12 Extra-Linguistic Skills You Need to Master before Taking ATA’s Certification Exam

You’ve decided to take ATA’s certification exam. You’ve worked professionally as a translator for several years and you’ve taken (and passed) the practice test1 in your language pair. You’re confident in your language and translation skills and you’re ready to tackle the actual exam. Congratulations!

Have you also considered the extra-linguistic skills you’ll need to succeed, especially for the computerized exam? As many certification exam proctors can attest, exam candidates often overlook some or all of these skills. These skills are just as important as the ability to spot and avoid translation pitfalls or check spelling without the help of a computer program. Below are 12 extra-linguistic (read: not language- or translation-related) skills you should practice and perfect before taking the exam.

1. Know How to Focus Under Pressure: Test anxiety is real, and it can be debilitating. Translators who work perfectly well in their normal work environments can crack under the pressure of testing conditions. We all work in a way that’s different from a testing environment. When you take the practice test, simulate the exam environment as much as possible so that the conditions on exam day don’t throw you for a loop. On the day of your sitting, practice relaxation techniques before you start to keep your brain focused during the exam. West Virginia University has an excellent guide on anxiety that includes techniques for reducing test anxiety before and during your exam.2

2. Know Your Computer: This skill may sound obvious, but it might surprise you how many people borrow a friend’s computer or are working on a brand-new computer. Make sure any necessary keyboards for your language pair(s) are installed, you have a PDF viewer (such as Adobe Reader3) installed, and your computer has a USB port4. If you use other hardware, like a mouse, make sure it’s compatible with your computer and you have everything ready to use it properly. Frantically troubleshooting IT issues on exam day will not set you up for success.

3. Know How to Insert, Remove, and Save to a USB Flash Drive: For the computerized exam, your files are saved to and transferred using USB flash drives.5 After making sure your computer has the necessary port (see above), make sure you know how to connect, open, save to, and eject a flash drive (YouTube).6 You’ll save your working files to a flash drive (not your computer) during the exam, and your files will be sent to the grader using the flash drive.

4. Know How to Generate a PDF: For grading purposes, exams are saved to PDF rather than a word processing file format (in this case, .rtf). PDF files are handy because they’re harder to modify (e.g., accidentally adding or deleting a word is impossible) and easy to view on computers with the necessary (free) software. The most common way to save a file as a PDF is to “Print” it as a PDF. Instructions for doing so can be found online for both PCs and Macs.7

5. Know How to Save Your Work: This point may seem like a given, and it should be, considering how much we work on computers. It’s easy to get distracted by the exam environment and be so engrossed that you forget to save. But even after reminding exam takers at regular intervals to save their work to the USB drive, at the end of the exam, not only have some people not saved their documents even a single time, but the USB drivers they were given were not even inserted into their computers. Save at regular intervals using a keyboard shortcut and be sure to familiarize yourself with the difference between Save and Save As.8

6. Mac Users: Know How to Disable Spell Check in TextEdit: Exam candidates must complete their exam using a word processor without a spell check feature (WordPad on PC, TextEdit on Mac). The Mac program TextEdit does have a spell check feature that needs to be disabled for the test. To disable, go to Edit > Spelling and Grammar > Check Spelling While Typing. If there’s a check mark next to this option, spell check is active. Click the option to disable it. Navigate back to the option to make sure it has been disabled (the check mark will have disappeared). Make sure to do this before the exam starts and before you create your first file.

7. Know How to Change Input Sources and Switch between Keyboards: If you require a keyboard with accents, a different alphabet, or a character language, make sure your input keyboards are loaded and that you’re familiar with how to toggle between these keyboards on your computer (PC9; Mac10). Make sure you’ve loaded and tested your keyboards ahead of time. You don’t want to hope that a proctor knows which keyboard you need and how to add it to your computer during the exam.

8. Know How to Manage Your Time: Exam candidates have three hours to translate two out of three passages. Ideally, you’ll give yourself enough time to do the following: finish the first passage and set it aside; finish the second passage and set it aside; go back and review the first passage and set it aside again; review the second passage and set it aside again; take a mental break during which you sit quietly and clear your mind; then finally do a final proofreading of both passages. You won’t have enough time if you spend an hour and a half on the first passage. If you finish early, consider sitting quietly for longer, reading a news article, or doodling on your scrap paper to clear your mind before rereading your passage a final time. You don’t get extra points for finishing early, so use the full time you’re given wisely.

9. Familiarize Yourself with the Exam Instructions: Apart from the exam passages and passage-specific instructions, nothing exam candidates receive in the exam room is new information. Everyone receives all instructions via email prior to the exam sitting. Knowing the instructions backwards and forwards before your sitting will help save precious time on exam day. In case you’ve forgotten something, the proctors go over the instructions again before the exam starts. If you know them already, you can spend that time working on the relaxation techniques described in the second link provided at the end of this article.

10. Know which Websites and Applications are Allowed… and Which Aren’t: ATA has strict guidelines about what websites are permitted during computerized exams. Sites with interactive features (e.g., forums, email, social media), private groups or listservs, and sites with machine translation capabilities (Reverso, Google Translate, DeepL) are all strictly prohibited. Proctors are on the lookout for these types of websites and for candidates who are looking up strings of words rather than just single words. ATA provides a list of explicitly permitted websites.11 You can (and should) conduct online research when necessary, verify the spelling of tricky words using online dictionaries, and otherwise use your computer as you normally would, provided you aren’t accessing computer-assisted translation tools or translation memories.

11. Know How to Connect to a New Wi-Fi Network: Candidates who take the computerized exam have access to a Wi-Fi network to access approved online resources. Have you ever connected your computer to a Wi-Fi network somewhere other than your office? Does your computer have security settings that restrict public network access? If they do, or you aren’t sure, take your computer to a café or library and practice connecting to the Wi-Fi network. If you have problems, troubleshoot them before exam day.

12. Know How and When to Restart Your Computer: You’re sitting in the exam room and suddenly your computer won’t recognize the USB drive provided, you can’t connect to the Wi-Fi, or a program you’re using is on the fritz. A lot of simple IT issues can be resolved simply by restarting your computer. Before you spend unnecessary time trying to figure out how to solve an issue, try restarting your computer first, and make sure your work is saved before you do.

The average pass rate for ATA’s certification exam is around 20%, which means that only one out of every five people who take it pass. While nothing can guarantee that you pass the exam, solid professional experience and a firm grasp of the extra-linguistic skills discussed above can increase your chances of success. For more information about the exam, visit ATA’s Certification Exam page.12

  1. “Practice Test for the ATA Certification Exam,” http://bit.ly/ATA-practice-test
  2. “Test Anxiety,” http://bit.ly/wvup-test-anxiety
  3. Adobe Reader, https://get.adobe.com/reader
  4. “What Is a USB Port,” http://bit.ly/lifewire-USB-port
  5. “What Is a USB Flash Drive,” http://bit.ly/wikipedia-flash-drive
  6. “How to Use a Flash Drive or Memory Stick,” http://bit.ly/YouTube-memory-stick
  7. “How to Save a PDF File,” www.wikihow.com/Save-a-PDF-File
  8. “What’s the Difference between Save and Save As?” http://bit.ly/save-save-as
  9. “Switching between Languages Using the Language Bar,” http://bit.ly/PC-keyboard
  10. “Typing in Another Language on Your Mac with Input Sources,” http://bit.ly/MAC-keyboard
  11. “ATA Computerized Exam Online Resource List,” http://bit.ly/ATA-computerized-resources
  12. “Certification Exam Overview,” http://bit.ly/ATA-certification

Ben Karl, CT is an ATA-certified French>English and Mandarin>English translator specializing in financial, business, and marketing content. He serves on ATA’s Membership Committee. He has an MBA from the University of Nevada, Reno. Contact: ben@bktranslation.com.

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