Taking and Preparing for ATA’s Online Certification Exam
New year, new goals. Each new year provides a blank slate for tackling personal and professional goals. Is studying for the ATA Certification Exam one of your goals for 2022?
Preparing for an exam with a 20% pass rate can be daunting. The Certification tab on ATA’s website describes the exam as a “mid-career credential for experienced, professional translators or interpreters.” It also includes a warning: “New to translation? This exam is not for you!”
But, as a newbie to the translation field, I was able to pass the exam during my first year as a full-time translator, without having a degree or certificate in translation and without having taken a single translation course. In this article, I’ll share some pros, cons, and tips for taking the exam online as well as study tips to help you put your best foot forward on exam day.
The Online Exam
When I first began my exam journey, I lived in Iowa, where annual in-person exams don’t exist. I thought I would have to host an exam sitting in Iowa or travel to another state to take it, racking up expenses and logistical stress along the way. Then, the pandemic hit and put my exam plans on hold. This setback ended up being a positive for me, because it allowed me the enjoyable experience of taking the exam online in September 2021. Below you’ll find my pros, cons, and tips for taking the exam online.
- Zero travel expenses
- Think hotel, parking, and transportation expenses.
- Less stress and anxiety
- No need to drive in traffic, find parking, and set up your workstation in a new environment.
- Fewer distractions
- If, like me, you like to get into a hyper-focused trance while translating and would find fellow test takers’ tapping pencils, bouncing knees, stretching, sighs, or furious typing distracting, then this format may be for you.
- More comfort
- I loved the ability to wear my comfy clothes, use my own desk and chair, control the room temperature, take 10 steps down the hall to use my own restroom, and generally feel “at home” while taking the exam.
- Zero travel expenses
- Making sure your technology is set up correctly
- Having to view both the source and target texts on one screen and from top to bottom (source on top, target on bottom) as opposed to side by side, which we’re more accustomed to in the translation field
- For example: On a 14” laptop screen, you will be able to see the full source and target texts without scrolling, but the text will be small.
- Declutter your desk and work area to declutter your mind and facilitate faster onboarding.
- Have an erasable marker board handy for taking notes. To protect exam passage integrity, scratch paper is not allowed on the online exam.
- Bonus tip: I took notes on new terms while studying to review and memorize later but not while taking the actual exam. Not taking notes during the exam saved me 10 minutes of valuable time per passage.
- Create your own schedule, like the one below, and stick to it. Print it and have it on your desk to refer to. This eliminates the need to calculate how much time you have left for each passage and helps you divide your time equally between the two passages. If you finish a task early, it just means you have a few extra minutes on the next task. For example, using the schedule below, it only took me seven minutes to choose which two of the three passages I wanted to translate. I then had eight extra minutes to allocate to translating the first passage, from 9:07-10:00. My strategy was to use the end time for each task as a hard indicator of when to move on to the next one. You can always come back to previous tasks if you have extra time at the end. Lastly, I chose to translate each passage first and edit them later on. This allowed me to put some time between translating and editing and approach the editing process with fresh eyes, as we do in professional practice.
- Talk to the proctor for everything. If you have a question, physically raise your hand and say “Proctor,” and they will respond to you right away. You can also use the chat function to get the proctor’s attention.
- Once the exam begins, the clock will begin counting down from three hours. At first, I thought this would throw off my entire schedule, which was based on counting up, not down. Simply press “Escape” on your keyboard (or ask the proctor for help) to see your computer’s normal clock and gain access to your browser where you can pull up tabs for any electronic resources you plan to use.
- Bonus tip: You won’t be able to preload any browser tabs before the exam countdown begins. Bookmark and have your passwords stored for quick access to your online resources.
- To avoid onboarding hold ups, clear your desk of any tertiary monitors, even if they are disconnected, that you will not be using on the exam.
- Begin onboarding at least 20 minutes before the exam, but know that if onboarding takes longer than 20 minutes, you will still have a full three hours for the exam once you gain access to the passages.
- To speed up the onboarding process, find a spot to either side of your desk to securely place your phone or tablet for recording. Your mobile device needs to be positioned so your entire body and workspace will be visible in the video.
- Copy, paste, and highlighting functions are unavailable within the exam environment.
- For more tips, see this article titled “Practical Tips for Taking ATA’s Certification Exam Online.”
Preparing for the exam
As mentioned above, as a newbie to the translation field, I was able to pass the exam on my first attempt and during my first year as a full-time translator, without any formal education in translation. Of course, due to my lack of experience translating the types of texts found on the exam, my path to certification required a lot of studying… 100 hours and 40 practice passages, to be exact! Below I’ll share with you some tips for successfully preparing for the exam, even if you’re a complete newcomer.
- Be prepared to dedicate 3-12 months to studying (in between other work and professional development, of course) for the exam, depending on your skill level.
- Read and reread each page and link on ATA’s website regarding certification. Pay close attention to the following resources, which will help you understand how the exam is graded:
- Join a study group.
- Many of ATA’s language-specific divisions host free study groups where you can practice your translation skills under exam conditions and compare your work with other professionals within your language pair. Join your division’s listserv and social media channels to keep abreast of study group activities and reach out to division administrators to learn more. If your division doesn’t have a study group, why not send an email to the division’s listserv or post on social media to see if anyone else is studying for the exam?
- Take an official ATA practice exam to receive feedback on your translation of a retired exam passage by actual exam graders. This is the best way to help you gauge how much work you have ahead of you in preparing for the exam. It will also help you decide how much time you need to spend studying on your own, if any, independent of your division’s study group.
- Bonus tip: Take one practice exam toward the beginning of your exam prep journey. Take another midway through to compare your progress. If possible, take the same practice exam around the same time as other study group members to compare your results. Seeing what a passing passage looks like (even if it’s not your own) gives your precious insight into what exam graders are looking for. Don’t be discouraged by failing a practice exam. I failed all three available for the French to English language pair but got marginally better each time and deepened my understanding of what graders were looking for. I’ve spoken with several translators who failed practice exams, but were within close range of passing, and went on to pass the real exam.
- Study on your own. Select passages of 225-275 words from online news websites and professional journals and practice translating them under exam conditions (with spell check disabled and using one screen and approved resources, etc.). Then, run the passage through DeepL’s free online translator and compare its output to your translation to see what insight you can gain. While you don’t want to translate passages exactly like a machine, I found this tool to be very helpful in learning ways to better word my translations and ensure comprehension of the source text.
- Bonus tip: When studying, reviewing your translations against those completed by your colleagues or machine translation websites is one of the most important parts of the process. Take this step seriously. To compare translations more efficiently, create a 3-column (or more) table in Word: one for the source text, one for your translation, and one for your colleague’s translation. See example below.
- Once you have an exam date on your calendar, do at least one (I did three!) full 3-hour practice run on your own under exam conditions. Test your schedule during this run and see if any changes need to be made.
- For more tips, explore this link on the ATA website.
For me, studying for the exam equated to taking a 3-credit university course spread over an entire year. For others, the study journey will be different. In the end, no matter the outcome of the exam, time spent studying is never wasted. You’re sure to gain new colleagues and friends and improved translation skills along the way. Best of luck, or as they say in French, Courage! Feel free to reach out with questions or share your own exam tips in the comments.
Emily Moorlach is an ATA-certified French to English translator who began her career in 2016 as the Translation and Interpretation Program Manager and freelance official document translator for a non-profit organization. In 2019, after a whirlwind trip through 45 cities in Europe, Emily returned to the U.S. to start her freelance translation business, Langue Vivante LLC.
She holds a B.A. in French and a B.S. in Accounting from Iowa State University. Emily also studied at La Sorbonne in Paris and has held positions as a high school French teacher and luxury travel advisor. Her main specializations include official documents, corporate communications, and tourism industry materials. For more information, visit www.langue-vivante.com.