Passing a translation certification exam is a bit like winning an Olympics competition. They have low pass rates. So… how do we set ourselves up to win?

First step. Be an excellent translator.

  • Read the source text as unbiased readers, catching every nuance of the text.
  • Translate it so the target audience in the target language can read the translated text without missing a beat.
  • This is a more detailed description of an excellent translator.


  • Being an excellent writer, which involves being great at editing one’s own text (and reading a lot in the target language)
  • Being an excellent reader! You have to understand the nuances of the source language, and sometimes you don’t even know what you didn’t understand until the translation makes no sense. In that case, consult with a native speaker of the source language. It is your best approach. In real life, if you are still in doubt, consult with the client.

We often discover how important the prerequisites are as we notice our translation weaknesses. It’s always better to notice those and fix them before the test, not after it. We should remember that our clients deserve as much respect as the certification exam! When clients do not call us back, we should wonder whether we have met their needs. That might be a great call to action to work on our skills, regardless of whether there is a certification exam in our language pair or not.

Second step. Figure out the appropriate style guide.

Read the material on the certification page of the program you plan to get certified with. There are two certification programs available in the Pacific Northwest.

Third step: Take the practice test.

  • It is an opportunity to mimic the test situation.
  • It is your chance to get the test instructions ahead of time.
  • Look behind the curtain. In the case of ATA, we now have the option of submitting an electronic practice test and we can run experiments with it. We could do the “safe test” and keep it in our files, and introduce “experiments” which we put in the test we send off to be graded. This would be an excellent way to find out how the graders think, and if the experiments don’t work we have proof of what our “safe” options really were. Just be careful to not do this on the exam!

How to prepare

  • Practice with texts that are at least 300 words long and have plenty of nuance, such as articles published in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, or equivalent sources. Check for a Flesh-Kincaid score of between 11 and 15. The Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) has developed Language Roadmaps for 10 languages. In the ribbon on the right, each Roadmap has a link to specific news media in its language and to the ILR Webliography for a broader list of media links. I provided the link to the Spanish webliography.
  • Use the study resources for translation certification, created for the Gaucha Translations study program.
  • Find a partner whose strength is the opposite language pair, who can help you spot nuances in understanding you didn’t notice. Not everything is in the dictionary.
  • If possible, team up with a certified translator to look at your work to see if you come close to what is expected.
  • Repeat until you have the ATA error categories internalized and just can’t accept the things ATA considers mistakes in your own work!

Preparation can take a long time. It includes discovering our weaknesses, going back and focusing on the prerequisites again and again, working humbly with partners, taking classes, and approaching this challenge respectfully. We do this because we are professionals, because our readers and the authors we serve deserve clear communication. We are language access providers, and language access is ineffective when we introduce confusion, not clarity, into the system.

The readers of our translated text and the authors of our source text deserve no less than the best: a correct and accurate translation that has been reviewed and edited for quality improvement by another highly qualified translator and is delivered with confidence.