One workshop attendee shares highlights from the ATA exam certification workshop, where Tuomas Kostiainen gave attendees the inside scoop on how to prepare for and ace the exam.

We had a great turnout at NCTA’s ATA Exam Certification workshop on Saturday, August 25th, led by Tuomas Kostiainen. Although I had already taken an ATA practice test for my language pair, I thought it would be useful to attend this workshop – and I’m glad that I did! Here are just a few highlights from the workshop for those of you who were unable to attend.

About one thousand ATA certification exams are taken every year. ATA currently provides the only certification for translators in the United States. As Tuomas pointed out in his lecture, the benefits of obtaining ATA certification in your language pair include evidence of professional competence, proof of certification, and an opportunity for associate and student members to convert to active membership. So now that we have convinced you to take the exam, here is what you must do to prepare.

First steps
In order to take the ATA certification exam you must meet three requirements. First, you must be an ATA member. Once you have membership, you can purchase practice tests, which will provide useful feedback as preparation for the actual exam. You must then satisfy eligibility requirements to take the exam, such as possessing an advanced degree in translation and interpretation from an accredited school. The third step is to register for the ATA certification exam in your language pair. Please check the ATA website for information on fees, eligibility requirements, and current forms.

Once you have met the requirements and are ready to sit for the exam, you may need a little preparation. As mentioned above, you may take an ATA practice exam in your language pair. Practice tests are available for the general passage as well as specialized passages in science/technology/medicine and law/business/finance. Tuomas suggests additional measures such as reading language specific guidelines available on the ATA website. These guidelines will assist you in identifying common errors and will familiarize you with proper usage guidelines for your language pair. Furthermore, you should also read style manuals and grammar books in preparation for the exam.

Exam structure
The ATA exam is a three-hour open book exam. According to Tuomas, the overall pass rate was below twenty percent when he first took the exam years ago. The exam contains three passages; however, you must only complete two out of three passages. Each passage contains 225-275 words and presents common translation challenges at a level of difficulty comparable to that which professional translators routinely experience in their daily work. There are three passage categories: A) general; B) science/technology/medical; and C) law/business/finance. Since everyone must translate passage A, Tuomas recommends reading passages B and C first before deciding which of these to translate. He cautioned that although some test takers will be tempted to translate all three passages, no extra points are awarded and this would only waste time. Remember, you only have three hours to complete the exam. You may bring along general dictionaries, specialized dictionaries (such as medical and technical), and other language reference material. Note that no online access is allowed, i.e. no computers or smartphones, hence all reference materials must be hard copies.

Exam grading
The ATA certification exam is evaluated by two graders. If both graders agree on their score, then grading of the exam is complete. If the two graders disagree, then the exam is sent to a third grader. Grading is based on error points determined by Framework for Standard Error Marking criteria. Common errors include translations which are too literal and punctuation errors. If the test taker receives 18 error points or more, the passage is considered failed. You must receive fewer than 18 error points each on two complete passages to receive a passing score for the overall exam. The ATA certification exam primarily tests for three skills: comprehension of the source language, writing ability in the target language, and translation techniques. Graders may award up to 3 quality points per passage, which are subtracted from error points. Quality points may be given, for example, for precisely mirroring ambiguity in the source language text. All feedback is standardized and you can find grading standards for translations into English, inclusive of error categories, on the ATA website.

Final tips & pointers
Tuomas advises early arrival on test day, and don’t forget to bring along a photo ID! Remember to spend the first ten minutes deciding on which passages to translate, and read your translations for sense and accuracy, i.e., “does the text read well?” Two hours should be enough time for translation and the last hour should be spent reviewing your work. Tuomas had one final word of caution: do not make any last minute choices! After the exam, just sit back and relax – it will take up to fifteen weeks to receive the results. VC

Information and resources for the ATA Certification Program can be found here.