On First Taking the ATA Certification Exam

by Denise Fainberg, an OSTI member from Bend, Oregon

On May 2, 2015, I entered a classroom at North Seattle Community College—not without some trepidation—to take the American Translators Association certification exam.

A handful of aspirants of varying ages and language combinations distributed themselves along the classroom tables. My pile of dictionaries looked distressingly small compared to the stacked glossaries and other permitted reference materials dotting the desks. A neophyte, I didn’t know what was “normal” to bring—plus, there was only so much I was willing to schlepp from my home in Bend, Oregon.

Not for the first time, I asked myself why I had made the six-hour drive. At $300 a pop, plus $50 per practice exam, plus travel, the cost can be a deterrent for the freelancer. After all, it’s not as if a certificate magically transforms you into a master translator. I considered myself fairly competent; but how was anyone else to know? Sure, old clients knew me. But what about new clients, especially potential clients at a distance? I could say I was competent, but so can anyone. In fact, anyone often does.

So there I was, ready (or not) to take the French>English translation exam: one “general” passage, and one from a broadly defined “specialized” field; in my case, medicine. A couple of years earlier, I’d taken an ATA practice test, just to have an idea of what to expect—and passed, which was encouraging. Early this year, I nervously ordered another practice test. It unfortunately arrived too late to be graded and returned before my May 2 test date, but I did it anyway, just for the exercise. What else could I do, I asked myself? Central Oregon isn’t exactly crawling with French>English translators, or even conversationalists.

I stepped up my baseline language maintenance program: listening to French radio online, reading French—articles, books, websites—all to get those synapses into snappy shape. I reviewed some of my old translations and created new ones by grabbing random passages on just about anything and translating them. I downloaded all five volumes of Les Misérables onto my Kindle and actually read them. Think that’s hardly relevant to most translating assignments? Think again.

It all seemed rather haphazard, but it was based on a philosophy of immersion: if you have a deep familiarity with your source language, mastery of your target language, and good translation experience, then intensive dives into both your languages and the interplay between them should hone your linguistic skills to a sparkle. I should add that excellent reading and writing skills, especially in your target language, are a must: poor sentence structure, diction or spelling will not serve you well.

I left Seattle with misgivings. The exam had seemed less intimidating than expected, but the thought kept recurring that I should have phrased things that way rather than this way, and so forth.

Then, in July, great news: a brand-new American Translators Association certificate! An internationally recognized credential to include on my profiles, resume, etc. Validation!

It’s not as if I’m suddenly a more brilliant translator (although one does hope to improve continually). And it’s not as if one can’t translate quite professionally without that piece of paper—people can and do. But it’s getting harder and harder. References and experience don’t seem to carry the weight they once did in the eyes of agencies or even private clients. This may be misguided: papers don’t tell all of anyone’s professional story; but at the very least, certification such as the ATA’s announces that someone besides yourself considers you a very good translator.

So, courage and good cheer to all OSTIers taking the exam in Portland this October. Prepare. Once at the exam, pace yourself. Enter into the play of words. And relax.

Denise Fainberg is a French-Spanish-English translator based in Bend, Oregon. With a BA in French from Brandeis University, she dove into medical interpreting at an inner-city clinic in Boston before going on to get her MA in Russian Area Studies at Georgetown. For 21 years she taught foreign languages at Central Oregon Community College, translating on the side; engaged in medical interpreting in central Oregon; and is now focused on general and medical translation and writing. She is the author of numerous articles and several books, including the just-published “Walking through Sunflowers: through Deepest France on the Road to Compostela”. She takes recreational advantage of her linguistic skills on her travels.

Note from OSTI: OSTI offers the ATA Certification exam on October 11, 2015, the day after the OSTI annual conference. Click on the calendar page for registration details.