Rites of Passage: Selecting and Preparing Source Texts for the Certification Exam

Ask an ATA certification exam grader to name the most difficult thing about the job, and chances are they’ll reply, “passage selection.” You might wonder what’s so hard about this task. If a group of graders needs a new passage, don’t they just find a random article in an online newspaper, copy and paste a few paragraphs onto a blank page, and add it to the exam packet? Well, there’s a bit more to it than that. The following will walk you through the multi-stage process of selecting, vetting, submitting, and approving an exam passage.

Passage Bank and Language-Specific Guidelines

The Certification Program’s policy is that each grader workgroup (the set of graders responsible for a given language pair to or from English—e.g., Arabic>English, English>Arabic, etc.) must maintain a bank of six passages per exam year. This bank consists of three active passages that are presented to candidates (who select two of the three to translate) and three backup passages that come into play if any of the active ones are spoiled due to a breach of passage security or another cause. After a certain time, active passages are retired and any unused backup passages are put into use. Retired passages may then be repurposed as practice tests.

Each grader workgroup is also required to develop language-specific guidelines (LSGs), consisting of common challenges for translators in their language pair and direction. For example, an LSG could state that a source language tends to have long, complex sentences that need to be split into two or more shorter sentences in translation. Other challenges are at the word level. For example, a given language may have many “false friends” (i.e., words in a foreign language bearing a deceptive resemblance to words in one’s own language), or perhaps terms that can be translated in different ways depending on context. In selecting and developing passages, graders look for texts that feature the challenges identified in the LSGs.

Selection Criteria

The first step in selecting a passage is to find a text in the source language that meets explicit criteria for passage suitability. Here are some key guidelines that all graders abide by when selecting passages:

Length: Source texts in English must be between 225 and 275 words. The length of source texts in other languages is judged by the average length of a translation into English.

Content: The subject matter should be readily familiar to an educated layperson. Topics that are controversial or potentially upsetting to a candidate are avoided.

Lexicon: The vocabulary should be nontechnical (i.e., require no particular knowledge of a specialized field). Thus, any specific terminology should be commonly known or readily accessible in a good general dictionary.

Reading Level: The source text’s sentence structure and higher-level organization should correspond to Level 3 as described by the U.S. government’s Interagency Language Roundtable in its scale for reading proficiency.1

In more concrete terms, the passage should present a clear and coherent progression of thought and reasoning in which the candidate must follow an argument or supported opinion and possibly author inference. Texts that present straightforward factual material are generally too easy, while highly specialized, esoteric, or stylistically idiosyncratic pieces are considered unduly difficult for candidates under exam conditions. Typical examples of English-language texts at the appropriate level are editorials in national newspapers, or articles in magazines aimed at an educated audience. More technical or academic material may also be used if adequate context is provided within the passage.

Even passages that meet the above criteria can be rejected for other reasons. For example, the source text may be too easily recognizable (e.g., Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech). Or the text may be available on a bilingual or multilingual website that includes the language being tested (e.g., the BBC World Service publishes news coverage in dozens of languages). Similarly, if it turns out that the text was not originally written in the selected source language—let’s say an online piece in English is actually a well-translated article from Agence France Presse—it’s automatically ruled out as an exam passage.

With these criteria in mind, let’s look at the steps for converting a raw text into an approved exam passage.

Initial Sourcing and Counterpart Review

Once a group of graders has found a text that satisfies the specified criteria, it’s edited for length, and some recasting of sentences may be done to eliminate unfair challenges or introduce desirable elements, but without distorting the style and tone of the original text. In other words, most passages are authentic—taken “from the wild,” so to speak—but they are typically modified to some degree to make them more suitable for exam purposes. All graders in the workgroup then decide whether a passage is worth pursuing. If it is, then it undergoes counterpart review. This means the prospective passage is sent to the language chair or another grader from the counterpart group (i.e., a native speaker of the source language), who checks the text for possible usage or spelling errors and confirms that the text is authentic (mainly that it’s not itself a translation).

Sample Translations and PSTF Review

Once a passage is cleared by the counterpart group, one or more graders prepare a sample translation of the text, working under actual exam conditions (i.e., using allowed resources and adhering to the time limit) to further assess the text’s suitability. If any unfair challenges or other problems are identified and the workgroup wishes to alter the text, the counterpart group is again consulted. Once the final text is decided on, the workgroup completes the passage selection form (PSF), which contains the source text, a sample translation, and lists at least three challenges at the word level and three challenges at the sentence level. These challenges must be described in English for the reviewer, a fellow grader serving as a member of the Passage Selection Task Force (PSTF), who doesn’t necessarily know the other language.

The PSTF reviewer’s task is to confirm that the proposed passage satisfies program-wide standards for passages and that the challenges are articulated adequately. The reviewer may go back to the workgroup with questions or proposed tweaks. Once the passage is approved, it’s added to the workgroup’s queue of passages for future use, which is maintained by Certification Program Manager Caron Bailey. At this point, any graders who haven’t already done so prepare a sample translation of the passage under actual exam conditions. The aim here is to identify problems that haven’t been spotted thus far (e.g., ambiguities) and that necessitate modification of the passage before it’s used in an actual exam. Should any changes arise at this point, the revised passage is submitted to Caron.

Passage-Specific Guidelines

After this long series of steps is completed, including all the grader translations, the life of the passage is just beginning. To prepare for marking candidates’ translations, the team of graders develop a set of passage-specific guidelines, or PSGs. (We’re fond of acronyms in this program!) These guidelines contain a list of challenges and possible translations, both acceptable and unacceptable, that graders agree to score the same way. For example, the PSGs might specify that translating the same source term as “Treasury Ministry” in one paragraph and “Finance Ministry” in the next merits a four-point Cohesion Error (or COH4), given the significant impact on the meaning and usefulness of the translation, whereas a misplaced comma might be only a one-point Punctuation Error (or P1). (See the Framework for Standardized Error Marking2 and the Flowchart for Error Point Decisions3 on ATA’s website.) The idea is to eliminate subjectivity in grading as much as possible, even though each candidate produces a unique translation that’s graded in a unique manner. As long as a passage is in use, its PSGs are discussed (sometimes vehemently!) and modified as new candidate translations come in. When the passage in question is retired, the corresponding PSGs continue to be consulted and amended if the passage becomes a practice test.

From this general description, you can probably tell why ATA certification exam graders find passage selection so challenging. It’s a complex process requiring adherence to various criteria. In view of the amount of time and effort that goes into each exam text in every language pair, it’s no surprise that passage security is a central concern in administering the exam. Replacing a spoiled passage is no small matter!

  1. Interagency Language Roundtable Language Skill Level Descriptions—Reading.
  2. Framework for Standardized Error Marking.
  3. Flowchart for Error Point Decisions.

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. larry@translab.us

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. hmikkelson@gmail.com

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. david@bullcitylang.com

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