closers” from Glengarry Glen Ross. I’ve modified this rule to mean that I’m only allowed to grab Chipotle for lunch when I have a big project.
  1. “When someone asks if you are a god, you say yes” from Ghostbusters. This reminds me that sometimes a bit of extra self-confidence is actually the safest course of action.

 Do you have a hero?

 Thor, Goddess of Thunder (KRA-KA-THOOM!).