Interested in getting your certification from the ATA (American Translators Association)?
The ATA website has the most current information about upcoming ATA exam sittings.
While there, check out the following other helpful ATA resources:
But first, read on to learn some tips and tricks from someone who has successfully passed this certification exam, Marco Díaz, CT, our vice president of ATISDA (Association of Translators and Interpreters in the San Diego Area).
My Experience Taking the ATA Certification Exam by Marco Díaz, CT
I shall start by stating that I do not consider myself any kind of mentor or expert, nor shall this be taken as professional advice. I have learned that taking the ATA Certification Exam is a complex affair and each particular case could be different, i.e. what eventually worked for me might not work for others. The main purpose of this piece is to tell you my experience in hopes that you may be able to extract some lessons from it.
If you are considering taking the ATA Certification Exam, a good place to start may be to ask yourself why you are taking the exam in the first place. By now you may already know that, unlike other countries or professions, there is no “official” regulating body in the U.S. that qualifies newcomers to practice in the field of translation, meaning that the hurdles of admittance could be relatively low. So, if you are looking to highlight your qualifications, becoming ATA-certified may be a great option—although there are other excellent avenues like master’s degree or doctorate programs. On the other hand, if you have already established a client base, your clients trust and like your work, and you are satisfied with your own career situation, chances are that you do not need to become ATA-certified.
In my own experience, I strongly felt that, as a newcomer in the field, it would be important for me to bring my translation skills up to a certain standard and that it would boost my credibility to have a verifiable credential. I was able to tackle the above mentioned question, but my streak of successes ended right there. The first time I sat for a handwritten ATA Certification Exam back in 2015 I was in for a reality check. Don’t get me wrong; I studied hard for the exam, but I had very little experience translating, I had never simulated the exam conditions, and I had no idea how strict the grading was going to be. It was shocking when the results came in the mail. I kept asking myself why I had such a low performance.
It may be worth noting that back then I was only a part-time, sporadic translator. Since I had the conviction that becoming ATA-certified would benefit my career, in 2016 I registered again for the handwritten certification exam sitting at the ATA 57th Annual Conference in San Francisco, California, which was also my first conference. I also signed up for the ATA Certification Exam Preparation Workshop on Advanced Skills Training Day, held the day before the conference started. This time I was in for a double reality check. Not only was I quite concerned when I realized that I did not perform too well in the practice exam that comes with the workshop, I was also reassured once again that I was not ready for the ATA Certification Exam when I received the results in the mail.
I decided to take a break in 2017 and not take the exam until 2018. I focused on developing my business, on gaining hands-on experience, and on establishing a client base. I was fortunate that this worked out well for me after launching my own website and a steady marketing campaign.
In 2018 I ordered the practice test for the ATA Certification Exam and, even though I was only one point shy from passing it, the feedback that I received from an actual grader was more than enlightening. With said feedback I was able to focus on reinforcing my weak points. This same year I also joined a study group from which I was able to learn quite a lot since the feedback provided by other group members was invaluable. I felt emboldened to take the ATA Certification Exam again and I signed up for the computerized version. What could go wrong? I had simulated the exam conditions using my laptop, I had devoured books on grammar and writing, I had reviewed over and over again spelling rules and tips from grammar guides, and I had also practiced with real exam passages. I was in for another surprise. Although my performance was much better than previous attempts, common exam pitfalls were still haunting me.
I convinced myself that I would try one more time. I spent a considerable amount of time in 2018 and 2019 translating passages from newspapers and magazines and simulating exam conditions. I focused on speed, mastering resources, and proofreading. At the end of 2019 my golden opportunity finally arrived. I couldn’t believe it when I finally received notification that I had passed the exam.
So what is the moral of my own experience? First, don’t make the same mistake of taking the exam if you are not really sure what you are getting into, like my first two attempts. Make sure that you have at least a few years of full-time experience as a translator, that you simulate the exam conditions, and that you receive feedback from actual graders or translators who have a lot more experience than you do. Second, although my first two attempts at passing the ATA Certification Exam seemed like wrong decisions on my part, I learned the important lesson of perseverance. I cannot stress how important it is to persevere. No matter how many times you fall, always get up and go for another round. You will be stronger and wiser. Also keep in mind that this is a long-term investment for your own career or business.
I would like to end this article with some ideas on preparation strategies.
- Form study groups.
- Take the practice test for the ATA Certification Exam.
- Ask colleagues with considerable experience to give you feedback on your practices.
- Simulate the exam conditions and practice over and over again.
Marco Díaz, CT, is an English-to-Spanish legal and technical translator from Guatemala City who is currently based in San Diego, California. A member of ATISDA since 2016, he is currently serving as Vice President.