Some thoughts on ATA certification

On the Colorado Translators Association e-mail list, we recently had a lively discussion about ATA certification, which got me thinking about some of the pros, cons and issues associated with the ATA certification exams. In the spirit of disclosure, I am both ATA-certified (failed the practice test, passed the real exam) and an active volunteer for ATA so I’m not entirely impartial, but I’ll try to give a balanced view of the topic.

For those unfamiliar with the ATA certification process, here are some of the roots of the controversy

    • ATA certification exams are still handwritten and no electronic reference materials are allowed. Candidates have to bring their own (paper) dictionaries and reference books; when I took the exam, the woman next to me brought a rolling suitcase full of dictionaries.
    • The only feedback that you receive from the ATA exam is a letter notifying you whether you passed or failed; you don’t receive your marked-up exam unless you pay a separate review fee.
    • In order to refer to yourself as ATA-certified and to use the CT designation, you must remain a member of ATA. Technically, your certification lapses if you don’t renew your ATA membership, and ATA could require you to retake the certification exam.
    • ATA does not release pass/fail rates for specific language combinations, only an approximate overall pass rate of “less than 20%.”

To open the discussion, here are some gripes about the exam that I disagree with:

      • “It’s too expensive.” At $300, the exam certainly isn’t cheap. But ATA actually loses money on the certification program; and when you consider that the $300 fee includes the exam sitting plus having your exam graded by at least two reviewers (and a third reviewer comes in if the first two disagree on your result), I actually think it’s amazing that ATA doesn’t need to charge more.
      • “The grading process is unfair.” I agree that the grading process is a little opaque (we’ll get to that later…), but if you fail, it means that at least two reviewers agree that you failed. You can never fail the ATA exam based on only one person’s review.
      • “The passing rate is ridiculously low.” The passing rate on the ATA exam is, according to all of the published statistics I could find, roughly equivalent to the passing rate on the Federal Court Interpreter written exam, and *much higher* than the 4-5% pass rate on the Federal Court Interpreter exam as a whole.
      • “No one cares if you’re certified anyway.” I think that certification is not a must, but it’s certainly a plus. I do a brisk business translating official documents for individuals, and most of that work requires a certified translator. If a client is blindly searching the ATA directory, I think that they’re likely to contact the certified people first. And I think that clients in general feel safer when they use certified translators because they feel that there’s some guarantee of competence there.

Moving on, here are some gripes about the exam that I believe have at least a shred of merit:

    • The whole handwritten exam/paper dictionary situation. I can sympathize with the reasons behind this (exam security, expense, finding appropriate testing centers, dealing with non-Roman-alphabet languages, etc.) but it’s still a major deterrent for many translators. When I took the exam in 2002, I don’t think I had spent three hours handwriting anything since I was in college in the early 90s. If I were to take the exam today, I would have to purchase or borrow paper dictionaries just for that purpose since I’ve converted to electronic resources almost exclusively. This format just doesn’t mesh with the way most translators work in 2012.
    • The lack of prep materials. At present, the only official prep materials that ATA offers are practice exams which cost $50.00 each. Considering that you do receive your marked-up practice exam, I think the cost is very reasonable. However, I think ATA should offer more prep materials than this in order to make the grading standards more transparent. How about a book of old exams for each language combination with sample translations, including the error markings for each one? How about language-specific prep courses led by graders and including practice exam sessions with feedback? Right now, I think that if you fail the practice test it’s hard to know what you need to work on in order to pass. More prep materials could help remedy this.
    • The opacity surrounding the exam grading and release of results, which ties into the cost of the exam. To my knowledge, ATA does not publish the names of the exam graders. Many people do identify themselves as exam graders, for example on their websites or LinkedIn profiles, but ATA itself does not identify them. I think it would contribute to the legitimacy of the exam if ATA made a concerted effort to recruit graders who are seen as the top translators in their language combinations. Undoubtedly, some or even most graders already meet this criterion, but ATA could benefit from publishing their names on its website. In addition, I think that ATA should pay its graders more (in order to recruit and retain the most respected translators in each language combination), even if this leads to an increase in the exam fee. I also think that ATA should release specific pass/fail figures each year and for each language combination. Right now ATA publishes the names of newly certified members in the Chronicle, but I think it would contribute to the exam’s legitimacy if ATA published the number of people who took each language combination and the number who passed and failed.

In sum, I think that ATA does a good job of administering the certification program with the resources that it has. With a budget of $300 per candidate spread over renting an exam room, paying an exam proctor, paying at least two graders and dealing with the administrative aspects of the exam, I think that ATA does pretty admirably. However, I think that increasing the exam fee in order to finally get the exam computerized, plus offering more prep materials and possibly prep courses would help make the exam process more transparent and legitimate in the eyes of ATA members.

36 Responses to “Some thoughts on ATA certification”
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