In 2020, Knapp & Associates International, Inc., presented its “Review of the ATA Certification Program”1 to ATA’s Board of Directors. This review included a number of recommendations for enhancing the validity and standing of ATA’s certification credential, many of which have already been implemented by the Certification Committee. The following were among the highest priorities identified by Knapp:
- Create a more definitive statement describing the level of performance targeted by the credential. If, indeed, the certification is “a mid-career credential for experienced, professional translators or interpreters,” what does this mean from a practical perspective? What type of experience is necessary to be successful in the certification process? How much experience is needed? What’s meant by “professional” translators and interpreters—how are these individuals different from others who might apply for certification? […]
- Once the level of certification has been more clearly defined, it’s very important that this be communicated effectively to the community. When prospects aren’t provided with sufficient information regarding what’s required for success, they may pursue certification before they’re ready. This typically results in lower overall pass rates, as does the absence of eligibility requirements.
ATA’s Certification Committee has now adopted a definitive statement describing the level of performance targeted by the exam, and with this column we’re communicating that statement to the community.
ATA’s Certification Committee Statement on Level of Performance (Approved May 2022)
ATA certification is a professional credential that attests to a high level of competence in accurately and naturally translating texts on a variety of topics, resulting in translations that are publishable after routine editing and proofing.
The ATA certification examination is designed to test a range of skills that include:
- Full comprehension of the source-language text, including cultural references and figures of speech.
- Strong writing skills in the target language.
- The successful application of translation strategies to compose a target-language text that fully and precisely conveys the meaning intended in the source text; reflects its style, tone, and register; achieves the purpose of the translation; and meets the needs of the translation’s target audience (as specified in the translation instructions)
The minimum level of performance targeted by the examination is based on the standard of “Professional Performance” as defined by the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR).2
To ensure consistency of grading to this standard, the examination consists of source texts at a level equivalent to ILR Reading Level 3.3 Texts are typically selected from the following genres:
- News stories (e.g., articles, commentaries, or features in major periodicals)
- Correspondence and reports (general subject matter)
- Technical material (with adequate contextual information)
- Academic articles and books (with adequate contextual information)
The examination does not target specific subject areas, such as law, finance, science, or medicine, although source passages may include some specialized terms that can be found readily in general reference sources. The texts are sophisticated enough to include not just facts, but also abstract language, hypotheses, argumentation, and supported opinions.
The level of translation competence targeted by the examination is based on the ILR standard for Translation Performance Level 3.4 Key expectations are as follows:
- 100% comprehension of the source text, with or without resources.
- A translated text that accurately conveys the facts, views, and arguments presented in the source text.
- Style and wording that generally adhere to target-language norms and do not obscure meaning.
- Few or no errors in grammar, usage, spelling, or punctuation.
A passing examination is not expected to be perfect. The minimum acceptable standard is a polished draft translation, subject to quality control.
Understanding the Statement
The Statement on Level of Performance is not meant to discourage qualified translators from taking the certification exam. On the contrary, the aim is to clarify publicly what the standards are for earning the credential. In turn, we hope to give potential candidates realistic expectations and also ease the level of anxiety that comes with any testing situation. The key takeaways here are:
- Your work on the exam doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to show that you can fully understand a source text and communicate its content clearly in your target language—not only the details, but the way they come together to form an overall description or argument.
- The exam is unlike a real translation assignment in that you aren’t given a “style sheet” or a glossary—just general translation instructions, which only occasionally will give away a technical term or abbreviation. Therefore, you already need to be familiar with the style and feel of typical published texts in your target language (e.g., articles, essays, and opinion pieces).
Please note that the Knapp Review quotes ATA’s definition of translator certification as “a mid-career credential.” Until recently, it was defined this way on ATA’s website and in other public materials, which may have unduly discouraged less experienced translators. We’ve decided to remove that descriptor because decades of grading experience have shown that there’s no ideal profile of a successful certification candidate. Even when ATA’s Certification Program introduced eligibility requirements (ERs)—a combination of education and/or years of professional experience—the result was that the number of candidates decreased, but the overall pass rate didn’t rise. We concluded that the ERs had denied some qualified translators access to the exam and that any future ERs would need to be more accurate predictors of performance on the certification exam. Thus far, the best-known predictor is performance on the practice test.5 So, if you’re interested in getting certified, try a practice test and see how you do!
- Knapp, Lorena. “Certification Consultant’s Statement on the Membership Requirement for ATA Certification,” The ATA Chronicle (July/August 2020), 12.
- An Overview of the History of the ILR Language Proficiency Skill Level Descriptions and Scale (Interagency Language Roundtable).
- Interagency Language Roundtable Language Skill Level Descriptions—Reading.
- Interagency Language Roundtable Skill Level Descriptions for Translation Performance.
- Preparing for ATA’s Certification Exam: Benefits of Taking a Practice Test.
Larry Bogoslaw, CT is chief editor and publishing director at East View Press, an academic publisher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After earning an MA in Italian and a PhD in Slavic languages and literatures, he co-founded the Minnesota Translation Laboratory, a community language service. He has taught Russian and translation courses at various colleges and universities. An ATA-certified Russian>English and Spanish>English translator, he serves as deputy chair of ATA’s Certification Committee. email@example.com
David Stephenson, CT is chair of ATA’s Certification Committee. An ATA-certified German>English, Dutch>English, and Croatian>English translator, he has been an independent translator for over 30 years, specializing in civil litigation and creative nonfiction.