Volume 31, Number 3

In our high-tech world, the ATA exam continues to be a low-tech institution. BY NINA BOGDAN

The decision to take the ATA certification exam is based on a number of factors, one of which is whether or not the individual translator is at the stage of their career that they are ready. There is nothing more frustrating than spending the time preparing for the exam (and paying the substantial fee) and then not passing.
ATA statistics on this issue make it clear that novice translators, for example, those who have just graduated with a degree in a foreign language—even an advanced degree—should not expect to pass the exam. The overall pass rate for the ATA exam is under 20%. These statistics are not broken down by language combinations as, according to Terry Hanlen, ATA Deputy Executive Director and Certification Program Manager, this would be like comparing apples and oranges since some language combinations have hundreds of exams while others only have five. → continue reading


California Senate Bill 853, passed in 2003, mandates language assistance for health plan enrollees. How does this impact the translators and interpreters in California? BY GEORGE RIMAFLOWER

California Senate Bill (SB) 853, passed in 2003, mandates that health plans provide Limited English-Proficient (LEP) enrollees with language assistance services at hospitals, clinics and other healthcare locations that accept plan insurance.
About 100 insurers, including UHC, Health Net, Cigna, Aetna, Kaiser and Blue Shield, offer healthcare coverage in California. In many cases, it is difficult for English speakers to understand medical and legal jargon but it is even more difficult for those with a limited understanding of English. SB 853 was designed to help alleviate language and cultural barriers when LEP enrollees need medical care.

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In this first part of a two-part series we look at how certification fits into the language provider’s business plan. BY NINA BOGDAN
Quote to ATA exam.
In the eight years since 9/11, analysis of events, policy debates, and proposals for change have steadily continued in one venue or another. The one conclusion that seems irrefutable is that we, as a nation, were woefully unprepared when it comes to the application of translation and interpreting skills. There were many references to a purported backlog of Arabic language material left untranslated at such a critical time. This led to revelations of our lack of qualified linguists in other “critical” languages such as Urdu, Punjabi and Farsi. → continue reading


Whether it’s Uncle Sam, Big Brother or Scrooge who’s in charge, employment prospects for qualified language professionals are dim and getting dimmer. BY NINA BOGDAN

Last year, Translorial’s Stafford Hemmer wrote a two part story on the creation of the “Civilian Language Reserve Corps,” now re-named the National Language Service Corps (NLSC). In the article, Robert Slater, then the Director of the National Security Education Program, was quoted as stating that, “Compensation plans are still under development.” Currently, information on the NLSC website notes that when NLSC members are called to duty, they will be paid “based on scales used by the federal government.” The website also states that minimum requirements to be an NLSC Charter Member for their “Pilot Project” are: being at least 18 years old, a U.S. citizen, highly skilled in a foreign language, and having a desire to use that language in the service of others. → continue reading


The commercial world of translation and interpreting can be a harsh taskmaster for the independent contractor. In this two-part series, we ask: Is the government any better? BY NINA BOGDAN

Part I: NCTA member Farah Arjang’s attendance at a U.S. Government/ATA-sponsored conference yields little more than questions.

Those who choose to work as freelancers may revel in a life of no bosses, no mandatory business attire (every day is casual Friday!) and the freedom to work at 2 AM, but they are also at the mercy of demanding agencies that care only about the bottom line and non-paying customers who disappear as soon as a job is delivered. Linguists also frequently find themselves to be convenient targets of misplaced blame (everyone knew that it was really that pesky diplomat who misspoke; not the interpreter), and of comments such as, “If you’re such a good translator, why do you need a dictionary?” or, my all-time personal favorite, “You’re a translator? That’s a pretty easy job, right?” → continue reading


In September 2007, Princeton University launched what it hailed as “the largest, most extensive effort in the country to educate students about the important role that translation plays across academic fields and in cultural understanding.” We check it out.

By Stafford Hemmer

Officially, as News at Princeton reports, the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication seeks to “allow students to develop skills in language use and in the understanding of cultural and disciplinary difference. Translation across languages allows access to issues of intercultural differences, and the program will encourage its students to think about the complexity of communicating across cultures, nations, and linguistic borders.”

Certificate, certified—and totally certifiable

In the blush of its novelty, Sandra Bermann, chair of Princeton’s Comparative Literature department and a member of the program’s Executive Committee, eagerly elucidates that “words like democracy or constitution mean different things in different parts of the world,” reflecting the optimism of yet another translation certificate program to arise in American academia. “Certificate” and “Certified” also mean different things in different parts of the world, too. 

In order to call oneself a “translator” in a country like Germany, for example, one is required to study the discipline at a University and/or pass certification examinations administered by the state or federal government. In the USA, by contrast, no such government-sanctioned qualifying body can recognize a “certified translator” who can offer “certified translations.” It falls upon many US-based translators to educate clients about what constitutes certification, and even then, fellow translators have still had to ask each other—more than once on the NCTA list, for example—”How do I certify a translation?” A not-insignificant concern when dealing with clients who need transcripts, diplomas, immigration documents, divorce decrees translated … you get the picture.

Certainly the ATA imprimatur is a powerful endorsement, despite the deserved criticisms about the quality, nature, and prevarication of its testing practices. Still, ATA is merely a private, non-profit organization, acting on its own interests and on behalf of its members. A truly objective, government-run certifying body, administering U.S., or better yet, international, standards, is woefully absent in this country.

What about that Berkeley program?

To those of us NCTA members who graduated from the now defunct Certificate in Translation and Interpretation Studies Program offered by the University of California at Berkeley (through its Extension campus), whether as students, instructors, administrators, or conspirators, the philosophy, approach, structure—and optimism—behind the new Princeton program is hauntingly familiar. Princeton’s curriculum lends itself to ready comparison with that of Berkeley/Extension. For Princeton undergraduates already proficient in at least one foreign language, the newly christened “Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication” brings the art of translation to the plethora of disciplines represented by the 17 departments involved in the program. Berkeley’s students, who demonstrated their language proficiency upon application, benefitted from a program structured by professionals in the fields of both translation and interpretation, along with a renowned university’s staff and administration representing diverse fields of study.

Like Berkeley, Princeton offers a two-year program which began this fall with one of two core courses entitled “Thinking Translation: Language Transfer and Cultural Communication” (also called “Issues in Translation”), followed, in the succeeding semester, by the collective “Senior Seminar in Translation and Intercultural Communications.” Berkeley’s infamous first semester “Survey of Linguistics” managed to weed out just under a third of the first cohort’s initial 66 participants. The seemingly directionless second-semester course did little for student retention. This drop-out rate is unlikely to happen at Princeton, because that program is not designed for adults seeking continuing education credentials on top of their busy home and work lives, but instead for current undergraduates (mostly juniors and seniors) who are complementing their degrees in the humanities, sciences, or engineering.

The rest of the program also resembles Berkeley’s program structure: in the second year, the Princeton students gradually refine their course of study first by selecting from a menu of courses in “Translation Practice”—such as “Cultures and Critical Translation”—followed by a final semester of additional, pre-approved electives that are likely to be language- and discipline-specific. And, just as with the Berkeley program, the Princeton undergrads complete the program after submitting a “Senior Thesis.” One other requirement of the Princeton program is that participants must spend between six weeks to one year abroad, whereas most of Berkeley’s enrollees had already studied abroad when they themselves were undergraduates, or lived abroad when they were being raised.

So what happened?

There are important differences between both Princeton and Berkeley that augur well for Princeton’s future. The reasons for Berkeley’s past are too complex to cover here. Princeton runs an executive committee of department members or chairs. Berkeley’s program was ultimately controlled by the Board of Regents for the University of California—making it virtually impossible for administrators to respond to important program changes or student demands, simply because they could get not get on the Regents’ quarterly meeting agenda.

The Princeton program also offers the structured environment of an undergraduate setting, with students eager to succeed, whereas the Berkeley program had to be fit in with the responsibilities of work, family, and the rest of everyday post-graduate, real-world living. It was frustrating to see so many Berkeley students who held immense potential to be so discouraged for a number of reasons—whether they had been out of college for too long, whether they had to commute three hours each way for class twice a week, or whether they were simply enraged at the administration’s inability to advocate for the changes the program needed. The program was terminated in 2002, after graduating a mere three cohorts. May Princeton enjoy a greater success.