Educational Documents: Translation or Evaluation?

by George Fletcher

Globe Language Services. Inc. of which I am a co-owner, is a translation and evaluation company in New York City. We specialize in both translation and evaluation of foreign educational credentials. I used to teach foreign languages in grade school and high school, and later In college, and then I worked in the international office of Oklahoma State University for many years, which is where I learned there was a difference between translation and evaluation. This article describes a specialized area within the field of translation: educational documents.

The first thing we have to realize is the importance of translations of this type, because how you translate the document may determine whether or not that person gets a degree or a job Just imagine going to another country with your bachelor’s degree and having it translated there as an associate’s degree. That could affect you drastically in the job market. This is the first point, then: the importance of your work to your client. It’s probably as important as any translation you do in terms of helping people.

When we translate an educational document such as a diploma, our first question is: “Should I analyze it, or should I just describe what is in the document?” In his Introduction to Spanish Translation, Jack Child presents a scale that goes from the lowest level of translation-word for word, i.e., where the overall meaning is less important to the highest level- where the translator reads the document, assimilates it into his or her own thinking, analyzes it, and then reproduces it creatively in his or her native language. Of course, there are levels in between. When the document in question is an educational document, what should we do? Should we sit down and analyze it? What is it? Is it a baccalauréat from France? Should I tell people exactly what that is in the United States? As a translator, is that my job? In my view, we don t have to analyze the document or assimilate a diploma and then recreate it. We only need to describe what’s in that document. If we analyze the document and try to recreate it in English at the educational level that it represents in the United States, what we are doing is called evaluation. There is an entire profession out there consisting of evaluators who are going to do the evaluation. That’s their job. What we need to do is simply to translate the document, describe it, and then let the evaluators analyze it. In a way, this makes it easier for us as translators.

What is an evaluator? What do they do?

An evaluator researches foreign educational documents and recommends the closest US equivalents of those documents. Evaluations are required by US schools, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, licensing boards, and numerous federal, state, city and private employers. The United States is very generous in accepting educational experience in other countries; basically, if any education is accredited in another country, it is accepted at face value in the United States. Someone, however, must scrutinize the foreign documents to determine their eligibility for acceptance and thereafter establish their US equivalents. Of course, documents not in English must be translated. This poses a special challenge to the translator. What, specifically, does the evaluator need from the translator?

The first question a translator should ask is, “Who is going to receive my translation?” The translation may be good or bad, but it’s only as good as the level of understanding of the person receiving or utilizing it. As a practical matter, the translator has to please the client. If the client has certain requirements, the translator must consider those requirements. As a rule, when translators translate transcripts and diplomas, the people who will ultimately receive and work with them are evaluators.

What do we do when the client is an individual who requests an analytical or evaluative translation?

That’s exactly what you don t want to do. Ultimately, your translation of any educational document will go to an evaluator. You can rest assured that eventually someone who knows the system of education you are translating will receive your translation. They will know the grade scales and the names of the diplomas. You don’t have to worry about that.

Admission officers at institutions of higher education are trained to be evaluators. And if the translation is sent for state licensing, such as to engineering boards, boards of education, etc., there are evaluators there.

Now, if you want your translation to be rejected by an evaluator, the best thing you can do is try to analyze and evaluate that diploma and tell the evaluator what it is. What the translator needs to determine is what the evaluator needs. The first thing is the name of the university on the foreign diploma. If you translate the name of the university, which translators tend to do, that’s okay. However, there is a book that has the official translations of the names of foreign schools: The International Handbook of Universities and Other Institutions of Higher Education. If you’re inventing your own translations, yours may be better, but they’re not “official.” If you use a translation that’s not in that book, you will make it harder for your client, the student, because the evaluator/admission officer is going to say that the school is not accredited. The student will come back to you and say, “Look, they’re not accepting my application because of your translation. They claim my school’s not accredited.” lf you’re going to translate the name of the school, consult the Handbook and use that translation.

The next point is always to add the name of the school in parentheses in the source language. Even if you are going to take it upon yourself to translate the name, albeit correctly for you, your transmission might be considered incorrect by the evaluator. Then the evaluator can at least look it up in the source language in the Handbook. As long as the evaluator can find the school listed there, the student is safe. In my opinion, it is not a good idea to translate the name of the school unless you use the names given in this book. This publication also has a breakdown of the schools (faculties) within the institutions, including majors offered and so on.

What about non-Latin-script languages?

My suggestion in these cases is to transliterate the words in parentheses into Latin script. I would transliterate whatever words are part of the name of the university. In these languages you will need to translate the names of the universities, which is why the Handbook is so important to you. You can also get lists of schools with translations of their names from consulates and embassies. At any rate, official translations already exist.

The most difficult part of a translation, however, is the name of the degree itself, the diploma or title. That is the part that will be evaluated for US equivalency. For example, you see baccalauréat. Is the translation “bachelor’s degree”? Definitely not. The minute an evaluator sees that type of translation, the translator is out. That’s why most schools, at least in the New York metropolitan area, have a list of translators or translation agencies they will use. The schools communicate with them, and the translators know what the schools want. lf you want to build your client base, work with the admissions officers of your local colleges and universities, and they will recommend you to their international applicants. It also helps school officials to have someone who understands what they need. It causes trouble for them to receive translations that say, for example, bachelor’s degree for a secondary school diploma. And many mistakes have been made along these lines, e.g., high school graduates being admitted as graduate students. It’s a disaster for the evaluators, who can lose their jobs, not to mention the harm done to the student.

Whom do we address at the schools?

The Admissions Office. Call the school and ask for the person in charge of foreign applications. We’ve done this with all the local schools in our area, and they’re quite happy to find someone who’s aware of what they need.

What about the Abitur diploma from Germany?

From the evaluator’s point of view the Abitur generally represents completion of high school and up to one year of college credit. You, as the translator. do not want to shortchange the student by evaluating the certificate as a US high school diploma. That is not fair to the student, because it represents more than that. So, what is a translator to do?

There are benchmarks common to most education systems throughout the world. First comes primary school, followed by secondary, followed by undergraduate education, graduate education, and upper graduate education, such as the doctorate. When we translate a secondary school diploma, such as a bachillerato from Colombia, we will put ”secondary school diploma.” This is the benchmark for Colombia, representing a combined total of 11 years of primary and secondary education. We are not saying it’s a high school diploma in the United States; it’s a secondary school diploma from that country. Of course, always put the word in the source language in italics. That’s what the evaluator is going to look at; he or she will want to know what the original says. For an evaluator, therefore, the Abitur represents a high school diploma plus up to one year of undergraduate credit. This is the secondary school benchmark in Germany, but it represents more than that in the United States.

What about the other information on the document?

The rest of the information does not have to be in the original language in the translation (but it can be; see more on this below). All the other information is very important and needs to be in English, because the evaluator must know such things as the date of birth, dates of enrollment, graduation, and so on. The date of birth can be very important if it appears on the document. The diploma may indicate a master’s degree and the person’s age as l4 years when completed. Much of the information that appears on a diploma is needed by the evaluator as verification for cross reference purposes in the evaluation. This is especially true in languages with non Latin scripts, such as Russian, Chinese, and Thai. I think we can safely assume that there are not very many admission officers who read all of these languages, which is why school personnel are very dependent on the translator. This is another reason why it’s extremely important for you to earn the trust of school officials. Yes, in French, Spanish, or other Western European  languages, it is easier for them to verify words, dates, and general information in the originals, but I don’t think you can expect them to be totally fluent in all the languages with Latin script either.

What about the authenticity of each document?

That’s not specifically the translator’s job. Legally speaking, people can bring us a hand-written message on a napkin, and we can translate it. But, when you realize the evaluators are responsible for ascertaining authenticity, what do you do when you receive the same diploma every day with the name whited out and a new name written in? Legally, you can translate that diploma and certify the translation. However, the evaluator is going to catch on sooner rather than later. So if you can be aware of forgeries and reject them, it’s better to lose one client than to lose the university that’s sending you clients every day, notwithstanding morality and our society. In New York, there are companies that duplicate university seals, not to mention diplomas and transcripts. And guess who’s selling these forgeries on the open market? Translation agencies.

How does one translate grades?

This is another red-flag area for translators. My suggestion is, don’t interpret the grades since that’s the evaluator’s job. There are publications that list foreign grades and give equivalents in terms of the US grading scale of A, B, C, D and F. The evaluator does not want you to do this because you are going to do it incorrectly. It will be more difficult for them to deal with your translation, and they will want to get rid of you. What I would recommend is that you contact the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) at and obtain a list of country-specific books that contain information about each country’s educational system, including the translations of grades accepted in the field and bilingual glossaries.

Do evaluators appreciate it if you put the words for foreign language grades in the original language in italics, along with the English translation?

They will love you if you do this. That would be fantastic, because the evaluators are trained to know the grades, the diplomas and the schools for the countries they deal with. Those are the three things we can assume they know in the foreign language, at least in most languages. In the books and charts evaluators use, the foreign language and the English are given. So if you write them both, even if the translation is off, they can go back to the original language. When in doubt about any point of information, it does not hurt to put the foreign language words in parentheses and italics along with the translated words.

My specific question regards the translations of the French grades Très bien, Bien, Assez bien, Passable, and Ajourné.

The reference book on France that all evaluators use translates French grades as follows:

 Très bien –  Very Good
 Bien  – Good
 Assez bien  –  Good enouqh
 Passable  –   Satisfactory
 Ajourné  –  Failed

Evaluators appreciate such direct translations. It is when the translator evaluates the grades and translates them as A B. C. D or F, for example, that the line is crossed between translation and evaluation.

Do we have to explain what a baccalauréat is in our translation?

No. No footnotes, no translator opinion or interpretation-that is precisely what is not wanted. Just describe what you have in your hands. This actually makes it easier for you. Most NAFSA books also contain the translations that all evaluators use for the different degrees and diplomas. If you use these, then its fine to translate these terms, always remembering to put the original in italics. The evaluator will not have any problem with this. Considering the French baccalauréat, there is no translation. You can use baccalauréat as long as you put it in italics; it is not a bachelor’s degree. In the reference book on French education, the word baccalauréat is used throughout; however, it is translated in one place as a “secondary-school-leaving examination.”

lf I’m translating for a resume, shouldn’t I add footnotes about the education?

There are two mistakes here. First, you’re making a mistake worrying about this, because it’s not your job. You don’t have to do that. Second, somebody, someplace, even if it’s the employer, is going to have to evaluate the educational document itself. And if they don’t have the good sense to call a professional evaluation service, the employer is making a big mistake. As a favor to your client, you could give them the name of an evaluation association and tell them that, if they need an evaluation of their documents, they can go to that organization. This would be best both for that person and for the employer. You may want to refer your client to the Association of International Credential Evaluators (AICE) at for a list of reputable evaluation services.

Should we add a footnote stating that the document needs to be professionally evaluated?

No, I wouldn’t put any footnotes.

lf an individual doesn’t say what the translation will be used for, what do we do?

Eventually an evaluator is going to look at it, even if it’s the employer.

What if the client insists that we put in the explanation of what the degree is?

I wouldn’t do it. Every person educated in another country will assert that ”education is different in my country.” That is the first thing you will hear “In our country we study six days per week all day and we know a lot more than Americans, because I’ve talked to American students and they know nothing; American education stinks, basically, and you should really award me a doctorate here although it says bachillerato.” That’s a normal response, and if I were to go to another country, I’m sure I would do the same (“Hey, don’t underestimate my education, this is my life!”).

Isn’t there a possible liability involved if the translator adds information to a  translation?

Exactly. On the one hand, an evaluation always contains a disclaimer: “These are recommendations only, we are not responsible….” An evaluator can only recommend. A translator, on the other hand, does not have this freedom – we’re supposed to be translating. A certified and notarized translation becomes a legal document; it must be faithful to the original. So, assume that a translator is more liable than an evaluator.

What about transcripts?

It would probably help you to request some college catalogs with the names of courses in US schools. For example, in mechanical engineering, the courses may be very similar in the foreign country. This could help you as translator. If not, a literal translation of the names of the courses is preferred. Evaluators are going to know what the courses are; seeing a transcript in mechanical engineering will not be new to them. On the other hand, you may be asked to translate a course in mechanical engineering from the home country as civil, mechanical and electronic engineering all rolled into one, because this is going to meet a specific requirement in one of those areas at the US school. The translator needs to be careful. Evaluators will also certainly question translations that exactly match their own curricula. I think it bears repeating: you don t need  to evaluate.

Would a document in a language such as German need to be translated?

Yes, it would. There is a good chance the evaluator is not totally fluent in German. It is possible to know the German system of education and not be fluent in German. This is a subject for debate within the evaluation field. Therefore, the evaluator may not be able to read the other data in a foreign language document, but he or she must make sure all the information in that document fits for validation and authentication purposes.

In conclusion, I would say, take it easy on yourself-give a description. It’s not our job to evaluate these documents in order to translate them. If a student insists on evaluation, don’t translate this type of document for that client. Lose one customer, but please the school, because the school is going to be sending you clients all the time. If one person wants a doctorate for a high school diploma, lose that person. The evaluator is going to give credit where it’s due. The translator is the one who stands to lose.

1. Child, Jack. Introduction to Spanish Translation. Maryland: University Press of America, 1992.
2. Taylor, Ann [ed]. International Handbook of Universities and Other Institutions of Higher Education. 12th  ed.
New York: Stockton Press, 1991.


George Fletcher, Ed.D., is president of the International Education Credential Evaluation Division of Globe Language Services, Inc., in New York. He is an adjunct assistant professor of translation at New York University, current chair person of American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers’ International Education Research Committee, and charter member of the Association of International Credential Evaluators (AICE). He is an ATA-accredited Spanish/English translator, and author of The Complete Handbook and GIossary of Soviet Education (1992) and Chile: A Comparative Education Study (2000, with Spanish/ English glossary). He can be reached at
This article is based on a presentation at the 1999 ATA conference in St. Louis, Missouri. It has previously appeared in Gotham Translator (February 2000) and the ATA Chronicle (March 2000) and is reprinted here with permission.