Demystifying ATA’s Certification Exam: Better Off “Literal” or “Free”?

A common misconception about ATA’s certification exam is that candidates must translate literally or word-for-word to be successful. Even those who aren’t susceptible to this myth might wonder how much latitude they have when translating a given text. This column will clarify the difference between an excessively literal translation and a precisely accurate one, and between an overly free translation and an idiomatic one.

What Makes a Translation “Good”?

Theories about what makes a good translation have evolved tremendously over the centuries, bouncing back and forth between strict adherence to the source-language structure, especially in sacred texts, and a sense-for-sense approach that paid more attention to usability in the target language. In her 1997 book Meaning-Based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence, Mildred Larson, an international translation consultant and international coordinator for academic publications, represents translation styles along a continuum with several gradations. Her ideal target text is an “idiomatic translation,” defined as one that makes “every effort to communicate the meaning of the source language text in the natural forms of the receptor language”1 (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1: Mildred Larson’s representation of translation styles along a continuum

The notion of a continuum is important because it implies there’s room for flexibility, depending on the text type and the purpose of the translation. ATA certification exam passages tend to be drawn from periodicals, textbooks, or reports published by governments and think tanks. They’re factual in nature and occasionally persuasive, so they should be translated idiomatically but also precisely, with no omissions or additions of meaning.

How do you know what the graders for ATA’s Certification Program will consider “too literal” or “too free”? The descriptions of error categories, available on ATA’s website, provide some helpful clarification.2 The two most pertinent error types for this discussion are faithfulness and literalness:

Faithfulness (F): A faithfulness error occurs when the target text doesn’t respect the meaning of the source text as much as possible. Candidates are asked to translate the meaning and intent of the source text, not to rewrite or improve upon it. The grader will carefully compare the translation to the source text. If a “creative” rendition changes the meaning, an error will be marked. If recasting a sentence or paragraph—i.e., altering the order of its major elements—destroys the flow, changes the emphasis, or obscures the author’s intent, an error may be marked.

Literalness (L): A literalness error occurs when a translation that follows the source text word for word results in an awkward and/or unidiomatic rendition (e.g., “reductions of taxes of income” instead of “income tax reductions”).

Word-for-word renditions can also obscure the meaning of common expressions (e.g., if “next best option” is translated as “subsequent best option”). Another source of “literalisms” are false cognates that occur in related languages—e.g., French actuellement, which could be mistranslated as “actually” (ATA classifies the latter as a faux ami error).


Here are some examples of these two error types provided by Certification Program graders as part of required grader training.

Faithfulness Errors

In a text about right-wing extremism in Europe:

  • German into English: Die Antirassismus-Strafnorm entspricht einer Erwartungshaltung der Gesellschaft, die besagt, dass Menschen nicht diskriminiert werden sollen.
  • Modified Literal Translation (Acceptable): In effect, the antiracism law sets forth society’s expectation that people should not be discriminated against.
  • Acceptable Idiomatic Translation: In effect, the antiracism law sets forth society’s expectation that people should be treated fairly.
  • Unacceptable “Too Free” Translation: In effect, the antiracism law sets forth society’s expectation that affirmative action policies should be implemented.

In a text about tax policy:

  • Spanish into English: El Servicio de Administración Tributaria ha detectado anomalías en su situación fiscal.
  • Modified Literal Translation (Acceptable): The Tax Administration Service has detected anomalies in your fiscal situation.
  • Acceptable Idiomatic Translation: The Tax Administration Service has found irregularities in your tax position.
  • Unacceptable “Too Free” Translation: The IRS has found evidence of fraud in your tax return.

Literalness Errors

In a text about satellites:

  • English into Croatian: Space officials say a satellite plunged into the Pacific.
  • Erroneous Literal Translation: Svemirski službenici kažu da je satelit pao u Tihi ocean.
  • Back-Translation: Officials from space say that a satellite plunged into the Pacific Ocean.

In a text about Japan:

  • Japanese into English:
  • Erroneous Literal Translation: Japan had not experienced foreign invasion for a long period. It was, so to speak, raised in a warm room.
  • Acceptable Idiomatic Translation: Japan had not experienced foreign invasion for a long period. It was, so to speak, a hothouse flower.

Translations Don’t Have to Be Perfect

Although there’s no clear-cut answer to the “literal” vs. “free” question, we hope that the examples here give a general idea of what ATA graders look for in a successful translation. To clarify doubts, try asking these questions each time a decision must be made:

If I translated this term or phrase word for word…

  • would every element of meaning be retained?
  • would the reader understand the meaning, with all its nuances?
  • would the translation read naturally in the target language?

If I proposed a “free” or “idiomatic” alternative, would it…

  • retain every element of meaning in the source language?
  • introduce additional elements of meaning not present in the source text?
  • retain the style and tone of the source text?

One important point is that as the translator you’re not the author of the passage, so it’s not incumbent upon you to improve the writing. Also remember that you don’t need to agonize over every translation decision. A phrase that sounds awkward but maintains the original meaning will be penalized only one or two points (if at all). Focus on key terms (especially repeated ones) and lines of argument. Overall, remember that a passing translation is competent but not perfect. Good luck!

  1. Larson, Mildred L. Meaning-Based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence, 2nd edition (University Press of America, 1997), 17,
  2. ATA Certification Exam: Explanation of Error Categories,

Larry Bogoslaw, CT is chief editor and publishing director at East View Press, an academic publisher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After earning an MA in Italian and a PhD in Slavic languages and literatures, he co-founded the Minnesota Translation Laboratory, a community language service. He has taught Russian and translation courses at various colleges and universities. An ATA-certified Russian>English and Spanish>English translator, he serves as deputy chair of ATA’s Certification Committee.

Holly Mikkelson, CT is professor emerita of translation and interpreting at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She is a federally certified court interpreter and an ATA-certified Spanish<>English translator with four decades of professional experience. She has taught classes and workshops all over the world. She has written many articles and books on various aspects of interpreting and is the author of the Acebo training manuals for court and medical interpreters. She serves as deputy chair of ATA’s Certification Committee.

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