“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.

3 Comments on ““Death by a Thousand Cuts”

  1. Actually the ATA offers its certification exam in 29 language pairs.

    Certification is currently available:
    +++ into English from Arabic, Croatian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Ukrainian, and
    +++ from English into Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Ukrainian.

    And in the interest of full disclosure, there are two pairs officially in formation (English to Arabic and Chinese to English) and one suspended language pair that is moving toward reinstatement (Hungarian to English). In addition, there is some interest in establishing certification in Korean as well as Greek, Farsi, Thai, Burmese, Tagalog, Urdu, and Vietnamese. The transition from “interest” to actual ATA certification status depends upon the energy of the ATA member volunteers who support these efforts….so….if you are interested in helping to get any of these new language pairs become part of the ATA certification program, please contact the ATA Certification Chair, David Stephenson at david.translator@gmail.com.

  2. Wonderful contribution, Juan. Thanks for sharing.