SLD member Julia Thornton originally wrote this post for the Smartcat forum fresh on the heels of getting ATA certified in the summer of 2017. She kindly agreed to update the post, and it is published here with her permission. The original can be found here.
ATA is a professional association with over 10,000 members in more than 100 countries. It promotes translation and interpreting professions.
One of the benefits of being an ATA member is taking the certification exam. The certification exam is widely recognized in the USA and is a widely-used credential. The exam is offered several times each year in different locations throughout the USA, as well as in Mexico, Canada, South America, and in Europe. Certified ATA members are listed as such on the ATA website.
Here are some questions you might have about the exam — and some answers!
Should I take the ATA exam?
I think being a certified translator sets you apart from other translators. It testifies to your ability to do the job professionally. While being certified does not guarantee that you will get more jobs or better jobs, it can make a difference.
Can anyone take the exam?
Yes, anyone can take the exam. The only stipulation is that the person needs to be a member of ATA (associate membership is $195 per year) at least two weeks before the exam.
How much does it cost?
In 2018 ATA certification exam costs $300. In 2019 the fee for the exam will go up to $525. You have to be a member to take the exam (associate membership is $195). You really want to make sure you prepare well!
What is the exam like?
The exam is 3 hours long. You are given three passages, and you need to choose two of them to translate. In other words, you get 1.5 hours per passage of 250-275 words. The passages are general in nature, but they can be on the subjects of finance, healthcare, politics, science, etc. The passages are designed to be hard to translate: they include idioms, proper names, punctuation and sentence structure that is not easily translated into another language. The translator needs to prove that he/she can produce a translation that sounds natural and is accurate.
Can I use my computer for the exam?
Yes, you can use your laptop or you can choose to write it out by hand. Most people opt for a computerized exam.
What reference materials are allowed at the exam?
All paper dictionaries and reference books are allowed. ATA has a list of approved online dictionaries for some languages. The key principle is that an online source cannot be interactive (a forum), where you can ask your question and have someone respond. Merriam-Webster online, for example, is allowed. ProZ forum is not.
How is the exam graded?
Each exam will be graded by two graders. Each text can have up to 17 mistake points and still pass (which is quite generous, in my opinion). The mistakes can be in grammar, terminology, syntax, understanding of the original text, etc. Each mistake is also graded on a severity scale from 1-16, depending on how it affects the translation: for example, a forgotten comma might be a “1” while missing a key word that affects the whole sentence would be more points. If the two graders disagree on passing/failing the translation, they will bring in a third grader. An encouraging thought is that graders are professional translators who are not looking for a perfect translation, because they realize there can be several ways to translate the same passage. They are looking for a solid precise translation.
What can I do to prepare for the exam?
ATA offers a practice test ($80 for members, $120 for non-members). It is a passage that was an exam text the previous year. You will get it back with your mistakes marked and commented on by a grader. I highly recommend taking a practice test: you can try to simulate the exam setting and see how you do. Some ATA language divisions have practice groups that are very helpful. If your language division has a practice group, join it! But most importantly, you can practice on your own. I practiced once a week for four months before the exam: I would take a text of 250-300 words, open online dictionaries and grammar references, and start the timer.
Where do I find texts to practice?
Any national publications, such as Newsweek, The Atlantic, etc. will prepare you well. Remember to translate articles on varied subject matter.
What can I do to improve my chances of passing the exam?
- Learn to type fast in both languages: in your target language, it will help you type out the translation faster; in your source language, it will help you type in the words into the search window of online dictionaries. All this will give you more time you for thinking, looking up words in the online dictionaries and proofreading your translation.
- Brush up on your spelling. The exam is taken in WordPad with the spellcheck disabled. When you practice, do it in WordPad: it will help you to get used to looking for typos.
- Read grammar and punctuation rules. Starting today, if you are not sure what punctuation mark is needed, look it up! Most of us need many times of looking up the same rule before we remember it. And there are many, many rules. Start today and look up at least one rule every day. You might need to look up a grammar or a punctuation rule at the exam, but you won’t have time to cross-check everything. You need to know them by the time you go to take the exam!
- No addition, no omission. Do not add words if they are not needed. Added words might count as a mistake. Also, it is very easy to skip a word and even a sentence. Be extra careful!
- Check your translation twice: once, go over both the source and the target text to make sure you translated the words correctly. The second time, just read your translation to see if it flows, to catch typos and punctuation marks.
- Check your translations starting from the end vs the beginning. Our brain naturally gets tired toward the end of the text, and we become less attentive.
- Practice with a timer – learn to find it on your computer and to turn it on every time. While there was a clock in our room, I was glad I knew exactly how many minutes were left per passage (I set the timer for each passage, i.e. for 1.5 hours).
- Do not leave early – if you have a lot of time left, go out of the room for 5 minutes (you will need to leave everything behind) and then come back refreshed. Look over your translations again.
What are my chances of passing the exam?
Each language pair is different, but an average passing rate is 18%. Do not be discouraged if you do not pass the first time, a lot of people do not. If you decide to take the exam, give yourself enough time to prepare for it well.
How long is the certification good for?
As long as you maintain your membership at ATA and accumulate 20 credits in continuing education every 3 years, you do not have to take the exam again.
Is it worth it?
I think it is. Certified translators are listed on the ATA website. Some agencies only hire certified translators. It looks good on your resume, and it’s a proof of your professionalism.
Any final thoughts?
Preparing for the exam is a wonderful way to improve one’s quality of translation. It teaches you to be precise in word choice, to be mindful of grammar, and to learn punctuation rules that you never learned before (trust me, every language has those!). Overall, you will become more critical of your own work and therefore will be a better translator.
For more information, please visit the ATA website: https://www.atanet.org/certification/aboutcert_overview.php
Julia Thornton is an ATA-certified EN-RU translator. She grew up in Russia and graduated from the Nizhny Novgorod State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages. She then moved to the US and earned a Master’s degree in theological studies. Watching her two oldest children prepare for the SAT, Julia learned some test-taking skills that helped her pass the certification exam in 2017 after 4.5 months of preparation. She can be reached at email@example.com.