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There’s more than one way to skin a cat… November 17, 2010

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in ATA, Random musings.

Every year at the ATA conference I get upset about how everyone talks about how ATA certification is the be all and end all of translation. It’s not. The exam is extremely difficult to pass. The folks at ATA quote a pass rate of 20%, which hasn’t changed even though ATA has now implemented a review of your credentials in order to be allowed to take the test. I would think the pass rate would go up if only qualified translators were allowed to take the exam and not just the bilingual hobbyists most translators are always complaining about. Also, some people just don’t test well.

The test itself is also flawed. I know, I know… “the graders and folks on the Certification Committee are working hard to improve the test…” blah blah blah, but the fact remains that it is still a very difficult exam to pass. I myself have failed it several times, failing by the skin of my teeth every time. One reviewer marked me off for translating “Schein” as “bill” (as in dollar bill) instead of the preferred “banknote.” Some of the “errors” were indeed true errors, but my translation style does not stick extremely closely to the source, which is what the graders prefer. I tend to translate freely when necessary. Not to mention the fact that I also use the Internet a lot to double-check terms and find synonyms. I also utilize a native German proofreader who ensures that I have not misunderstood the source text (it’s been a LONG time since that has happened, but better safe than sorry…). A handwritten test simply isn’t a good test of my skills (and my atrocious handwriting, which was flawless until computers came along, probably doesn’t help). There is also the fact that it isn’t available in all language pairs.

The fact that I have failed the test several times does not make me a bad translator. I happen to know that I am in very good company. I could name names, but I won’t (but those of you who have written me to tell me that you have joined my little club know who you are). In fact, I think the fact that I passed the FBI language battery of tests and the fact that I am frequently overworked attest to the fact that my clients do not think I am a bad translator. I have also heard from many PMs and agency owners that ATA-certified translators make just as many mistakes as non-certified translators and sometimes the quality simply isn’t there. I’m not on that end of the spectrum, so I can’t say that for a fact though. I’m merely repeating hearsay.

However, certified members are voting members in ATA. Were you aware that only 15-20% of ATA members are certified? Interesting, isn’t it? That means that 80% of ATA is NOT CERTIFIED. This also means that almost 80% of the members do not have the right to vote.

But there’s another way to ensure that you have a say in what goes on in the ATA. The ATA Board voted to simplify the process to obtain voting membership through Membership Review (also known as Peer Review) in 1999. As the ATA website states, “The new criteria… are in keeping with the ATA Bylaws that state voting members be ‘professionally engaged in translating, interpreting, or closely related work.'” I think more people who are professionally engaged in the industry should be making sure that they have a say in ATA business and who is on the ATA Board.

Membership Review involves submitting credentials and other information to the Membership Review Committee and paying a nominal fee of $50. Translators and interpreters can either submit a copy of your translation degree and one letter of recommendation from a client or evidence of three years of experience as a translator (three letters of recommendation and copies of your tax returns). See the ATA website for more details. It is a very painless process. Candidates who successfully go through the membership review process are considered Active Members but are not certified.

So what are you waiting for? Make sure your voice is heard! ATA shouldn’t be governed by just the certified members – it should be governed by ALL the members!



1. Corinne McKay - November 17, 2010

Although I am ATA-certified and feel that it has a lot of benefits, I do agree that the exam tests a very different set of skills than what is generally required in the real world of translation. The handwriting factor alone was excruciating for me (I’m a rightie but I write like a leftie…it hurts!). And I agree with you that the grading standards are tough on those of us whose goal is to produce an authentic-sounding document rather than a word-for-word replication of the source.

But on to another topic: where the heck is everyone when it comes election time at the conference? I’m sure that some people send in proxies, but I can’t imagine it makes up for the huge number of people who could vote and don’t. My viewpoint is that if you can’t be bothered to vote, don’t complain about how the association is run. Either run yourself or at least write someone in!

Thanks Jill for bringing up these important issues.

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 17, 2010

I agree with you, Corinne. 360 votes out of 11,000 members is abominable. I vote so that I can make sure I can complain 😉

2. Kevin Lossner - November 17, 2010

I don’t bother to skin cats; when my dog retrieves them, I just stick them in the freezer until someone shows up to claim them. As for good translators who are uncertified or have failed various exams in the US, Germany, the UK or Australia, I can name a good number – some of them my top quality recommendations. I took an exam of this sort only so that I could comment on such matters without the locals accusing me of “unqualified sour grapes”. I note with great amusement that the examination committee felt my translation into German and my writing in that language was far better than my translation into English. Very, very funny and utter nonsense, but then if you want stilted language that is too close to the source, I suppose my translations into German are a good place to start 🙂 Only ask for translations into English if you want something usable.

The British ITI has a peer review process for full membership alongside other options. I’m not a member and don’t recall all the details, but in many ways that organization seems to be the most sensible in its professional member policies.

If ATA graders will mark you down for “bill” instead of “banknote”, then I should definitely avoid their exams. I would probably give the poor buggers a stroke with my loose English. Next time I go shopping I’ll remember that I have to pull a wad of banknotes from my pocket to pay.

Corinne is right in any case that the best path to reform – in any system – is to exercise the right to vote if you have it. To that I would add “agitate for the right to vote if you don’t have it”. Maybe progressive elements in the ATA can be persuaded to follow American tradition and count their lesser members as 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation. As I recall that worked for quite a number of years in the US though alas, these 3/5 people had no franchise, but then the ATA can be counted on to emancipate these people, surely?

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 17, 2010

Hi Kevin,

That is exactly what this post is supposed to do – rouse the rabble to go through the process so they can exercise their right to vote.


3. gbinge1 - November 17, 2010

I’ve only tried to do the sample test at home and didn’t do well on it. Thanks for letting me know that others find the test extremely hard and that you took it several times. I don’t feel so alone.

4. Tess Whitty - November 17, 2010

Very interesting. As the language chair for the upcoming English into Swedish certification I am honestly surprised that the exam would be extremely hard to pass, perhaps it is for German? We have gone through 15 texts and discussed what can go wrong and how to grade. This is by the way an extremely valuable translation exercise on its own. It will be interesting to see if the Swedish certification will be hard to pass also, once the program is up and running, which should be very soon.

On the voting, I feel that it might be beneficial for ATA if it would be easier to become an active member, without being certified. Personally, I was at first not aware that I could become an active member through the review process (which you have to pay for also). More information and PR about this might also be needed.

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 17, 2010

Unfortunately ATA doesn’t publish the pass rates for the individual languages. I wish they would. It would be enlightening to say the least. Several years ago the German track went an ENTIRE YEAR (October to October) and not a single person passed the German to English or the English to German exams. It seemed as if no one had noticed it until I pointed it out to the GLD and then the Board.

5. Caitilin Walsh - November 17, 2010


I was wondering the same thing, given that we actually had to round people up from the hallway to be quorate for the meeting! Here are numbers from this year:

10,825 members
2,559 voting members
404 voting members in attendance
460 votes cast

There’s no way to know how much overlap there is between those present and submitting a proxy, but it shows a participation rate of about 17%. There has been conversation about electronic voting, which is known to increase participation. I hope it happens.

And Jill, I agree with you that if people are working, there’s absolutely no reason they shouldn’t seek active status through peer review!


Jill (@bonnjill) - November 17, 2010

Thanks for the numbers, Caitilin! I was wondering what the percentage was. I think electronic voting would be a huge improvement. Jim Lochrie and the volunteer vote counters do a good job, but they lose an entire day of the conference counting votes. Voting electronically would eliminate that and might encourage people who aren’t at the conference to vote as well.

6. Hilary Higgins - November 17, 2010

Hi Jill,
I’m glad you’ve brought up this topic. Over the years, I’ve talked to several translators who are certified in more than one language combination (among them German to English). They told me that they found the French and Spanish to English certification exams (for example) easier to pass than the German to English exam (one translator told me she failed the G>E exam 4 times before passing, while she is already certified in French, Spanish, Italian). This makes me wonder if the German certification exam/grading is more stringent than in other language combinations. That also leads me to ask how the ATA ensures that the level of exams is fair across the language spectrum.

But on the topic of getting active status in order to vote in elections, thanks for the kick in the pants 🙂
It’s going on my to-do list.


7. Judy Jenner - November 17, 2010

Excellent points, my dear Jill. You have to question the validity of an exam with such a universally low pass rate. By comparison, some of the most notorious Bar exams in the nation (Nevada, for instance) have a pass rate of 50%, and that’s considered very low. Other states have 80% or so.

I also have many, many, doubts about the ATA certification exam. For now, I am boycotting it until I can take one on a computer. This is, after all, the 21st century. My handwriting is a joke, too, and I am way too slow. I do type 90 words a minute, but that does me no good with the handwriting. Dagy, my twin and business partner, is seriously thinking about taking the exam just to see what it’s all about, but honestly, I think I will continue the boycott.

I became a voting member of the ATA after submitting client recommendations. And I agree that the majority should vote, not the minority.

8. Judy Jenner - November 17, 2010

Oh, and I love Kevin’s cat comment, it’s funny, even as a cat lover (I felt bad for laughing)….

9. RobinB - November 17, 2010

I’m glad I’m in good company as far as handwriting is concerned. It was never very good in the first place, but got significantly worse when I suffered a retinal thrombosis in one eye 15 years ago, leaving me with only peripheral vision in that eye. As a result, I can’t actually write straight at all. My employees often have a hell of a job deciphering what I’ve written. Actually, I think it’s possible to argue that the current system actively discriminates against people with eyesight disabilities, so it’s encouraging to know that the ATA is developing a computer-based testing system (though *very* slowly, I think).

It’s really weird about the ultra-low German-to-English pass rate. A few years ago, I suggested to an ATA president that I should take the test and got the horrified response “But what if they failed you? It would destroy certification credibility at a stroke”. Which sort of suggests that there may have been problems at the time with the design and grading of the De-En tests. Perhaps that’s still the case.

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 17, 2010

Can I “like” your comment on WordPress? No? Shame… Thanks for the chuckle. You didn’t hear it from me, but there are several university faculty members who have failed.

10. Kevin Lossner - November 17, 2010

@Robin: It does sound like there are issues with that DE>EN exam. Maybe I should take it after all so I can fail and tell the Prüfungsamt in Berlin that their standards are too low. We could stage an action in which we encourage the finest uncertified DE>EN translators we know to take the exam. When only 20% of them pass, we could have a lot of fun with that!

I remember talking to an old Scot (?) who headed the local BDÜ chapter when I lived near Düsseldorf. He explained the delight the local IHK group took in failing native English speakers for their DE>EN work. So the ATA isn’t the only bunch where the standards are suspect.

The handwritten work for the staatliche Prüfung here (four translations and one essay proctored) was pure writer’s cramp Hell. I hope everyone can offer computer-based alternatives some day. If not, I’ll have to train my fingers for a few weeks in advance.

@Judy: It’s actually not so funny when your wire-haired pointer comes trotting up proudly with someone’s kitty in its jaws and you know you have to praise him for it. Sucks, really. But the look of surprise on the owner’s face when you offer them the deep frozen cat is almost worth it. Or it would be if I didn’t like cats more than dogs. Last time I thought about asking the owner (who witnessed the scene from her bedroom window at 1 am) to sign the papers for a Härtenachweis, and then I thought better of it 😉

RobinB - November 18, 2010

@Kevin: I know exactly who you mean about the BDÜ chapter head. Yes, he’s Scots. And yes, I can well imagine him delighting in humiliating IHK candidates. I think it must be the Calvinist side in him.

I don’t know who the ATA German-English graders were – or are – but I do wonder sometimes what exactly the selection criteria for them are. It’s self-evident that a grader must be an extremely experienced *and* highly competent translator (the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand).

But I also think that a grader has to have many years’ experience of *revising* translations, too. That’s because a good, experienced reviser knows when *not* to change a translation – far too many revisers make changes because “that’s the way I say it”. Personal preference (as opposed to e.g., defined, standardized, or generally accepted terms and phrases) has to take a back seat in revision, otherwise you spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make a translation “perfect in your own image”, which will never work unless you do a total rewrite.

11. Karen Williams - November 22, 2010

I’ve always thought it was weird that voting privileges in the ATA have been tied to certification status. I know it’s a radical idea but I think they should be separate issues and ALL members should be entitled to vote. Maybe the turnout would be greater if EVERYONE were represented.

12. Jennifer Baker - November 23, 2010

Hi Jill,
I came here by way of Corrine’s blog. Thank you for an interesting piece of insight into the ATA certification process and voting rights.
Going a bit off topic, I will say that even though the German>English exam seems to be very difficult, at least German>English translators have the opportunity to take the exam. I am going to let my ATA membership expire after several years of waiting for the possibility to take the Italian>English exam, which has yet to materialize. Imagining the ATA without the possibility of certification in a major European language pair is pretty absurd. Makes paying my dues moot.
Go good luck to anyone else who can at least take an exam!


Jill (@bonnjill) - November 23, 2010

Jennifer, there is so much more to ATA membership than simply certification. I feel my membership in ATA brings me countless benefits, including attendance at the annual conference and smaller specialized conferences (where I have met some excellent clients), a discounted subscription to Payment Practices and the Translator’s Toolkit, the monthly ATA Chronicle, and, most importantly to me, the GLD, LTD, Medical Division, and Business Practices listservs, which allow me to discuss terminology, technology, and business practices with other ATA members. The BP listserv has both freelancers and agency owners on it, which allows us to see both sides of issues. I strongly urge you to reconsider letting your membership lapse just because they don’t offer Italian to English. Have you thought about possibly being on a committee to make sure that happens? Tess could probably tell you how to do that (see her above comment). ATA can only be vital if it has members that are willing to do work in order to get things it wants to see done done. ATA is more than Headquarters and the Board. We are the ATA – every single member. It is up to us to ensure it benefits us.

13. Jennifer Baker - November 23, 2010

Hi Jill,

I do know of all the other benefits to ATA membership. I have been a member for several years. I have also tried to spur the process of reinstating the IT>EN exam to no avail. Unfortunately, the test requires reviewers with a certain amount of professional experience (like me, 13 years now as a full time translator), who are also certified (can’t do that without the exam), so it’s a bit of a catch 22.
The fact is that I work in several fields that require certification. I have had to focus on the Italian AITI certification process. I can’t afford the investment in ATA membership any longer without the possibility of certification. This is a business decision.
I have let all my ATA IT>EN colleagues know that I would be the first to renew my membership should the test ever become available, so hopefully in the future things may change.

Thanks for your input.


14. Karen Tkaczyk - November 23, 2010

Nice piece Jill. I voted, and was also disappointed at the low turn out. It sounds like the ATA could do with a prominent campaign to promote the active review process.
I’m one of those who was frustrated by the exam (I passed one text and failed the other three times) but eventually passed. I would encourage anyone to take it again and to try to change the process or system from within.

15. Silvina Jover-Cirillo - December 30, 2010

Hello Jill,

Thanks for this post. Here in Florida many of our colleagues are trying to implement a Florida ATA Chapter through ATIF (http://atifnews.wordpress.com) and it was only thanks to them that I found out about the Membership Review process. I’ve been with the ATA since 2005 and I found this out last week! I’m sure that the majority of our colleagues are not aware of this fact, and it would be nice for the rest of us to start spreading the word.
I really don’t want to comment on the ATA testing process because I’d be here until next year 😉

Once again, I appreciate you sharing your opinion with all of us.


16. Elena - May 13, 2011

After reading this blog and having just failed my first Spanish to English ATA test, I can say I don’t feel so bad as when I first received the notification letter. I have a strong feeling a lot of points were taking off for not following the ‘word to word’ translation style. I have been part of the translation industry for more than 20 years, I have been on the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ of a translation agency and I can attest to the inadequacy of many ATA certified translators. The only reason I take it is because it is the only existing national certification around. If anyone knows of any others, let me know! What I find ridiculous is that for $250 (plus membership) that they don’t let you have your corrected test back; unless, of course, you dish out another $250. If they are afraid people are going to distribute the test to others, why is it they cannot come up with new text for every sitting?

I don’t feel so alone!

17. Jen-Jen - May 29, 2011

I really appreciate this post. I took the practice exams for RU>ENG, and was shocked at several “corrections”, such as a point being taken for an issue being “placed in the framework” rather than “posed in the framework”. I also added up the deductions and found that the examiner had done the math wrong. But to challenge a failed exam costs, I think, $300, so who wants to do that? Given the requirement to use only hard-copy dictionaries and also to handwrite the exam, it seems to bear little to no resemblance to real-world practice. I’m surprised they don’t require us to bring our own candles to the exam, as electricity will not be utilized.

18. ElleW - April 12, 2016

I have edited an ATA-certified translator several times. I am sorry to say that he would not pass a middle school English test in my country. He does not know grammar and his translations are way substandard. I wonder how that could have happened, since the test is, apparently, so difficult to pass.

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