Language Chairs Meeting and Update on New Computerized Exam Option

Here’s an overview of the ATA Certification Program’s annual Language Chairs Meeting, including a report on the new computerized exam option.

On April 30 and May 1, a group of 45 graders for ATA’s Certification Program gathered in Alexandria, Virginia, for the annual Language Chairs Meeting, a day and a half of intensive training sessions and discussion. Among the subjects addressed were key language-specific challenges to be considered during passage selection and the fine-tuning of error point decisions. There was also wide-ranging discussion of the results of the new computerized certification exam sitting, which had been held a few weeks earlier in Charlotte, North Carolina.

At that April 3 pilot test, 12 candidates working in eight different language pairs took the exam on their own laptops, saving their work as plain text files onto an ATA-supplied USB drive. They also had Internet access, with which they were allowed to consult online dictionaries and certain other resources. I personally served as head proctor for the exam sitting so that I could collect feedback firsthand, in hopes of tweaking the process and developing this method of exam delivery into a regular offering.

Overall, the first computerized exam sitting was a success, and the handful of issues that arose were discussed at length during the Language Chairs Meeting and by the Certification Committee, which met that same weekend. The biggest question was whether to allow grammar and/or spell check functionality during the exam. Proponents argued that spell checkers are part of everyone’s daily life—and work environment. Those opposed pointed out that the ability to spell and use diacritical marks correctly is a key writing skill, which any competent translator should possess and be able to demonstrate without the use of automated tools. This is true in some cultures and language pairs more than others, and such variation must be taken into consideration.

After due deliberation, the Certification Committee decided that grammar and/or spell checker utilities will not be allowed in the computerized exam. Candidates will work in WordPad, which allows some amount of formatting, but does not have grammar/spell check capability. Mac users will use TextEdit with the built-in spell checker disabled. This will be an improvement over the Charlotte sitting, where candidates were instructed to use the bare-bones Notepad program. Even without the availability of grammar/spell check functions, everyone will surely agree that using WordPad and TextEdit is preferable to writing by hand.

The bigger issue of how closely the certification exam should reproduce a translator’s actual working conditions remains a subject for debate, and we will continue to address it as our environments and tools evolve. But just as a limited three-hour exam like ours cannot test all the knowledge, skills, and abilities that reflect competence as a working translator, it is also impossible for a proctored sitting format to fully mimic a translator’s day-to-day working conditions. The certification exam is an evaluation of core translation skills, and through computerization we have now eliminated two constraints that have detracted from that evaluation process for too long: the need to write by hand and to rely on print resources. This is real progress, and we will continue to build on it as we phase in computerized sittings in the second half of 2016 and beyond.


David Stephenson serves as chair of ATA’s Certification Committee. Contact: david.translator@gmail.com.

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