Peer Reviewed: Collaborative Preparation for the Certification Exam

Currently, the main option available to help candidates prepare for ATA’s certification exam is the practice test. An obvious advantage of taking the practice test is that it’s representative of the actual exam: the passages used for the practice test are retired exam passages. However, unlike the actual exam, which is pass or fail only, a practice test is graded and returned with error markings clearly visible and classified as to type and seriousness. This feedback should give candidates a reasonable idea of whether they are ready to take the exam and, if not, the areas where they need more work.

Even though the practice test is still the best option, candidates may want to do even more to prepare. Not all practice test passages are updated annually, so candidates will find it difficult to reliably measure their performance. So, what else can you do to prepare for the exam? Although ATA does not offer preparation courses, candidates are encouraged “to look for ways to gain more translation experience and improve language proficiency skills.”1

In addition to the practice test, candidates should consider enrolling in a translation program or class, attending an exam workshop offered at ATA’s Annual Conference or by an ATA chapter or affiliate, or asking translators who have passed the exam for advice. Practicing on your own is an option, but it won’t do much good without feedback to gauge improvement.

So, what about forming a practice group? The following details how we set up an online platform for ATA’s Slavic Languages Division (SLD) to help prospective exam-takers in the division practice on a regular basis and exchange feedback.2

Choosing a Platform

After taking the practice test in 2016, Maria was looking for colleagues with whom she could exchange translations and feedback. Coordinating that effort through individual e-mail exchanges proved to be overwhelming and didn’t meet the needs of all candidates interested in practicing. Encouraged by SLD Administrator Ekaterina Howard at the division’s annual meeting in 2016, the two of us, Maria and Eugenia, set out to find an online platform that would allow members to exchange and translate passages into and out of Croatian, Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian (the Slavic languages offered on ATA’s certification exam).

We chose Slack as the platform for coordinating practice sessions. Slack is an online tool for group communications, organized into custom “channels” (message boards).3 It also allows participants to send each other private messages, which is useful for exchanging feedback discreetly with a practice partner. In addition to two default channels, we created a channel for each combination in the Slavic languages that is currently available for ATA certification.

Some of the reasons for choosing Slack were:

  • A free trial version with robust features that met the group’s needs.
  • The ability to communicate asynchronously, which is useful for participants in different time zones.
  • File upload and sharing options that eliminate the need for e-mailing attachments.
  • Integration capabilities with external applications (e.g., polls, calendar reminders).

We posted information about ATA’s certification exam, including the framework for standardized error marking and the flow chart for error point decisions, so it could be available to all members of our practice group. These resources were “pinned” to each active channel, making them easily accessible from a side panel.

Slack’s linear interface has not always been straightforward. At its most basic, Slack is organized like a newsfeed. As a result, some participants had trouble joining the channel for the appropriate language combination or finding the necessary instructions and reference material. Hopefully, this shortcoming can be solved through additional training or an external application.

Practice Steps

Once the medium for the group had been chosen, we invited prospective participants and volunteer reviewers to join the Slack platform. New members to the group were encouraged to join the channel for the language combination(s) in which they wanted to practice.

The following process has evolved through trial and error after several rounds of practice.

Signup:
  • Candidates in a specific language combination opt in for each round
    of practice.
  • Organizers compile a list of all participants for the month.
Translation:
  • A practice passage is posted.
  • Participants translate the passage independently under exam conditions.
  • Candidates send their translation via a private message to the person listed before and after them on the list of participants (all participants exchange translations with two colleagues).
Grading:
  • Using the Track Changes feature in Word, each participant corrects and scores the received translations according to ATA’s grading framework.
  • Everyone returns the graded translations with comments back to the original authors.
Discussion:
  • All participants share the challenges encountered and discuss possible solutions in the public channel reserved for their language combination.
Expert Feedback:
  • The organizers put together a list of challenges encountered and solicit feedback from volunteer experts (certified translators or ATA graders).
  • Unlike the official ATA practice test, the reviewers do not grade each individual translation, but do provide overall guidance on common challenges. We’ve found that the official practice test and the practice group complement each other.
  • The organizers share the reviewers’ comments and suggestions with channel members.

The entire cycle for one passage normally takes a month, with overlaps between cycles. We have recently added a calendar integration linked to a public Google calendar listing the important dates of the practice cycle.

This setup has helped the group work consistently and manage participants’ expectations at every stage of the process. At the same time, it has required some hands-on involvement from the organizers, such as compiling participant lists every month and preparing questions for the reviewers. Slack features could further automate some of these tasks. For instance, the Donut app can pair up members of a specific channel “via direct message on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis” so practice partners don’t need to be assigned manually.4

Choosing the Practice Text

Since it’s impossible to use real ATA exam passages, we’ve been choosing passages from online journalism and print sources such as textbooks and academic publications. We pull an excerpt of 225–275 words from a general text that matches the features of a typical ATA exam passage: “chosen in such a way as to avoid highly specialized terminology challenges requiring research.”5

As much as possible, we’ve tried to include challenges similar to those candidates will encounter on the exam: a line of argument that may be tough to follow, a few terminological challenges, interesting syntax, and a professional or semi-formal register. While there have been a couple of missteps, such as terms too obscure to be found in a general dictionary or a register that skews a little too colloquial, we’ve become more proficient at finding appropriate passages thanks to the group’s expert consultants.

Participant Engagement

As of mid-May 2017, 60 participants had joined the Slack platform. Since the group launched in December 2016, the two most active channels—English>Russian and Russian>English—have worked through one round of practice passages each month. Since settling on the procedure described above, we’ve held steady at about 10 participants per text in each channel, which is enough for us to switch partners and get feedback from different people. We’ve also been exchanging messages about exam procedures, strategies, and resources.

Russian is the most active language in our group. Unfortunately, the following challenges have hindered participant engagement in the other language combinations:

  • Recruiting participants and reviewers.
  • Choosing passages for languages other than English and Russian—the organizers, who don’t speak the other languages, must rely on volunteer submissions.

Because the group is designed for practice in several language combinations, this variation in activity is probably inevitable. However, despite limited resources for the languages that are less well represented, the group’s organizers can develop ways to allow candidates working in those languages to continue to practice. As a bare minimum, two participants working in the same language combination can exchange translations and feedback as described above.

Practice Outcomes

At this point, a few participants have registered or taken the certification exam. (One has passed and the rest are waiting for their results.) In a recent survey conducted by the organizers, members pointed out the practice group has helped them become familiar with the exam format and error categories. They also appreciated free, recurring rounds of practice and the opportunity to discuss translation challenges with their peers. At the same time, several respondents pointed out that peer feedback varied in quality, with some of their partners not following ATA’s grading rubric, making erroneous corrections, or failing to review their translation altogether.

These drawbacks could be mitigated by making sure all participants have basic familiarity with ATA’s standards and grading process. In addition, having each translation reviewed by two different colleagues lets the translator compare the feedback and identify any common threads. In the end, our practice group is meant to complement, not replace, the official ATA practice test, where the translator does receive detailed feedback from an ATA grader.

Blueprint for Other Groups?

SLD’s practice group has helped prospective exam takers get regular, evaluated translation practice and become accustomed to ATA’s exam format and grading criteria. Although this format presents its own set of challenges—e.g., a new interface, fluctuating participant engagement, the need for input from organizers and expert reviewers, and the varying quality of peer feedback—we hope that other groups will find our experience helpful and might consider starting their own practice activities to complement the resources offered by ATA and third parties.

Notes
  1. “ATA Certification Program: Frequently Asked Questions,” www.atanet.org/certification/certification_FAQ.php.
  2. Although the practice group discussed in this article was not organized or sponsored by ATA’s Certification Program, the Certification Committee recognizes the value these types of groups have for candidates.
  3. “Team Communication for the 21st Century” (Slack Technologies, Inc.), https://slack.com/is.
  4. “Bring People Together” (Donut), www.donut.ai.
  5. “ATA Certification Exam Overview,” http://atanet.org/certification/aboutexams_overview.php.

Maria Guzenko is an English>Russian translator working in the healthcare and corporate domains. She has an MA in translation from Kent State University. She is a co-administrator of the certification exam online practice group for ATA’s Slavic Languages Division. Contact: maria.guzenko@intorussian.net.

Eugenia Tietz-Sokolskaya is an ATA-certified Russian>English translator specializing in legal and financial translation from Russian and French into English. She has an MA in translation from Kent State University and works as a full-time freelance translator. She is a co-administrator of the certification exam online practice group for ATA’s Slavic Languages Division. Contact: eugenia@sokolskayatranslations.com.

2 Responses to "Peer Reviewed: Collaborative Preparation for the Certification Exam"

  1. Helen Eby says:

    This was done first by the Oregon Society of Translators and Interpreters (www.ostiweb.org), where we tested the model. I then spoke with the SLD leadership and pointed them to the resources on my business website so they could design their program. I am thrilled it worked for them. I am still training English to Spanish translators following a perfected model on my own.

    1. Eugenia Tietz-Sokolskaya says:

      It is true that we were aware of your program, and that we had some contact with you more directly through SLD leadership. Thank you for sharing your experience with us! However, much of the structure for our group had already been developed by that point, and ultimately we took the group in a very different direction, in answer to the particular needs of our division members.

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