The What and Why of Certification Exam Conditions

As we move toward an online version of ATA’s certification exam, some long-standing exam conditions will be changing—things like bringing your own dictionaries and laptop to the exam sitting. Others, however, will remain the same. Here’s a review of the latter, with an explanation of why they’re applied to our testing program.

Three-Hour Time Limit: Most translators work under deadlines. Exam passages are approximately 250 words each, and candidates are required to complete two of them. This works out to fewer than 175 words/hour, which should be adequate for practicing translators to produce a good text, including time to proofread their work.

No-Return Exam: Certification exam passages take many hours to prepare in order to maintain a consistent level of difficulty from year to year and parity between the various language pairs tested. To preserve the integrity of these carefully vetted texts, we need to keep them confidential. Exams are therefore not returned and source text passages may not be copied or saved by candidates.

Open-Book but with Website Restrictions: Access to resources is generous but not unlimited to ensure the work submitted is the translator’s own. (See the link in the sidebar for more information on what’s permitted and what’s not.) If you’re wondering if a favorite online resource is permissible, the rule of thumb is to check if it has a forum to ask questions or allows chatting. If the answer to either is “yes,” it may not be used during the exam.

No Spelling or Grammar Checkers: Many candidates are surprised to learn that these common word processing tools are not allowed. Spelling and grammar skills are fundamental to proper language use, and professional translators should be well-versed in how to apply them. Candidates are encouraged to check spelling or points of grammar in online resources.

No Machine Translation or Other Automated Tools: There’s no question that machine translation is increasingly part of translators’ professional lives. The view of the Certification Program is that we need to know how to translate a text ourselves first in order to properly use or assess a computer-generated version. Our exam is designed to test a candidate’s own ability to employ translation techniques and transfer meaning without assistance from MT.

Use of a Code Number rather than Your Name: A key feature of our program is candidate anonymity. Graders never know who produced the texts they receive. Please be sure to follow the instructions about using this code, and not your name, on your exam materials.

Continuing Education Points (CEPs) Post-Certification: A hallmark of most certifications across a variety of sectors is that they are not “one and done.” Practitioners must continue to demonstrate that they’re using their skills and maintaining their knowledge of their field. ATA requires 20 CEPs every three years, and offers CEP credit for a variety of activities. Specific information on these categories and point values can be found on our website.

The Certification Program frequently hears that the exam conditions don’t mirror real-life working conditions, which is true. Other translator and interpreter organizations, such as the United Kingdom’s Institute of Translation and Interpreting, take a different approach in their credentialing process. Our position is that exams by their very nature are not examples of actual work conditions, and that we need to control the testing setting to maximize the validity of our methodology. We’ll continue to assess our system as we move into online testing but are confident that our exam conditions are appropriate for evaluating the skills we measure.

More About ATA’s Certification Exam

ATA Certification Main Website |

ATA Certification Handbook |

ATA Computerized Exam Online Resource List: What’s Permitted and What’s Not |

ATA Continuing Education Requirements |

Karl, Ben. “12 Extra-Linguistic Skills You Need to Master before Taking ATA’s Certification Exam,” The ATA Chronicle (January/February 2020), 38,

Michèle Hansen, CT is chair of ATA’s Certification Committee. An ATA-certified French>English translator and editor since 1990, she specializes in the health-related international development, medical, and pharmaceutical sectors. She previously served as administrator of ATA’s French Language Division.

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