Webinar question: Preparing for the ATA certification exam

This is post #3 in my ongoing series of questions from the webinar on “Getting started as a freelance translator” that I presented for the American Translators Association earlier this month.

A participant asks: How can I prepare for the ATA certification exam?
Short answer: Order a practice test from ATA; at $50 (including return of the graded copy of your exam) as opposed to $300 for the real exam (not including return of the graded copy of your exam), it’s a good investment and a good indicator of your chances of passing the real exam.

Longer answer: If you’d like to take the ATA exam, you need to do a few things:

  • Join ATA
  • Make sure you meet the eligibility requirements for the exam. If you don’t meet them and you do not currently work as a translator, your most expeditious route is probably to get a translation certificate from an approved program; there’s a list on the ATA website.
  • Gather (buy, borrow, check out of the library) enough paper dictionaries and reference books for the exam. At present, ATA does not allow candidates to use any electronic resources for the exam, but you can use all of the paper dictionaries that you can carry. When I took the test, the woman next to me brought a rolling suitcase full of dictionaries covering a variety of subject areas.
  • Familiarize yourself with the error marking framework for the exam, the tips for candidates and the other resources on ATA’s website.
  • Take a practice test and see how you do. The magic number is 17; with 17 or fewer error points, you’re in. If you take the practice test and get 20 error points, you probably have a chance of passing the real exam (this happened to me) but if you get 40 error points, well…

And a few random thoughts on the ATA exam:

  • I am ATA-certified and find it to be a boost for my business. At the very least, someone browsing the ATA online directory is likely to call the certified translators first. I do a pretty brisk business translating official documents for individual direct clients, partially because I’m one of only three ATA-certified French to English translators in Colorado. However, the highest paid freelancers I know, people in the 40+ cents per word market, are not certified. You can definitely earn a very healthy income as a freelance translator without being certified.
  • As was recently discussed on Jill Sommer’s blog, there are lots of issues with the ATA exam. The handwriting factor is huge; personally I don’t hand write anything except my grocery list, and I found it excruciating to hand write the whole exam. In nearly a decade as a freelancer, I have never hand written a translation other than the ATA exam. Ditto with paper dictionaries; most of us have moved over to entirely electronic terminology resources and it’s tough to translate without using them. When I took the exam, the general passage was much, much harder than the specialized passage, and I felt that the grading standards were heavily swayed toward a fairly literal, word-by-word translation; the kind of translation I try to avoid when I translate for publication. ATA is working on a lot of these issues. And to be fair, it’s hard to deal with some of them (for example the long turnaround time to get your exam graded) without raising the price beyond most translators’ means.
  • The pass rate for the ATA certification exams is very low. ATA does not release exact statistics, but the pass rate seems to be about 20%. However: a) this is comparable to, or even higher than the pass rates for similar exams such as the Federal Court Interpreter certification exam. Some court interpreter certification exams even have a pass rate around 5%. b) if you fail the ATA exam, it means that two separate graders agree that you failed. Every exam is reviewed by two graders to start out with. If they disagree on the result, the exam is then sent to another grader for a third review. So you cannot fail the exam based on only one person’s assessment of your test. c) I would be interested to see the pass rates broken down by language. Anecdotally, it seems that some languages’ pass rates are much lower than others
  • If I were to give ATA some business advice, I would advise them to start producing preparation materials for the certification exams. I think that this would serve the twofold purpose of making the exam and the grading process more transparent and of generating revenue for ATA. For example, ATA could publish preparation manuals of old exams with graded example translations. They could even offer preparation courses. Hey, if people will spend several thousand dollars for a bar exam preparation course, ATA should be able to charge real money for a translator certification exam preparation course.

Other thoughts?

21 Responses to “Webinar question: Preparing for the ATA certification exam”
  1. Katie Spillane December 10, 2010
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    • K June 6, 2016
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