I had been toying with the thought of becoming ATA certified since I started translating full-time in 2010 and becoming an ATA member in 2011. The main thing holding me back was the intimidating statistics: not only had I heard about the low passing rate of less than 20%, but I knew some great and experienced translators who either did not dare to take the exam or had failed it once or even twice before either giving up or passing on a subsequent try.
Years went by while I convinced myself that I might not need this qualification in the first place or that I would wait for a more convenient time. As life goes, that convenient time never came. Instead, 12 years after venturing into professional translation, I decided that it was time for a new challenge to kick my career into the next gear.
First stop: Practice exam
One slow morning in November 2022, I decided to order the $80 practice exam from the ATA website and take care of it that same day. As recommended in the instructions, I simulated the exam situation as closely as possible by taking the following steps:
- I set aside 90 minutes of uninterrupted time (while the actual exam consists of two passages to be completed in three hours, the practice exam only consists of one).
- I checked the ATA website to see which online dictionaries and resources are allowed during the exam and opened the ones that I intended to use, which were pretty much the same ones that I like to use in my daily work.
- I downloaded Word Pad, since you are not allowed to use a spell checker during the exam.
- I paid the fee, downloaded the exam, set my timer for 90 minutes and off I went.
I delivered my translation that same afternoon. Approximately four weeks later, I received my result and was excited to learn that I had passed with 13 out of 17 allowed error points! The nice thing about the practice exam is that, unlike the real exam, you get to see all the corrections with detailed explanations of why those things were marked wrong, including the grader’s recommendations for how to improve on any weak area you may have. This was extremely helpful.
Second stop: Study group
Even though this was a promising result, I still had a lot of respect for the real certification exam and did not want to leave anything up to chance. Therefore, I decided that I would join a study group for a few months before taking the leap and signing up for the real deal. I began with the ATA website and filled out a general inquiry form, asking where I could find a peer study group to prepare for the English-to-German certification exam.
The certification chair, Caron Bailey, got back to me, saying that the best place to start was the email list (listserv) of the German Language Division (GLD). I signed up, asked my question and quickly found out that there was no existing study group for my language pair and direction. Instead, five other colleagues wrote that they were also interested in joining “my” group, which didn’t yet exist. For a moment, the introvert in me panicked and put up a strong wall of resistance, thinking that I didn’t want to be the leader and organizer of a new group, that I just wanted to join an existing group. I contemplated calling the whole thing off or just contacting one of the interested colleagues to study with them one on one.
Karen Leube to the rescue!
Before I could panic any further, I emailed Karen Leube, the fearless leader of the German Language Division, explaining my dilemma. She didn’t hesitate to call me and discuss my situation. I mentioned that I wasn’t really the leader/presenter type and that I only wanted to join an existing group. But she encouraged me to stick with it, start my own group and find a way to kickstart it while delegating some of the tasks to the other group members.
I came up with a tentative system, in which each study group member would take a turn selecting the passage(s) and assigning who would proofread whose translation for the next meeting, so that one member wouldn’t be stuck with all of the heavy lifting. With that in mind, I emailed the other five colleagues who had signaled their interest in joining. I introduced myself, laid out my suggested plan, and volunteered to organize the first round in order to get the ball rolling. The response was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging and everyone was ready to help out. One group member, for instance, had a paid Zoom membership and volunteered to take care of the Zoom links for each meeting, which was super helpful.
My plan was as follows:
- One group member, i.e., the organizer of the respective round, picked a text passage of 250 – 300 words from a publication with the appropriate level of formality and difficulty, such as The New Yorker, The Economist or sources of a similar caliber. We started off with one passage per round, but quickly moved on to two passages, in order to create more realistic exam conditions.
- The group member organizing the round decided who would proofread whose translations for that two-week period. We rotated the translation/proofreading pairs for each round to get different feedback from different members.
- We had two weeks to translate our passages and send them to our colleague for review and we met every other week by Zoom to discuss the passages, translation options, difficulties, questions, etc.
- Another group member would then take charge of the next round.
Despite my initial apprehension, our study group got off to a great start. We were lucky to have a very committed and dynamic group of people and every discussion turned into an enriching and fruitful learning experience. Each of us brought different specializations and strengths to the table, so that I felt we all learned a great deal during those months of studying together, not only for the exam but also our day-to-day work in general.
Taking the plunge – but not without dodging a few curve balls
As soon as the ATA exam season opened in July, I decided that it was time for me to take the plunge. I signed up for the on-demand exam with only four days lead time, as my nerves tend to get the best of me when I leave too much time before big events. What I didn’t expect were the additional roadblocks I would face due to technical requirements and glitches of ATA’s exam platform provider, ExamRoom.AI. The first curve ball was learning that a U.S. or international keyboard would not work, since the exam platform does not allow the use of any keyboard shortcuts, alt or function keys. Amazon to the rescue, where I quickly ordered a German keyboard. It arrived the night before the exam and I practiced on it for about 20 minutes.
To save time and energy on exam morning, I completed all the preparatory steps on ExamRoom.AI beforehand, including the ID check, facial recognition, device check, downloading the exam app onto my phone (in addition to my computer), etc.
The morning of the exam came. After fueling up with some coffee and breakfast, I sat at the ready and logged into the exam platform about 10 minutes before the scheduled start. A tech guy joined by video chat a couple of minutes after go-time, checked all my devices, and had me do a sweep of my room with my phone camera, including underneath my desk and desk chair! After all the technical and room checks were completed, my exam proctor came on by voice call, this time without a video window. To name one of the positives first: my proctor was extremely helpful, responsive and patient, never making me feel as if I asked too many questions.
I received the three passages and the exam room timer on my screen started running. You get to choose two of the three passages, so I started by reading all three to get a feel for them. I quickly knew which one I wanted to tackle first, but was not yet sure which one to pick of the remaining two, so I left that decision for later. As I was antsy to get started, I quickly dove into translating my first choice. It was encouraging to find that all three exam passages seemed to be of a similar caliber and difficulty level as the ones we had been working on with our study group.
However, what greatly added to my nervousness was the fact that the platform would not let me click on words or sentence parts that I had already translated and wanted to correct. I asked my proctor what was going on. She double-checked with her team and informed me that I would have to use the left/right/up/down arrow keys to navigate through my texts. Given that you can only start scrolling at the end of each line, this caused unexpected and unnecessary delays in completing/editing my translations. This was especially time-consuming if you needed to reword an entire sentence or passage. In addition, due to another platform glitch, I was not able to use LEO or Wikipedia, even though they were on the list of ATA permitted resources. Luckily, I was able to use Linguee, which I also use regularly in my daily translation practice.
After finishing passage one, I asked to use the restroom, so that I had a chance to get up from my desk, walk a few steps and even do some stretches and take some deep breaths. This short break gave me a chance to reset before tackling passage two. I also reread my translation of passage one after finishing my draft of passage two, which helped me find some mistakes that I did not see in my first correction round. In addition, I made sure to use every second of those three hours for rereading and fine-tuning my translations.
Tasting the fruits of my labor
Given all the technical obstacles that took time away from my translating and fine-tuning steps, I feared that there was a significant chance that I had failed the exam despite all my preparation. Knowing that the grading would take anywhere from 8 to 16 weeks, I had to do my best to put the exam out of my mind for a while and just wait to see what would happen. About eight weeks later, I was so unbelievably thrilled to find out that I had passed the exam! I am extremely proud to be able to call myself an ATA Certified Translator from now on! While this definitely had not been an easy journey or task, I feel like it was and will be worth the effort in the long run.
As an added bonus, I just learned that one of my study mates also took the leap and just joined the “ATA Class of 2023” last week! Welcome to the club. I hope that my story will help others who are considering taking the exam.
A native of Herdorf, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, Melanie began her career in the Human Resources Department of the U.S. Embassy, Germany, where she worked as an HR Assistant and later managed the day-to-day operation of the American Personnel Support Unit for all Agencies at post.
She started her own business as a professional English/German freelance translator specializing in Marketing, Market Research, Retail, Cosmetics, Fitness and Health in 2010 and joined the American Translators Association in 2011. Some of her noteworthy projects include the translation of a 100,000+ word website for a leading supplier of nutritional sports supplements, marketing brochures for global cosmetics companies, creative product descriptions for a leading supplier of CrossFit fitness equipment, patient education materials, patient and physician surveys as well as countless market research surveys. She also translated the book “Thai für Anfänger” from English and Thai into German.
Today, Melanie lives in Alexandria, Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C. She founded Word Flow LLC in January 2023 and recently passed the ATA Certification Exam from English into German. In her free time, she enjoys Middle Eastern dancing and attending rock concerts.
For more details, please visit word-flow.com.