Why does ATA’s certification exam have such a low pass rate? Readers of The ATA Chronicle tend to be a savvy bunch when it comes to translation. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t suffer from any of the classic illusions about translation. You know that being a competent translator takes more than bilingualism. You appreciate the complexities of human thought and language that make it so difficult to transmit all the nuances of any utterance into another language. You probably know more about the niceties of grammar and style than many a high school English teacher.
So maybe this article will, for the most part, be read by people who already know what I’m about to say. Nevertheless, here goes.
Every year, hundreds of people take ATA’s certification exam and approximately (on average, across all language pairs) 80% of them fail to produce translations that earn them ATA certification. This pass rate suggests an epidemic of overconfidence mixed, perhaps, with a lack of understanding of ATA’s certification standards.
Of course, there is a certain subset of exam-takers who miss attaining certification by a few points because of nervousness, one unfortunate but impactful error, or because they were simply having a bad day. Such candidates had good reason to take the exam and should probably try again.
Based on 15 years as a certification grader, I would urge anyone interested in taking the exam to ask themselves the following questions:
Do I have extensive experience writing and being edited in the target language? It’s one thing to speak a language well; it’s another to write well in it. All ATA exam passages come with a set of translation instructions (TIs). Those instructions provide information about the purpose of the translation. Although the TIs vary, they all indicate that the translation is to be used either for publication or professional use. This means that the translation must not just be comprehensible, but adhere to the standards of the target language’s grammar and style and be easy to read and understand. The reader should not be confronted with non-standard collocations, mangled idioms, syntax that might be fine in the source language but highly distracting and confusing in the target one, or the misapplication of definite and indefinite articles (a frequent problem in into-English exams).
No one becomes a good writer in a particular language without doing a lot of writing and reading in it and having their writing critiqued by others. This often means having been through a target-language university program that included extensive writing and feedback on that writing.
In addition to reading dozens if not hundreds of books in the source language, have I kept up with current writing in it (e.g., periodicals, newspapers, blogs)? Excellent reading comprehension is just as important as good writing, and developing this ability in a given language takes more than a large vocabulary. It takes practice. Any experienced translator knows: languages and the cultures in which they develop are complex living entities that constantly evolve.
Have I successfully translated thousands of words in this language pair? ATA’s certification exam is a “mid-career credential for experienced, professional translators.” In other words, it’s not designed for recent graduates just starting their translation careers.
Have I taken an ATA practice test? Prospective candidates who cannot answer the first three questions with a wholehearted “Yes!” should, at the very least, test their chances of attaining certification through a practice test. It costs $80 per passage to take a practice test for ATA members ($120 for nonmembers) versus $525 for an actual exam. It’s puzzling that relatively few people take this important step in preparing for the exam. Practice tests offer candidates an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the type of text with which they will be dealing and—most importantly—see how their translation was graded. Unlike the actual exam, a graded practice test is returned to you. Candidates are able to see what wordings were marked as errors and how severely those errors were assessed. Often, comments are included to explain error markings.
Graders are thrilled when they encounter candidates who live up to the standards of ATA’s Certification Program. At the same time, it’s hard not to feel bad for candidates who have paid hundreds of dollars to take the exam when they are clearly nowhere near ready. A passing exam must have fewer than 17 error points per passage, yet many exam passages earn well over 40 points. So, please: if you’re planning to take the exam, do ask yourself the four questions above. If the answer is “yes” to all of them, you have a strong chance of succeeding.
Nora Favorov, an ATA-certified Russian>English translator, is a member of ATA’s Certification Committee and has served as a grader for the past 15 years. She also serves as associate editor of ATA’s Slavic Languages Division newsletter, SlavFile. She has 30 years of experience translating in the areas of literature and the social sciences. Her recent translations include the 1863 novel City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (Russian Library, 2017) and Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg Khlevniuk (Yale, 2015), selected as Pushkin House U.K.’s “best Russian book in translation” for 2016. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.