ATA practice test provides personal validation for translators

Today, I finally received the results of my practice test for the ATA certification exam, which I took earlier this year. I only completed the “A” passage, a translation of a general, usually journalistic text, which is the part of the exam that most people struggle with, according to ATA grader Jutta Diel-Dominique. I wanted to know how I would fare taking the exam in a discouraged language combination: from my native into my non-native language, i.e. German into English. Although I am confident in my translation abilities, I wanted to see if I could pass this rather challenging test – to find out whether I am ready to take the actual ATA certification exam, but also for myself, to see if I am as good a translator as I think I am.

I took this test in the cafeteria at my local fitness club with only two hard-copy dictionaries at my disposal, writing my answers by hand and feeling strangely reminded of my days taking the English Abitur at the culmination of my German high school career. Even though it was only a practice test, taken at my own leisure and with nothing but my self-esteem at stake, I was nervous. I timed myself and made sure I didn’t go over the 1.5 hours I would have for the passage in a real exam sitting.

I am happy to report that I passed the practice test without any major errors. I scored the highest ranking of “strong” in three out of four categories (usefulness/transfer, idiomatic writing, target mechanics), and an “acceptable” (one step down) in terminology/style. The few mistakes I made are things I now look at with a “Duh!” feeling – errors I could have easily avoided if I had just taken a little bit more time to think about my word choice.

Of course, this test is only a snapshot of my translation skills. But to me, it is a validation that I am doing my job well and delivering a product that I and my clients can be proud of. I plan on taking the actual ATA certification exam from German into English at the earliest possible date, hopefully during the 2013 ATA Annual Conference in San Antonio. I may not need an outside organization attesting to my German to English translation skills. But if anyone else ever does, having the ATA certification under my belt will be a nice bonus.

Translators’ Taboo: Translating into your non-native language

I’m going to come out and say some naughty words. Here it goes: I translate both into and out of my native German language.

Feel free to gasp.

As a professional translator, I am supposed to leave translations into my non-native tongue (i.e. English) to my more qualified (read: native English-speaking) colleagues. Since I didn’t learn English until I was in 5th grade and was taught by a teacher rather than my parents, I am presumably less adept at speaking English than someone whose first words included “mommy” rather than “Mama.”

Never mind that starting at the tender age of 12, I spent several hours a week learning the ins and outs of English grammar and vocabulary. As a high school foreign exchange student in the United States, I couldn’t understand my classmates’ troubles in trying to differentiate between “their” and “they’re.” After studying journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I graduated among the top of my class with the distinction of summa cum laude. My English was apparently good enough to edit our college newspaper and, after college, to write as a reporter for one of the largest newspapers in the United States, the Omaha World-Herald. It was good enough to earn my certificate in German to English translation from New York University with a 4.0 GPA, and to ace my classes in integrated marketing communication during grad school at West Virginia University.

Still, some translators will frown upon the fact that I translate into a language that wasn’t placed in my cradle. Here’s the kicker, though. I may have grown up speaking German, but after living in the United States since the age of 19, I don’t consider German to be my primary language anymore. I live in English, think in English, dream in English. I consider myself truly bilingual. My entire professional education happened in English, and since my translations focus on PR, marketing and journalistic texts, I would say that while German may be my native language, English is my “professional language.”

In a field such as marketing, where texts often draw on cultural context, it is important to understand every detail of the source. In some cases, only a native speaker of the source text might be able to pick up on a tiny nuance, which a non-native-speaker might miss. I dare say that producing a well-written marketing text is more dependent on a person’s creative writing skills than on which language he or she spoke in preschool.

What is more important than a translator’s native language, in my humble opinion, is the principle of a second set of eyes. Translations, whether produced by a native speaker or not, should always be proofread by another qualified translator. If the translation was produced by a non-native speaker, I’d say have it reviewed by a native speaker. I always have my texts reviewed, and I can honestly tell you that typically, they come back to me with only minor revisions that have nothing to do with the fact that I am not a native speaker of English.

I would like to know others’ opinions on this subject. Feel free to comment on this post, as I am genuinely interested in your points of view.

Taking Time Off When You’re Boss

Before I boarded my flight to Germany for my three-week vacation, I heard the same question over and over: “How can you take off work if you are the only person running your business?”

OK, to be honest, I never completely take time off. I always have my iPhone with me, and this time, I even splurged on Verizon’s ridiculously expensive overseas data plan ($25 for every 100 MB!). That way, I was able to check my emails and ensure that I didn’t miss any important inquiries from existing or potential clients. However, I limited the time I devoted to work to checking my emails once in the morning and once again before bed. Anything pressing got answered right away, the rest either got deleted, filed, or marked with a star for follow-up upon my return to the US. I also kept up with my duties as social media editor for the Colorado Translators Association, but limited myself to maintaining our social media accounts (thanks to HootSuite‘s scheduling option, this only required about half an hour every night) and writing one blog article for CTA’s website. All in all, I spent about an hour a day on work-related matters, which was enough to put my type A personality at ease but not so much that it interfered with my vacation.

Of course, for a German/English translator, annual visits to the Land of Sweet Chocolate could be considered as “work” in and of themselves. After all, you have to immerse yourself in the language you translate in order to stay up to date with current developments. (On this trip, for example, I learned that the word “Pfosten” (post/pole) has become a slang term along the lines of “moron” – at least in our neck of the woods of Upper-Palatinate.) Language is a living thing, and in order to master its nuances, you need to live and breathe it regularly. Technically, you could say I was working the whole time I was in Germany, but luckily, it didn’t feel that way.

At times like this, I love my job as a freelance translator. Being able to schedule your own vacation days is undoubtedly one of the greatest perks of being your own boss. As long as you are able to meet your income goals and keep your clients happy, you are free to take as many days off as you want. Back in my days as a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, I was lucky to get 2 weeks of vacation every year. I envied my husband, who was serving in the USAF at the time, for his 4 weeks of annual leave. These days, we can enjoy our time off together, as the only limitation to my vacation time is my own work ethic.

Thorough preparation is key

To prepare for my absence, I started about a month before I left, making sure I would have no translation deadlines falling into my vacation time and not accepting any new projects I couldn’t complete before hopping on the plane. I notified my clients of my limited availability about a week ahead of time, telling them they would still be able to reach me via email in case of an emergency. Luckily, I don’t have a lot of clients who depend on me right now, as I am purposely keeping my work load low this year in order to focus on continuing education, networking, marketing and growing my translation business.

My clients have been very understanding, and except for one email exchange about an upcoming project and a few requests for quotes, I was able to enjoy my time in Germany without work interruptions. Granted, I will have to make up for my time off now that I am back in Colorado, but I can do so at my own pace. After working as a freelancer for seven years, I wouldn’t give up this flexibility for an employee position if you paid me!

A few more tips if you plan on taking time off from your job as a solopreneur:

1. Set an out-of-office notification for your email, even if you will be checking your messages frequently. You never know what fun outing might keep you from your computer for a long time, so don’t make your (potential) clients wait and wonder.

2. Refer clients to a trusted colleague for urgent translation needs.

3. Take time off when other’s don’t – if everyone is going on vacation around the Fourth of July, consider taking your vacation early in June. That way, clients won’t have such a hard time trying to find someone who can fill in for you during your absence.

4. Schedule a time to keep up with work-related matters if you must, and stick to it – hold yourself accountable or ask someone else (a family member) to do it for you.

5. Set your availability status online if you are a member of online communities such as Some translation agencies with online platforms allow translators to make a note of their availability in their accounts, others might use calendars on Google Drive. Make sure your availability is always up to date.

6. Enjoy your well-deserved break!