By John Rock
On reading “Translation in Canada,” an article in The Chronicle (October 2010) about translation in Canada, I was struck by the certification practices of OTTIAQ where, according to the article, there is no certification exam; rather, one must have a translation degree and perform a mentorship under a certified member for five years. Without a translation degree, a person must prove that he or she has worked at least five years as a full time translator and can submit a corpus of work for evaluation by committee. This immediately rang a bell with me, since I have always maintained that it takes five years of hard work between when you think you are a translator and when you know you are a translator and can handle almost anything thrown at you.
It also highlighted what, in my opinion, has been a serious defect with the ATA certification exams: a suitable process does not appear to exist to certify translators who have come to translation from any field other than the language arts. Although here I am addressing primarily technical translators, this also applies to medical, legal, and financial translators. Thus we have the bizarre situation where newly minted language graduates take the ATA certification with flying colors, and then feel competent to tackle any subject matter under the sun.
On the flip side of the coin, experienced translators who have been working in the field for literally decades performing the heavy lifting for the translation community, continue to flunk the ATA exam because they have not dotted some “i” or crossed some “t”. Any translator who has taken the exam will realize the examination process is not transparent and is shrouded in secrecy. Why, may we ask?
Yet, any agency or company going to the ATA website looking for a translator is mainly going to find the “certified” translators and not necessarily those translators which have the in-depth background experience to provide a professional service. The question should be asked: “Is the ATA failing in its duty to provide qualified professional translators for American businesses and industry?”
As for my own experience, I obtained certification in one of my languages and simply gave up trying to achieve certification in my other languages. It was like throwing good money after bad. The sad truth is, I am willing to bet, based on the cross-section of translators I have met, that there are probably several hundred “long-term” professional translators out there who are frankly disillusioned with the ATA examination process.
I have railed against not only the certification process itself, which I suspect is dominated by language arts professors, but also against those language professors who claim to be able to teach technical translation, legal translation and medical translation by giving their students a few glossaries and test translations on which to whet their teeth.
So situations continue to arise in which long-standing technical translators find themselves editing poor translations from “certified” translators who really do not have the background or experience to know the subject matter. The corollary to this is that perfectly good technical translations are shredded by an editor who thinks they know what they are doing.
As an example of this, I have a shelf and a half of Oil & Gas dictionaries, I have probably translated close to a hundred oil refinery projects, yet I had a translation come back shredded by an “in-house” editor who thought they knew better. I could not be bothered to argue.
ATA itself balks at any call to re-examine its certification process, claiming that the only model which suffices is “the language itself.” Spoken like a true language arts graduate. Yet our Canadian cousins offer an alternative model for certification. Is it not at least worth close examination? No pun intended.
I am sure some readers will simply say “sour grapes,” and it would be if I were writing simply for myself. But as indicated earlier, I have given up on the ATA certification exam because in my opinion, it is not worth the paper it is written on. However, I am thinking about those generations of technical translators who are coming after us and who are struggling to make a living in the translation community where certification would mean a lot; it could mean the difference between making it or not.
So I make this assertion: the ATA is not in fact serving the translation community that it purports to serve.
I challenge ATA to take a survey of its members to find out what percentage of its members who have been working as full time translators for 5, 10, 15, and over 20 years are not certified in the languages in which they normally work.
I challenge ATA to review its certification model in the light of alternative models such as our Canadian cousins and come up with a better one.
ATA should be a world leader in translator certification, and I fear it is not.
John Rock holds a Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography from the University of Liverpool, U.K. He has worked for the Instituto Oceanografico, USP, São Paulo, Brazil, and for UNESCO in Athens, Greece. His career in the Oil Industry involved the former Gulf Oil Company with geophysical seismic research, and Schlumberger Wireline Services. He has been at various times: a Marine Engineering Consultant, Computer Consultant, Geophysical Consultant and University lecturer in Applied Mathematics. For the last twenty five years he has been a full time freelance technical translator initially based in Houston, Texas, and now in Charleston, S.C., working with Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian to English.