Category Archives: Spanish


“Death by a Thousand Cuts”

By Juan Lizama

It is not the complex syntax, long sentences or technical passages that dash the hopes of most candidates seeking to pass the American Translators Association (ATA) certification exam.

According to ATA exam graders Holly Mikkelson and Paul Coltrin, it is the many one- and two-point errors throughout the exam that add up to a failing grade.

“One of my colleagues calls it ‘death by a thousand cuts’,” Mikkelson said.

Mikkelson and Coltrin recently agreed to review translations into English and Spanish of past ATA exams done by a group of Oregon Society of Translators and Interpreters members studying for the exam. The group of about a dozen members meets online on a weekly basis to discuss translation assignments, different resources and strategies for translation. They also correct each other’s work using the ATA list of mistakes and the ATA grading scale. Mikkelson reviewed the Spanish to English translations and their corresponding peer reviews, and Coltrin reviewed the English to Spanish ones. Each of them presented their findings to the group in separate online sessions.

The ATA currently offers exams in 29 language pairs. According to the recent March-April issue of the ATA Chronicle magazine, the overall passing rate for foreign languages into English was 15.81% between 2004 and 2014.  Meanwhile, the overall passing rate for English into foreign languages was 14.11% for the same period.

The vast majority of translations that are out there in the real world, which in some cases are mediocre, fall short in the sense that they are “a word by word rendering of the source text, slavish of the patterns of the source text,” Coltrin said.

“People often say that [a document] ‘smells like a translation’,” Coltrin said in Spanish, quickly switching to English. “And that’s not a compliment when they say that. If it has a strong feel of a translation, it’s probably not a good translation.”

“It’s perfectly fine for the translator to take freedoms in a translation as long as it preserves the meaning and flows nicely,” Coltrin said.

“It’s not just desirable to make the translation smooth and functional,” he said. “It is our obligation.”

Mikkelson echoed Coltrin’s comments, adding that not using common sense and not reading the whole passage before starting the translation has led exam takers to mistranslate parts of the source text.

“They can be prepositions, grammatical mistakes, misspellings that in and of themselves are not serious, but they add up,” Mikkelson said. “Those [errors] may be from carelessness, failure to proofread. They have a ‘yes’ instead of a ‘no’, ‘black’ instead of ‘white’.”

ATA graders use guidelines in the form of a flowchart with a scale of zero to 16 points per error. A score of 17 and under is a passing grade. The mechanical errors, those having to do with the misuse of the target language have a maximum of four points per error. On the second column are errors that can impact content, language use and understanding of a sentence, paragraph, and even the entire text. These errors can be zero to sixteen points.

“I’ve never seen a sixteen-point error,” Mikkelson said. “Even eight-point errors are rare.”

One of the many concrete examples Mikkelson highlighted from the group’s Spanish to English translations was the use of “earth” in a passage about agriculture, instead of using “land” or “soil”. This type of error distorts the meaning because the reader might think the sentence is referring to the planet as a whole.

“This would be a two-point error because it would cause confusion,” she said. “But it doesn’t take out a whole paragraph and the text is still useful.”

Mikkelson advised the group to be careful with the little quirks of English in adverbs such as either…or and neither…nor. Using them with “without” or “not” would make them a double negative. There’s also a reversal of the subject and the verb with the use of these adverbs.

“So you say, ‘neither did he do this’, instead of, ‘neither he did this’; or, ‘only then did I realize, rather than, ‘only then I did realize’,” she said.

Coltrin warned about falling for the traps within the passages, such as punctuation marks. He referred specifically to how the use of the dash in English is so different from its use in Spanish.

“Make no mistake,” he said, “when we choose passages, we like putting that type of challenge in there because it definitely helps us to differentiate between people that really have a strong awareness of Spanish writing conventions and how they are different from English and test takers who don’t have that awareness.”

Coltrin advises to take advantage of the practice tests ATA offers for a fee.

“Sometimes, people waltz in to take the exam, unprepared, and then they are surprised that they didn’t pass,” he said. “Later, they ask for a review of the exam, which is much more expensive.”

They could have gotten that feedback beforehand with the much less expensive practice test, which can be a good tool to prepare.

Coltrin commended the OSTI study group for their approach to preparing not only for taking the exam, but also as a way to become better translators. Mikkelson said that translation is also a great way for interpreters to improve their delivery in the target language.

And the response to the burning question from group of whether they have a chance of passing the exam—which only one member dared to ask Mikkelson—was:

“I did see some good translations there,” she said. “There were definitely some passing translations among the batch. Good luck to everybody.”

About the Author:
Juan Lizama is a native of El Salvador and currently works as a full-time interpreter and translator at OHSU Hospital in Portland, Oregon. He is a participant of the OSTI study group preparing to take the ATA certification exam.


OSTI starts the year with a guest from Argentina

– Can we leave? I want to get there early to find a place to park…-

To start 2015 with a bang, the first translators and interpreters meeting was held on January 2nd on a cold and rainy typical Oregon´s afternoon. While we thought we would learn something of interest, we found that the evening there was fun, and a delicious dinner with warm soup helped us overcome the weather.

The inspiring words of Clelia Chamantropulos, a master in the art of language who turned those hours of conversation turn into seconds, left us with an appetite for linguistics. Colleagues and friends were very happy and enthusiastic since it was Friday.

We went through issues right away:

– Neutral Spanish or Neutral Castilian?
– We must not to get into unnecessary trouble: Avoid local jargon, slang, idioms and go from classical words to classical terms.
– Warning! Phrases like “Una mujer es como capullo de aparador” where the word “capullo” (rosebud) could be interpreted in different ways.
– The interpreter/translator must be multicultural and take the time to learn what the meaning of the word is “From here to Timbuktu”.

Well, we went from the colloquial oral and/or written language to the medical language, where the “Libro Rojo” (Red Book) by Fernando Navarro made its triumphant appearance and each one of us held it for a few moments… Even the “mulas” (mules) were subject of conversation and the language is not sexist!
Words kept coming, one after another.
The first ruling was made:
“People that are seeing a text think that the same number of words needs to be there to know the text is correct”.
And the game of confusion begins:
“Asesoría vs Consultoría” (Advice vs Counseling).
“El Suscrito vs Yo” (The undersigned vs I).
“Consideración vs Consideration”.
“Español vs Castellano” (Spanish vs Castilian).
“Empoderamiento vs Facultar/Atribuir” (Empowerment vs authorize/attribute).
“Sufragio efectivo no reelección” (“Effective suffrage, no re-election”)

So we had to go back to what we already know, and Sergio Viaggio, interpreter and Argentine UN translator, says: ”Depende del Contexto” (It depends on the Context)

At the end of the day we are guilty of “the social circumstances of the moment” with which we will respond to an unknown number of goof-ups (as Paty would say) that we deal with day in and day out.

The interpreter/translator needs a daily dose of updating in any manner that he wishes to take it: training, conferences, movies, magazines, general reading. “The meaning does not reside in the words but what the idea that is being transmitted with words”.

– Can we leave? I want to go to bed early because I work tomorrow…-

Guest post by Laura Orozco


Special New Year Presentation! Jan 2, 2015!

OSTI Hosts: Clelia Chamatrópulos

¿Qué es el español neutro? (What is “neutral” Spanish?)
How accurate is “accurate” when translating legal texts?

Start the New Year out right with special guest speaker: Clelia Chamatrópulos, from the Colegio de Traductores Públicos de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires! This expert in judicial translation is only in town for a limited time, so don’t miss this opportunity to learn from one of the top international experts in our field, in your own back yard!
Her languages: Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Spanish

The Details
Date: January 2, 2015
Place: OSTI President’s House, Casa Eby – 7710 SW 184th Ave.; Aloha, OR 97007 (the registration link below includes a map)
Time: Presentation 5:00pm-6:00pm, but please feel free to arrive as early as 4:00pm for food and socialization. And speaking of food…
Food: Potluck! Please bring a dish to share. A note: some OSTI members have mentioned that they have allergies to the scents of cumin, cilantro, rosemary, ginger, turmeric…, and please avoid wearing perfumes/colognes. If you have any questions about this, please include them in your RSVP.
Cost: Free!
Help needed: Setup crew: If you want to help set up, please come over at 3 pm to help!

Please register at this link or RSVP ASAP to OSTI Vice President, Jess Kincaid, at