Certified vs non-certified translator

It isn’t easy being a translation buyer.

You would think that finding someone to translate your website, birth certificate or press release can’t be that hard.

Alas, just google “translator” and your desired language and you will find yourself facing thousands of choices. You may notice that some translators claim to be certified while others don’t. What’s the difference? And does it matter?

Let me help you narrow down your choices, save time – and maybe even money.

In the United States, a certified translator is a translator who has passed the certification exam of the American Translators Association (ATA). This voluntary test allows translators to prove their professional skills in a controlled setting. Established in 1973, it is the only official confirmation of a translator’s abilities in the general translation market in the US. The test is graded by experienced translators who have passed the exam themselves. Upon successful completion of the exam, a translator may carry the professional credential CT.

This is not to be confused with a certificate in translation, which translators can earn at various universities. For example, I completed a certificate in German to English translation at New York University, but that didn’t make me a certified translator.

Passing the ATA exam is no easy feat. Depending on the language combination, the pass rate is anywhere between 9% and 29%. The test is not for beginning translators – rather, it is aimed at mid-level professionals with several years of translation experience under their belts. At $300 ($525 as of January 1, 2019) per attempt, it is also a financial investment that translators do not take lightly. Thus, taking the ATA exam reflects a commitment to the profession and a desire to stand out among the competition.

But does that mean certified translators are better than non-certified translators?

I took the ATA exam in April of 2018. A month later, I received notice that I had passed the test and could now add the CT credential to my name. From one day to the next, I became a certified translator. Did I become a better translator over night? Of course not. The quality of my translations was the same at the beginning of the year, when I was not a certified translator, as it is now that I am a certified translator.

Passing the ATA exam validates a translator’s professional competence, but that doesn’t mean a non-certified translator cannot have the same skills. Some translators may not perform well in test taking situations. Some may not see a need to take the ATA exam because their business is flourishing without adding this feather to their cap. And some may not be able to take the ATA exam because it is not available in all language combinations.

Moreover, the ATA exam only measures general translation skills. It does not assess knowledge and experience in a specific field (such as medical, legal or marketing). It also does not test a translator’s business acumen. Even a certified translator can lack in the communication department or have trouble sticking to deadlines. Finally, a certified translator may charge more than a colleague without certification.

So should you hire a certified translator over a non-certified translator?

It depends on your expectations and your level of skepticism. With thousands of people offering translation services online, choosing a certified translator may bring you peace of mind. In an unregulated industry, ATA certification offers a measure of credibility. Note that some other countries offer similar standards, such as the Institute of Translation and Interpreting’s Qualified Translator Assessment in the UK or the “Staatliche Prüfung” (state examination) in Germany.

But if you find a translator with extensive experience, great testimonials and an impressive portfolio, lack of certification should not be a deterrent.

In the end, it comes down to trust. Do your research and check out potential candidates before you hire any professional. Then decide who is the best fit based on your needs – not some credential.


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About the author - Marion Rhodes

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