Translator Testimonial: Joining an ATA Certification Exam Study Group

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By Amber Marcum Combaud

In December 2020, I took part in the French Language Division’s monthly meet-up. A longtime member of the ATA but trepidatious newcomer to the live, informal meetings held since the beginning of the pandemic, the chosen topic of discussion drew me in and motivated me to extend my normal work hours (GMT+1) to fit it into my schedule. That topic was feedback: giving and getting it, and hosted by Karen Tkaczyk. At the end of an hour spent pleasantly chatting with other members on both sides of the Atlantic and sharing our experiences—and apprehension—about feedback, the FLD announced it would launch an ATA Certification Exam Study Group in January 2021.

A no-brainer decision

After learning of this new FLD activity, making the decision to participate and integrate it into my CPD goals for 2021 was a no-brainer. After I completed my certificate in translation through the NYU SCPS’s online program in 2010, the idea of sitting for the ATA certification exam was enough to make me break out in hives. Though I now have a number of years of full-time freelancing under my belt, the added stress of having to fly back to the US to sit for it always made me push the exam to the bottom of my to-do list. The accountability, group dynamic, and the possibility of connecting with peers were all factors that convinced me that this was the perfect time to rise to the challenge and I planned to join this new group.

Certification exam practice à la FLD

The FLD was inspired by the Slavic Languages Division’s 2017 concept to form its own remote, asynchronous study group. In contrast to the SLD’s approach, the FLD’s self-study group is a less formal version, designed to suit the style and dynamic of the division. At the beginning of each month, an email is sent out by Andie Ho with a short text to translate under exam conditions, along with some context as to the purpose of the text, similar to the instructions that would be given on an actual exam. Links to the ample resources available on the ATA website are provided each month for newcomers. These cover the certification exam itself, a framework for standardized error marking, along with error descriptions. From that point, the translator is free to organize their practice as they wish. They must simply alert Andie by the stated deadline in order to be paired up with a partner for review and feedback. The pairs or groups (in the event of an odd number of participants in a given month) determine how they exchange feedback, whether via the Track Changes mode in Word, a Zoom or telephone call, email exchanges, or a combination of these. A separate, dedicated Discord channel was also created as a forum for terminology, discussing challenges and asking general questions.

How I approach the practice texts and feedback

Translation strategy

I generally complete the translation towards the end of the month so that the text is top of mind. To train myself for the actual exam, I try to stick to an hour max. for all steps in the process: reading the instructions and the full text, term identification, research, drafting, revision and a “read-aloud” review. A side-by-side comparison with the original is important for ensuring that I haven’t left out any words or ideas, a mistake that could be costly. In an exam situation, I would move on to the second passage after the revision step in order to leave time for my text to mature in my mind before doing any tweaking prior to submittal. Depending on the subject and type of text, most months I am able to stay within this timeframe, but in others I have pushed it to 1.5 hours. This would be risky in a real exam, since the time limit is three hours.

The feedback phase

Once partner assignments have gone out, I take the time to review the original passage as well as my own translation, listing any questions I might want to bring up with my partner. As I read through their text, I try to keep in mind the fact that the first item in the list explaining what the certification exam tests for is “compliance with the specifications of the Translation Instructions.” While the goal is certainly not to train as a grader, following the example of one of my peer reviewers, I now try to apply the grading framework in order to identify types of errors. This helps me to keep to the neutral side of constructive criticism. Finally, since the Framework for Standardized Error Marking does allow points to be awarded for “up to three specific instances of exceptional translation,” I make a point to highlight well-written phrases and good word choices in the person’s text as well as smart approaches to prickly issues in the original.

Regarding feedback

I’ve most appreciated when we’ve been able to create dialogue regarding the challenges of a specific text and individual choices. In general, I have received feedback in Track Changes in Word, but I have also been able to connect virtually with a few of my partners to make their acquaintance on Zoom. This has been a positive, satisfying part of my experience. Overall, the process has allowed me to open up more to constructive criticism and confront potential blind spots with humility.

Personal takeaways

A wider range of texts to translate

From the start of my career, I’ve had a pretty narrow niche, due to how I got my start as a translator in a technical field. When I began freelancing, I was able to branch out into other fields and types of documents. The study group has provided a refreshing variety of topics to work on, and not having a choice in the assignments has been beneficial to help me identify and break free from old patterns.


Living in Europe, at times I am asked to conform to UK spelling rather than US. This means that my eyes have become more accepting of spelling variations, an area where losing points would be nonsense! Further, being surrounded by French speakers can prove dangerous if I allow Romance-language structure too much influence on my writing in English. Going into the practice test and any real exam sitting, I’ll know to pay particular attention to both of these points.

Unexpected situations

Through the proposed texts, I’ve encountered a few unexpected situations, like a presumed typo in a company name. While I’m not sure that this curveball was intended, I’ve been able to research how to handle this situation were it to arise during a real exam sitting. I’m also better prepared to manage the technical aspects of what graders expect in terms of deliverables.

Next steps

As summertime is quickly approaching, my next step is completing a practice test passage. I’m also considering how to take advantage of this typically slower period of the year to do more self-study. If all goes as planned, I’ll sit for one of the remote exams offered in September.

In the future, once I’ve reached my goal of certification, I’d like to join a Rev Club. I’ve really enjoyed getting to work with other translators in this non-competitive setting and enriching my own work through contact with theirs.

Advantages of the remote, asynchronous format

  • You can participate on your own time, per your schedule.
  • Joining the study group does not require you to translate the text each month.
  • The long-term nature of the group allows you to familiarize yourself with the dense information about the exam over a longer period of time and break it down in smaller, easy to digest portions.
  • Participants can choose a way to meet and give feedback that suits their personality, preferences and/or schedule.
  • The Discord channel is open for discussion outside your assigned pair or group.

Limitations of a remote practice test group

  • It can be hard to gauge improvement, as the type of text changes each month.
  • There is no benchmark translation with which to compare your work.
  • You may find that translating one text per month may not be enough practice and it could be difficult to maintain momentum.
  • Feedback and interaction with peers vary.
  • Not everyone sees or is connected to the Discord group.

Possible routes to refinement

Getting started

For an into-English group, it could be helpful to spend the first month focusing on the Into-English Grading Standards. This would set aside time specifically for reading the available resource materials, getting familiar with the test format and dos and don’ts, as well as questions, before starting to work on translation passages.

Fostering group interactions

Because the group is not static, and not everyone completes the translation each month, you may end up working with the same partner on multiple occasions. In this event, the Discord channel can be used to request additional input on a specific point or to share something you’ve learned. An additional benefit of doing so is that other FLD members may see your post and get involved in the discussion.

Involving already-certified translators

One particular component of the SLD’s study group cycle that stands out as a potential improvement to the FLD initiative is the Expert Feedback step. The article linked above mentions that “the organizers put together a list of challenges encountered and solicit feedback from volunteer experts… the reviewers do not grade each individual translation, but do provide overall guidance on common challenges.” I found this appealing, although it would require care so that guidelines and expectations are clear for both participants and volunteer CT.

Final thoughts

Over the past five months, the experience has given me the opportunity to meet and exchange feedback with five different colleagues, only one of whom I had ever crossed paths with in the past. This has been the most surprising benefit of committing to working towards certification. When I first joined the ATA, I lived outside a major metropolitan area without a local chapter. In spite of attending the annual conference in NYC in 2009, I found it difficult to stay in touch with members before social media was considered an essential part of our professional lives. Thus far, I’ve really appreciated feeling a sense of belonging to the FLD and developing stronger ties to the ATA by extension.

No matter the form it takes, a certification exam study group is a golden opportunity to invest in your professional development. In the end, it only requires a few hours each month. If this inside look at what the FLD study group can be has motivated you to give it a go, contact divisionFLD [at] to sign up and specify if you would like to participate in the French to English group or the English to French group.

Amber Marcum Combaud

Amber Marcum Combaud holds a professional certificate in French to English translation from NYU and a Bachelors in French and Linguistics from UVA. She got her big break in translation thanks to a wine and cheese party. Thereafter, she spent five years working as an in-house technical and corporate communications translator–project administrator for a company in the power generation niche. Currently based in Marseille, she began freelancing in 2016 to serve a wider range of clients in the energy, industry, and construction sectors, local businesses seeking to expand their horizons abroad, and individuals. An active member of the Société française des traducteurs in PACA, she served as a delegate from 2017–2019. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, paddle boarding, art museums, and live jazz. amber [at] /