In our high-tech world, the ATA exam continues to be a low-tech institution. BY NINA BOGDAN
The decision to take the ATA certification exam is based on a number of factors, one of which is whether or not the individual translator is at the stage of their career that they are ready. There is nothing more frustrating than spending the time preparing for the exam (and paying the substantial fee) and then not passing.
ATA statistics on this issue make it clear that novice translators, for example, those who have just graduated with a degree in a foreign language—even an advanced degree—should not expect to pass the exam. The overall pass rate for the ATA exam is under 20%. These statistics are not broken down by language combinations as, according to Terry Hanlen, ATA Deputy Executive Director and Certification Program Manager, this would be like comparing apples and oranges since some language combinations have hundreds of exams while others only have five.
BRILLIANT VS. COMPETENT
Be that as it may, an 80+% failure rate is a daunting figure. In a recent overview of the exam (The ATA Chronicle, February 2009), however, it was noted that “The ATA Standard for a passing examination is a level of obvious competence with some room for growth.” Reference is made to the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) Skill Level Descriptions for Translation Performance and the fact that a passing grade is roughly equivalent to a Level 3 as described in the ILR document. This factor makes the failure rate even more daunting as it indicates that the less than 20% of candidates who pass the exam are considered “competent” but certainly not necessarily “outstanding” or “brilliant.” In making this assessment of the candidates’ skills perhaps it has been taken into account that the venue for taking the exam is, to put it mildly, primitive and therefore not particularly conducive to producing brilliant work.
The most common complaint by far about the exam is that candidates must still, in 2009 A.D., take the exam using pencil or pen and paper. Needless to say, this does not in any way mirror the contemporary world of translation where computer skills rank only slightly below language skills themselves in order for a translator to be successful in their chosen career. The exam format has been compared to being asked to make markings on clay tablets. For many people, who have not written in pencil since the first grade, when they were learning to write out their ABC’s on lined paper, the exam format is a culture shock of sorts—a forced regression, perhaps, to those childhood days. A case could be made, even, that a person’s brain function changes depending on the tools that they are using.
Candidates are encouraged to take practice exams that mirror exam conditions for this very reason. This is no doubt helpful (Note: $50 per practice exam) but after using a keyboard for, perhaps, twenty-five years, the brain becomes accustomed to operating in this venue. This writer, for example, thinks as she types and deletes and re-types and thinks some more and deletes and re-types…and so on. This is not possible with pencil and paper no matter how much one practices erasing. The only mitigating factor is that everyone is on the same playing field in this case and, in theory, equally handicapped.
COMPLEXITIES OF CHANGE
Keyboarding the exam has been in the works for some time but special software has had to be developed and a major issue is the special security required to lock down computers while allowing access to approved CD-ROMs and potential websites. Even when this process becomes a reality, the keyboarded exam will only be offered at approved university testing centers that are able to work with the special software system and meet ATA requirements. According to Terry Hanlen, the exam will continue to be offered by hand at most exam sittings for the near future.
A related complaint is the ban on all electronic devices and the inability to use the Internet either for terminology or subject research. Again, in the last decade or two, the Internet has completely altered the business world of translation. On-line dictionaries and glossaries are the norm, not the exception. But this prohibition is also unlikely to change soon as it is related to the entire issue of security, specifically: to preclude the possibility that copies of the exam will be made, that candidates will leave with test information, or will communicate with others while taking the exam. The content is guarded so that the same exam may continue to be used.
The ATA exam is given at ATA conferences or when arrangements are made by a local chapter or group, usually in major metropolitan areas. Simple logistics become complicated when translators have to cart suitcases full of dictionaries to exam sites to arrive by 8 a.m. in unfamiliar locations. The added burden of transporting 100 lbs of books adds to stress levels and complications in logistical planning (not to mention expenses). As an illustration, this writer’s hands-down favorite English-English reference is Webster’s 2,662-page Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged), which, as an added bonus, may be used for weight-training. An assertion in the aforementioned overview of the exam in The ATA Chronicle that one good general dictionary and one general specialty dictionary are sufficient for the exam is a bit unrealistic.
An alternative that may address all of these issues is to have one exam date per year, with candidates taking the exam from home on their computer. Candidates would be able to type the exam and use any resources at their disposal. In addition they would not have to deal with unfamiliar situations or circumstances so they could better concentrate on their work. Since the exam would not be re-used the issue of information theft would be moot.
A major problem with having one exam date, however, is that graders would be inundated with exams after that date rather than having them spread out throughout the year. Also, the same issue of cheating precludes the possibility of taking the exam from home.
In the end, it is the results that matter—is the translation that is produced “…professionally usable within the framework provided by the Translation Instructions”? Exams are graded by two individual graders. If they disagree about the results, the exam is sent to a third grader for final resolution. Since the candidates name is not on the exam paper, anonymity is ensured.
Graders are ATA-certified in the language combination. Their CV is reviewed by the ATA and they provide three independent professional references. Training and preparation involves doing a practice grading of a previous exam, a personal interview with the language chair, as well as an assessment of experience, knowledge and group interaction. The grader is then invited to join the language combination workgroup and continues training by doing sample translations which are reviewed by the workgroup. Finally, the new grader is paired up with an experienced grader and learns the guidelines. The language chair continues to monitor the work of the new grader. In view of this process, exam candidates should feel secure then that their efforts will be judged fairly by their peers.
According to Terry Hanlen, the reason that the ATA has had to stop offering some language combinations for testing is the lack of appropriate graders who are willing to carry out the leadership responsibilities to keep each workgroup running. Although graders are paid a stipend, the compensation is not as much as they would make as translators. The ATA certifies in 24 language pairs (always to or from English). It takes a huge amount of money, time and effort to develop the testing process for any language pair and the first step has to be that there are proficient translators in that language pair willing to begin this process. There are certain inevitable limitations in creating an exam for languages that are rarely, if ever, taught in the U.S. Given that it is generally accepted that translating into one’s native language is preferable the prospects of, say, an Urdu to (U.S.) English exam are not good. How many Americans whose native language is English are fluent in Urdu? How many Americans whose native language is English know what Urdu is?
THE HUMAN FACTOR
In the event that candidates do not pass the exam, they are allowed to appeal the results. Candidates now receive their score range: pass (17 error points or less), 18-25 error points, 26-35 error points, 36-45 error points, and 46+ error points, giving them a better idea as to whether it is worth it to appeal the results. A borderline range indicates a possibility that a review might overturn the grade. Based on this information, the candidate can make the decision as to whether they want to spend $250 for a review.
There is an argument that candidates should simply be allowed to see their exam and decide whether to appeal based on this information. According to Terry Hanlen, however, since passages are no longer discarded each year and may be recycled in the building of passage “banks,” the ATA would like to avoid providing passages to the general public. The fact is that passage selection is one of the most difficult jobs of the workgroup. Exam passages are selected to test broad knowledge with candidates translating one general passage and then selecting either a “technical/scientific/medical” or “financial/legal passage.” With the growing trend towards specialization, the selection process may become even more complex while limitations in resources do not allow for a change in the exam structure in the foreseeable future .
In the increasingly high-tech world, the ATA exam continues to be a low-tech institution. Though frustrating, this does, however, serve as a reminder that it is the “human factor” in translation (as well as interpreting) which is the key ingredient to producing brilliant creative work, whether it is written with a pencil or dictated to a computer that has voice-recognition software. NB