“I Failed the Practice Test. Now What?”

By David Stephenson

By now most people are aware that taking a practice test is a highly effective way to assess one’s readiness to take ATA’s certification exam. Each practice test is a former exam passage that’s evaluated by a member of the same team that grades the actual exam, applying the same grading standards and methods. But unlike the exam, which is not returned to the candidate after grading, the marked practice test is indeed sent to the candidate, together with feedback. By closely examining the error markings and the input provided by the grader, test takers can get a good idea of the areas in which they need more work before registering for the exam.

Let’s say you’ve taken this strongly recommended step before sitting for the exam—and your practice test arrives back with a failing score. What do you do now?

First, consider the score. A passing score on the exam (and the practice test) is 17 error points or fewer. If your score is, say, in the low 20s, you might be ready for the exam, and you just need to be a little more meticulous when testing. But if your score is higher than that—especially if it’s 30 or higher—the chances are slim that you’ll be able to pass the exam without further practical training or education. So, let’s consider some options.

No matter what your score, you should certainly take a close look at the specific error markings on your test and try to identify patterns. When your marked exam is returned to you, it’s accompanied by the Framework for Standardized Error Marking1, which will help you identify these patterns. Are most of your errors “mechanical” (in the bottom section of the Framework), i.e., grammar or usage errors in the target language? Or did you have trouble understanding the source text? Or is neither of these aspects a problem, but transferring meaning between the source and target languages was tricky? Transfer errors are in the top section of the Framework. Deciding on your next steps will depend in part on the answers to these questions.

If mechanical errors are an issue, then consider formal study or a refresher of your target language, especially if you’re not a native speaker. On the other hand, problems understanding what’s going on in the passage could point to a need for further study of the source language. If you’re having trouble with the transfer aspect, then targeted translator training may be in order.

But short of going back to school, there are plenty of other good ways to prepare for the exam, especially if your practice test score is relatively low:

  • Read: Exam passages tend to present a progression of thought and reasoning, a writing style often found in, say, newspaper editorials or opinion pieces, essays, or magazine articles. So, find sources like this in your source and your target language and read them. This will help you get a better feel for the style and register you’re likely to encounter on the exam, together with cohesive elements that writers use to advance their arguments.
  • Practice: Spend time doing practice translations of some of your reading materials, and ask a trusted colleague to evaluate your work. Alternatively, you could set aside your practice translation for a while and then back-translate it for comparison with the source text. This will reveal not only meaning shifts, but also ambiguities you may have unintentionally introduced in your translation.
  • Ask Around: If you have colleagues who have passed the exam, ask them for tips about how they prepared.
  • Join a Study Group: In some language pairs, ATA members have formed study groups in which individuals critique each other’s work and lend mutual support. Candidates who have participated in these collaborative efforts tend to perform better on the exam. If no such group exists for your language pair, consider starting one.2
  • Attend Conference Sessions: Each year at ATA’s Annual Conference, sessions are offered on preparing for the exam in some specific language pairs. Occasionally these sessions are offered at chapter gatherings as well. If a session is offered in your pair, this is a great way to get an inside look at the exam and hone your skills.
  • View Webinars: Can’t make it to the conference? Check out webinars focusing not only on the certification exam itself, but also on improving your translation performance in general.
  • Leverage the Website: ATA’s website has a wealth of information3 about how errors are marked and what the error categories in the framework mean. Having a clearer understanding of how graders approach your work will give you a leg up in the exam.
  • Read this Column: Almost every issue of The ATA Chronicle features content about the exam, much of it extremely helpful for prospective candidates. For example, a recent article4 addressed at length the age-old question of how “literal” or “free” a candidate should be in their translation.

After all this, if you believe you’ve improved enough to try the exam, consider first doing another practice test. Most language pairs offer two or three practice tests, so consider taking full advantage of that. While performance on the practice test is somewhat predictive of how you’ll fare on the exam, a failing score doesn’t have to be the end of the story. If you harness your resources and persevere, you might just make it to the finish line and ultimately earn ATA certification.

  1. ATA Framework for Standardized Error Marking.
  2. Knapp, Jason. “Forming a Peer Study Group to Prepare for ATA’s Certification Exam,” The ATA Chronicle (May/June 2022).
  3. See ATA’s website for an explanation of how the exam is graded.
  4. Bogoslaw, Larry, and Holly Mikkelson. “Demystifying ATA’s Certification Exam: Better Off ‘Literal’ or ‘Free’?” The ATA Chronicle (March/April 2022).

David Stephenson, CT is chair of ATA’s Certification Committee. An ATA-certified German>English, Dutch>English, and Croatian>English translator, he has been an independent translator for over 30 years, specializing in civil litigation and creative nonfiction. He was the 2022 recipient of ATA’s Impact Award. david@bullcitylang.com

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