Establishing the English>Arabic Certification Exam

I’m sure many people wonder what the procedure is for establishing new language pairs for testing within ATA’s Certification Program. As far back as five years ago, when I took the Arabic>English certification exam, I wondered why English>Arabic was not offered and what it would take to make it happen. Now, five years later, having led the effort to establish English>Arabic certification, gained the satisfaction of seeing it approved last October, and, as English>Arabic language chair, recently experienced the crowning moment of passing ATA’s first certified English>Arabic translator, I can say that it takes many things. The process involves a lot of hard work, good contacts, organizational skills, and, of course, matters of protocol (e.g., gathering enough signatures), but it starts with dedication, commitment, and a spirit of perseverance. Balls have a way of rolling, as long as you get them rolling.

My involvement with the process began in late 2015, when I was contacted by David Stephenson, chair of ATA’s Certification Committee, as a potential member of a workgroup charged with establishing English>Arabic certification. The members would serve as initial graders for the pair upon establishment. At the time, others had already gathered the signatures of 50 individuals interested in taking the exam, the minimum degree of documented interest needed to move forward. David asked me to send my CV and to translate a short passage from English into Arabic. Shortly after I had done so, David informed me that from among those who had done the same thing, I was one of the two people who had been judged by a group of evaluators as having produced superior translations. This moment ushered in almost two years of work to establish English>Arabic certification. Fortunately, I was already an Arabic>English grader at the time, and that experience was very helpful throughout the process.

The most important step was to expand the workgroup to ideally five members. This involved several rounds of testing administered by David, who served as Certification Committee liaison for the startup group. Early in the process, my partner chose to withdraw from the group, so we were down to one workgroup member (myself). At this point, David informally designated me language chair for the English>Arabic certification exam.

David would send prospects a passage to translate, collect and anonymize the translations, and then send them to me for evaluation. To ensure reliability, I had the exams evaluated by external parties as well until some of the prospects had been selected for further consideration, at which point they too participated in the evaluation process.

To identify prospects, I exhausted my contacts: most notably, the WordReference language forum and Kent State University. WordReference.com is the internet’s premier dictionary website, with a very well-indexed and strictly moderated forum serving as a supplement to the dictionaries. In the many years I’ve been an active member and moderator of the forum, I’ve developed connections with many talented and skilled translators. Kent State University has a distinguished translation studies program, with a considerable percentage of Arabic-speaking students. Other sources of contacts included ATA and the program I was teaching for at the time.

Prospects who performed well were selected for further consideration, at which point they were trained on ATA grading standards and participated in the evaluation of subsequent tests. They were confirmed upon successful completion of their training. We repeated the process until we had reached our goal of five graders. Nevertheless, while evaluating translations of one of our test passages for another purpose, one performance struck me as being particularly strong. David supported selecting this person for further consideration, and he eventually joined the team.

It took over a year to form the group, and it was well worth it. The group members—the current graders—are not only top-notch translators, but they also exhibit a representative degree of geographic diversity that has proved instrumental for grading purposes. The five members other than myself (Palestinian) hail from Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, respectively. As an added bonus, our Iraqi grader has spent a considerable amount of time in Libya.

The six of us spent the better part of a year selecting and editing passages, completing and discussing sample translations, preparing both passage-specific and language-specific guidelines, and submitting passages for approval by the Passage Selection Task Force. Reaching a reasonable degree of consensus wasn’t always easy or straightforward, particularly when it came to identifying translation challenges in each passage. I set the high standard of unanimous agreement on all challenges, which we achieved after a great deal of communication and discussion. Fortunately, all but one of our eight passages were approved immediately, and the other one was approved after we made one small change.

English>Arabic certification was officially approved in October 2017, together with Chinese>English. It’s immensely rewarding to see that English>Arabic certification has come to fruition, and I feel fortunate to be working with such a stellar group of graders, whose impressive skills are only rivaled by their eminently respectful and cooperative attitudes. The wisdom of the human resources precept “Hire for attitude; train for skill,” which David shared with me at some point during the process, has only been confirmed by my experience. While the minimum qualifications should absolutely not be compromised, the importance of having the right attitude cannot be overestimated. Skills can be tweaked, honed, and expanded, but an unfavorable attitude is hard to change and could prove devastating.

Here are my main pieces of advice for anyone seeking to help establish any of the many language pairs in which ATA does not currently offer certification:

Be patient and persistent. The process takes a lot of time if you want to get it done right.

Communicate consistently with your Certification Committee liaison. I must have asked David dozens, if not hundreds, of questions throughout the process. When in doubt, ask!

Do not settle. You must keep your standard high, even if this means more work and/or delays in the process. Quality pays off in the long run!

For information about the nuts and bolts of establishing a new certification pair, see http://bit.ly/establishing-certification. Currently, efforts are underway to establish certification in Farsi, Korean, and Romanian. If you speak one of these languages and think you have what it takes to join the effort, please contact:


Elias Shakkour is the language chair for ATA’s English>Arabic certification exam. Contact: eshakkour@gmail.com.

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