Why isn't there certification in all Slavic languages? by Boris Silversteyn

People often ask: “Why isn't there certification in all Slavic languages?”

Indeed, currently ATA certification exams are only offered for the Russian-English, English-Croatian, English-Russian and English-Ukrainian SLD language pairs. Why not the rest?

A short answer is because it is difficult—I would say, extremely difficult—to establish ATA certification for a new language pair. A long answer is that the process is complicated, protracted, and can only be brought to fruition by a group of dedicated and selfless (I will explain the last one a bit later) translators led by a determined champion of the cause.

The process for establishing certification for a new language combination is described in great detail on the ATA website.

Below I will try to explain the process using as an example the establishment of English-Ukrainian certification. It all started when Vadim Khazin took the matter into his own hands and contacted several colleagues to ask if they would volunteer to join him and form a committee to explore the possibility of creating the new language combination. Such a committee must include at least four people, and Vadim was able to talk three of his colleagues who met the program requirements (more about it in a moment) into joining him in this endeavor.

Committee members must meet eligibility requirements for ATA’s certification exam and be willing to become graders after the language combination is approved by ATA. If they are approved as graders, they forfeit their opportunity to become certified until the exam year after they are no longer involved in grading or passage selection. This means that these people will be grading the exams of other people, some of whom will become certified, while not being able to take the exam themselves or become certified until several years after the exam is first offered. Talk about selflessness!

Vadim was selected the committee chair and established formal contact with the Certification Committee.

The next thing the committee members needed to do was contact English-Ukrainian translators, both ATA members and non-members, asking if they were interested in taking the exam. The list of those interested had to include at least 50 names, 25 of whom were ATA members who listed English-Ukrainian combination in their profiles in ATA’s Directory of Translation and Interpreting Services. At least ten people on the list had to sign a non-binding letter of intent to take the certification exam within two years after it is first offered. Only those who meet the eligibility requirements for ATA’s certification exam may sign the letter.

At least five of those who signed the letter of intent, excluding members of the committee, also had to indicate that they were willing to become graders after passing the exam and becoming certified.

The list, the letters of intent and the application to establish the English-Ukrainian language combination were submitted to ATA Headquarters. After the Certification Committee approved the application, the prescribed four-year period for completion of the process began. (If the process is not completed in four years, you are back to square one).

The committee chair and members of the English-Ukrainian language combination establishment group agreed to become the language chair and grader workgroup. It should be noted that if they did not want to do this they would have instead needed to locate a different group of eligible people (see above) to volunteer to form the workgroup that would have to undergo grader training. (Some committee members were already graders for the English-Russian combination, so they did not need to have additional training).

Well, getting the list compiled and letters signed was the easy part. The next steps, where the real work was, were selecting exam passages, getting them approved, and preparing grading guidelines. This was the most time consuming and labor intensive part of the process.

It started with selecting two sets of three exam passages each—A, B and C. Passage A must be a general text that expresses a view, sets forth an argument or presents a new idea. Passage B may be technical, scientific or medical in content. Passage C may be financial, business or legal. The passages had to meet certain ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) reading skill requirements—level 3 to 3+ for passage A and level 2+ to 3 for passages B and C (see gov.ilr.org).

The selected passages, with sample translations, were sent for approval to the Certification Program’s Passage Selection Task Force (PSTF). It is not unusual for passages not to be approved initially and to need updating or replacement; the English-Ukrainian group passages were no exception. After the passages were finally approved by the PSTF they needed to be translated by all four graders.

The next step was for graders to review the translated passages; identify, analyze and categorize errors; and create so-called passage-specific guide lines (PSGs), to be used in grading future exams.

All passage related materials were submitted to the Certification Committee. After reviewing the materials, the Committee recommended approval of the English-Ukrainian language combination, and the Board voted to establish the new combination.

Currently, the passage set requirements are slightly different. Initially, one set (the practice set) is required; passage-specific and language-specific grading guidelines are prepared; this set will be used for practice tests. Then two more sets must be prepared and approved for use as actual exams. Eventually, each grading workgroup must have a passage bank of four complete sets of three passages each, in addition to a practice test set.

We started in 2005; the ATA Board approved the establishment of English-Ukrainian certification in November 2006; and in 2007 we had the first practice test and actual certification exam.

So now that you know how to do it, go and do it. It’s not rocket science—we did it, you can too! 

Good luck.


KateJan's picture

I think there is more language pairs, e.g. English into Polish. PL into EN was offered a few years ago, but not anymore - it only tells you how hard it is to keep it going.

nfavorov's picture

Boris Silversteyn does a good job of describing how onerous the task of establishing a new language pair is, but if anyone reading this blog is thinking of taking the plunge, on the plus side, being a grader is an incredible learning experience that brings you into contact with an army of dedicated and thoughtful people working hard to increase the objectivity of the certification process. I have never been directly involved in establishing a language pair (I'm a Rus>Eng grader), but I watched with admiration as the Croatian>English and English>Ukrainian pairs were established by extremely dedicated people. It's a lot of work, but also very rewarding.