Member Opinions: Discussion on Opening ATA’s Exam to Nonmembers

The November–December issue included an announcement that the Board voted to postpone a decision to open ATA’s certification exam to nonmembers. This was followed by the answers to some frequently asked questions concerning the issues involved ( Here are some responses we received after members were encouraged to submit their feedback.

But don’t let the conversation stop here! As an ATA member, your voice is important, so please send your comments!

Facts and Opinions on Decoupling ATA’s Certification Exam from Membership

By Robert Sette, CT
ATA-certified (French>English, Italian>English, Portuguese>English, and Spanish>English)

Denver, Colorado

ATA’s certification exam has always been a valuable membership right that is proudly held by many ATA members, and it has greatly benefited members and the Association. Last August, ATA’s Board of Directors postponed its decision to decouple the Certified Translator (CT) credential from ATA membership to January 1, 2021. Based on significant member input, the Board has prepared a Bylaws amendment to be presented to ATA Voting members at our 61st Annual Conference in Boston, Massachusetts (October 21–24, 2020).

That amendment, if passed, will effectively remove from the Bylaws the right of ATA members to take ATA’s certification exam and to hold the CT credential, making it possible for any individual in the U.S. or abroad to take the exam, and upon passing, to be “ATA-certified” without being an ATA member. As the ATA 61st Annual Conference in Boston approaches, all Voting members of the Association must thoughtfully consider whether we should relinquish this right as members and remove it from our Bylaws.

Background: The Hamm Report

In 2000, association executive and certification consultant Michael Hamm delivered a report to ATA’s Board. In that report, he mentioned the possibility of separating ATA’s credential from a membership requirement. He also mentioned that the most well-respected credentials are administered by an independent body, not a membership association.

In the end, he made nine specific recommendations designated “A” through “I.” Not one of those recommendations specifically mentions decoupling certification from membership. Recommendations “A” and “B,” however, are significant. They refer to first conducting a strategic planning process (which never occurred), and second, establishing a formal body to govern “all credentials offered by the Association.”1 (This independent body was never created.) Neither the independent body nor a strategic planning process were even mentioned in the summary ATA prepared and posted on its website in 2001, entitled “Executive Summary.”2 For many years (apparently until early 2018, when former ATA Director and Treasurer Gabe Bokor made it available on his website), the report was deemed confidential, and that highly edited “summary” was what was available to the membership. The full Hamm report seems to have only been made available on ATA’s website in mid-2019.

Credibility of Our Credential

The prime justification that ATA has stated for decoupling certification is to “enhance the credibility” of our credential. Unfortunately, there is no current, specific, or validated evidence that decoupling would serve this purpose. Yes, Michael Hamm says that membership-based credentials “typically have less credibility and impact in an industry/profession… than freestanding national professional certifications,” but he goes on to say that “some freestanding national professional certifications have easier testing requirements” than ATA’s credential at the time of his report, 20 years ago, in 1999–2000.3 Hamm did not qualify ATA certification (then referred to as “accreditation”) in a negative light. In fact, it was then-ATA President Ann Macfarlane who, in reference to ATA’s credential, stated that “in the world of voluntary certifications, a member-based credential may be perceived as a second-rate credential4 (emphasis added). Hamm made no such assertion.

There is no logical link between separating our credential from Association membership and enhancing its stature. Nonmember certified translators would not have any vested interest in promoting ATA, attending its functions, or contributing as speakers, writers, or mentors. The difficulty of verifying fulfillment of continuing education requirements would certainly increase, and that would most definitely not enhance the credibility of our credential.

In a nonmember certified translator scenario, the enforcement of ethics matters, once adjudicated, would have no “teeth,” and an individual would be free to claim ATA certification without fear of sanctions being levied, other than removal from ATA’s list of certified members. Even now, with the available sanction of suspending membership, it’s difficult and time-consuming for ATA Headquarters staff to pursue individuals who fraudulently claim ATA certified status.

The bottom line with regard to credibility is this: ATA certification is already one of the top translator credentials in the world. It’s well-respected by professionals, educators, and clients, and even by Michael Hamm. There is no evidence of other credentials that have soared in stature simply because of removal of an association membership requirement.


The Bylaws amendment to be presented to the membership later this year, as passed by the Board at the 2019 ATA Annual Conference in Palm Springs, states in part:

[…] Whereas allowing nonmembers to take the ATA certification exam is expected to increase market demand for the exam, resulting in additional revenue to the Association […]

This statement cannot be supported. ATA has not determined the nonmember pricing for the exam or for maintaining certification. Additionally, ATA’s Board has stated that there is only “anecdotal” evidence of nonmembers wanting to take the exam. No market research has been done. No survey of the membership asking how many certified translators would remain if they did not have to maintain ATA membership. With stated per-exam expenses of $500 to $600 and a current member exam fee of $525, any claimed additional revenue would be minimal. The net result would even likely be negative, based on the increase in administrative work at ATA Headquarters required by any substantial increase in exam numbers, and any decline in membership dues revenue from members who choose to leave while maintaining their certification.

Additionally, in ATA’s fiscal year ending June 30, 2019, a loss of approximately $170K was recorded.5 Although it has been stated that the Association is still financially healthy, this is not the time to upset our financial apple cart with all of these unknowns, and the claim of “additional revenue” is aspirational at best. In fact, if the Association were to record a loss in the current fiscal year, as is predicted to happen, that would violate the pre-conditions for decoupling established by ATA’s Board.6

Is Restriction of Trade an Issue?

One rationale proposed by ATA for decoupling is the concern that nonmembers may file lawsuits, claiming that they are restricted from working as a translator by the requirement to join ATA to sit for our exam. There are two aspects of this argument that discredit this rationale. First, ATA certification is a voluntary credential, not a license to practice a profession. As such, no barrier to entry can be claimed. Second, ATA has stated that of the estimated 55,000 working translators in the U.S., approximately 2,000 hold ATA certification, which amounts to 3.6%. Additionally, our exam is offered internationally, and with global estimates of the number of working translators exceeding 500,000, ATA-certified translators represent less than 1% of the global translation workforce. Courts would entertain restriction of trade claims if the number of certified individuals were 25–30% of the practitioners of that profession. Our numbers are infinitesimally small compared to that threshold, so this threat is practically nonexistent, and this justification for decoupling is consequently irrelevant.

What Can—and Should—Be Done to Enhance Our Credential?

If the overall aim of ATA’s Board is to enhance the recognition of our credential, then there are various concrete steps that can be taken to do so. For example, promotion of the credential among business and industry associations, through a speakers’ bureau, fact sheets provided to translation users, such as university foreign student admission offices, or perhaps a separate, dedicated website for the certification credential and its benefits directed specifically at translation buyers/users. Engaging ATA-certified translators, external stakeholders, educators, and clients is a key component needed to determine the strategic next steps for our credential, and I welcome the fair and open dialogue ATA is now supporting.

Lastly, many solid, beneficial, and lasting improvements have been made to ATA’s Certification Program in the years following (and truly because of) the Hamm report. Grader training has been expanded, and quality and consistency improvements have been implemented across language combinations.


As we move forward toward a membership vote in Boston this fall, I stand firmly against opening our valuable credential to nonmembers, based on the unproven and erroneous arguments put forward as justification by ATA’s Board to date. I look forward to engaging discussion through the fora provided by ATA and in other discussion venues.

  1. ATA Accreditation Program Report (Michael Hamm & Associates, 2000), 18,
  2. An Executive Summary: Review of the ATA Certification Program,
  3. Hamm, 16-17,
  4. “From the President,” The ATA Chronicle (August 2001), 9,
  5. ATA Board Meeting Summary (October 26–27, 2019),
  6. ATA Board Meeting Minutes (April 18–19, 2015),

Opening the Exam: Too Many Unknowns

By Jessica Hartstein, CT, CI
ATA-certified (Spanish>English and French>English), Credentialed Interpreter Legal (Spanish)

Houston, Texas

Members, this is your chance to vote and let your voice be heard! When you decide whether you want to open ATA’s certification exam to nonmembers, there are several factors to consider.


First, let’s consider why ATA wants to open the exam to nonmembers and whether doing so would achieve ATA’s goal. The main rationale for opening the exam to nonmembers, as stated in The ATA Chronicle and other ATA forums, is to enhance the credibility of the Certification Program.

Question #1: Does the ATA Certification Program have a credibility issue? Among my clients and colleagues, I’ve found that ATA’s Certification Program is very well-respected. Being ATA-certified has opened numerous doors for me professionally, and I suspect that’s true for many of you as well.

Even if there were a credibility issue (which I don’t think there is), what are some other potential solutions? I would think the best solutions would have something to do with the nature of the exam itself. For example, time constraints, passage length, passage difficulty, preventing cheating, consistency of the grading process, and the qualifications of the candidates. No such changes are being presented along with decoupling, so the exam results themselves wouldn’t become more respected by opening the exam.

Do your clients know that ATA certification is only available to members? Would they find it more credible if nonmembers took the exam?

Question #2: Would opening the exam to all translators around the world drive more clients to you? The FAQs on decoupling published in the November–December issue of The ATA Chronicle say that more certified translators would increase the recognition of the profession.1 If Harvard doubled the size of its graduating class, a degree would be less valuable for each Harvard graduate. Harvard would create more alumni telling others about their school, but eventually the graduates themselves would not be as respected as they are now. The FAQs on decoupling indicate there are around 40,000 U.S.-based translators who are not ATA members, and, according to the Translators Association of China, as of 2012, there were an estimated 640,000 translators worldwide. Per ATA’s website, we offer the exam in 10 countries worldwide (seven of them in Spanish-speaking countries), but they could be held anywhere.

Using the Hamm Report as the Basis

Question #3: Does the Hamm Report clearly state that opening today’s exam is the correct course of action? I recommend you read the entire 21-page Hamm Report, as it’s the basis for ATA’s desire to open the exam.2 When you do, you’ll see that opening the certification exam to nonmembers in its current state is not what Michael Hamm recommended back in 2000.

In his conclusions, he listed nine action items, none of which were opening the exam to nonmembers. His action items included a myriad of operational and exam improvements, many of which have been implemented to the benefit of the program. He recommended separating the Certification Program into an independent body “with minimal involvement from the Association” (this hasn’t been done). He recommended this because it “is an important issue in terms of achieving recognition from external stakeholders such as government agencies.”

He also recommended adding eligibility requirements for exam-takers to prevent people with no educational/professional translation experience from becoming certified translators (something I’ve witnessed since eligibility requirements to register for the exam were removed in 2017).

ATA removed the eligibility requirements because the pass rate hadn’t improved. However, Michael Hamm’s recommendation wasn’t about the pass rate, it was about the credibility of the program being adversely affected when non-translators pass the exam. He stated that eligibility requirements “help inform stakeholders of the proposed level of the examination.” A lack of eligibility requirements could tell the public this is an entry-level exam. I’ve researched other professional certification (and licensing) exams, and every other professional exam I read about has eligibility requirements. Without them, people who are not serious about the profession will have the same credential, and that lowers credibility. Is it time to bring eligibility requirements back?

Question 4: Will decoupling today’s exam improve credibility in the eyes of government agencies? In the report, Hamm considered opening the exam to nonmembers to be a “critical marketing issue.” He mentioned that “membership requirements are a major ‘turn off’ to external stakeholder groups that are evaluating the credibility of certification programs” and that “government agencies are particularly uncomfortable with these rules when they are asked to recognize or endorse a certification program.” He didn’t back up these general statements—no peer-reviewed publication was cited, for example. He also didn’t speak to anyone outside ATA about our Certification Program, so we don’t even know if any specific external stakeholders or government agencies care about decoupling or what policies they would change in response. His statements were made 20 years ago, when he recommended ATA create a three- to five-year strategic plan. Now it’s time for us to decide for ourselves what ATA should do next.

Too Many Unknowns

There are many unknowns, so much so that it seems too risky to press on without doing more research. For example, ATA stated it has not done a market study on how many people would take the exam if it were opened. ProZ recently asked its translators whether they would be interested in taking ATA’s certification exam if it were open to nonmembers. Only 20% of the ProZ translators who participated in the poll indicated they weren’t interested.

ATA also hasn’t surveyed current membership about decoupling, and doesn’t know how many certified members would leave if membership was no longer required to maintain certification. Losing experienced members hurts ATA.

I’m so thankful for the volunteer graders generously sharing their expertise and time and making our Certification Program so strong. ATA hasn’t published the results of any well-executed survey of graders to know how many of them would be demotivated from volunteering in this new scenario. (Some graders have already publicly and privately stated they would leave the program.) The Spanish language pair would likely be the most affected by the increased demand. Could our graders, ATA Headquarters staff, and the Ethics Committee really handle the increased demand for all language pairs, especially if we lost a significant number of graders? Just one language pair losing key graders could make the whole program lose credibility.

The cost of the exam and renewal fees for nonmembers has not yet been published. Without survey/market research/cost numbers to plug into equations, the financial impact is still unknown. A bigger ATA is a stronger ATA from which we all benefit. According to the free decoupling webinar ATA presented in October, 25% of all new members join ATA to take the exam.3 Think about how losing those 400+ new members year after year will look for us 10, 20, or 30 years down the road.

What Do Others Think?

Recently, I reached out to some ATA colleagues from different language pairs, different parts of the country, certified and not certified, men and women, and simply asked, “What do you think about opening the exam to nonmembers?” These colleagues are currently supporting themselves through translation work, they actively participate in ATA, and none of them hold leadership positions. Eighty percent told me that they were against opening the exam, and the other 20% were undecided. I thought this was compelling because I had never talked to these colleagues about ATA politics before, so I truly wasn’t trying to skew the results.

AMA and ABA Don’t Administer Board/Bar Exams

ATA has mentioned that you don’t have to be a member of the American Medical Association (AMA) or American Bar Association (ABA) to take the board/bar exams. However, these associations don’t administer the board/bar exams or issue licenses.

Voluntary Credential

ATA certification has always been a voluntary credential, a way to stand out. No law requires the use of ATA-certified translators, and most translators working today are not certified. Therefore, it’s not a barrier to entry, and we’re not illegally controlling any supply.

The legal concern might make more sense if ATA is pursuing legislation that would require the use of ATA-certified translators across the U.S. Is that happening? If so, members ought to know.

Relevant Case Study

Just a few years ago, the International Council on Systems Engineering decided to add a membership requirement to its certification program. ATA is looking at going in the opposite direction with decoupling.


I wholeheartedly believe ATA leaders are committed to our organization and do their jobs/volunteer work with the best of intentions. We’ve all benefited from their contributions. I have a common goal with our leaders: wanting a strong ATA and Certification Program. Questioning whether opening today’s exam to nonmembers would achieve that goal shouldn’t take that away.

Question #5: Should ATA leadership’s first priority be our members, who have a lot to lose if this doesn’t go well, or the tens of thousands of translators who haven’t joined us? The FAQs state that opening the exam would benefit the entire industry, but no specific evidence has been presented regarding how. Members deserve some concrete evidence regarding how this would directly benefit them before removing a beloved member right that makes ATA so strong.


I appreciate that the Board will allow us to vote on this matter, as the Bylaws list taking the certification exam under its list of Member Rights, next to the rights to vote, hold office, and serve on the Board of Directors and all committees of the Association.

There are lots of ways to improve the credibility of ATA that don’t involve decoupling, and I would like to be a part of a solution. I hope you will join me. We could enhance the credibility of the Certification Program and ATA brand by working with external stakeholders and government agencies to better inform them of the strengths of our members and our current program. We could also do more public outreach to increase the recognition of the industry and work harder to retain and attract members.

  1. “Frequently Asked Questions: Opening ATA’s Certification Exam and the Certified Translator Credential to Nonmembers of ATA,” The ATA Chronicle (November–December, 2019),
  2. ATA Accreditation Program Report (Michael Hamm & Associates, 2000),
  3. “Opening the ATA Certification Exam to Nonmembers,” ATA Webinar Series (October 1, 2019),

We want to hear from you!

Members are encouraged to submit their opinions, both pro and con, regarding opening ATA’s certification exam to nonmembers (also referred to as decoupling) for publication in The ATA Chronicle. While it may not be possible to print all submissions, equal space will be provided for members to present views on both sides of the issue. Please send to

Note: In keeping with standard ATA editorial policy, submissions must include the author’s name, which will be published. Anonymous submissions will not be accepted for publication.

2 Responses to "Member Opinions: Discussion on Opening ATA’s Exam to Nonmembers"

  1. Mario Chávez says:

    I remember the ATA Chronicle mentioning the Hamm Report many years ago. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to ask some basic questions: Was the Hamm Report ever published in full for ATA members to read and draw their own conclusions for themselves? I doubt it but feel free to correct me. More importantly: does the Hamm Report list the “most well-respected credentials [are] administered by an independent body, not a membership association”? Does CIOLinguists or ITI in the UK use independent bodies to administer their well-respected credentials? To what organizations was the American Translators Association compared in order to draw such conclusions?

    On its face, opening the exam to nonmembers sounds wonderful and democratic. We forget that a professional association is, by definition, nonpopulist. Only members who meet stringent requirements are or should be allowed to take the exam or receive membership benefits. Have the downsides as well as the upsides been thoroughly explored by the ATA Board, which seems so hell-bent on passing this bylaw amendment? Isn’t the ATA Board supposed to represent ATA members instead of making draconian decisions?

  2. Mario Chávez says:

    After posting my initial comment, I wish to say that I’m more convinced of what I stated after reading what our colleague Jessica Hartstein, CT, CI, has stated in a cogent and well-balanced fashion. One of the reasons I have let my ATA membership lapse is precisely this kind of autocratic decision, this obstinate desire to hoist a major measure on members without proper deliberation or without discussing the facts. One of the reasons I became an ATA member in 1992 and took the certification exam back then was to be able to tell clients and colleagues that I am a committed professional, that I belong to a serious professional organization. ATA Board members, what are you doing?

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