Professional Certification: What is it? Do I need it? How do I get it?

If you’re ATA-accredited in all the language pairs in which you offer service, you may soon be able to drop this script from your repertoire. In the next ATA election, the ballot will include a proposal to amend the association’s bylaws, replacing the term “accreditation” with “certification.” This is one of several changes that ATA’s Board of Directors resolved to pursue on the recommendation of Michael S. Hamm, an expert in the field of voluntary certification who was commissioned to evaluate ATA’s accreditation program. But unlike the many changes already in place or scheduled to take effect in 2004, this one requires a vote of the membership. In the executive summary he submitted to ATA, Hamm offers this explanation:

Programs that evaluate the knowledge, skills, and abilities of individuals are typically referred to as certification bodies in the credentialing world. Accreditation bodies usually evaluate organizations, systems, or entities other than people. Unfortunately, referring to this process as accreditation is sending a mixed message....Clarification of this terminology will benefit ATA as well as its certificants and other stakeholders.1

I urge active ATA members to vote for the proposed amendment.

But the real issue underlying the questions in the subtitle is, How can we present ourselves in the best possible light (with due attention to ethics) so that potential clients will have confidence in our ability to perform the needed tasks and be willing to pay our price? And of course, for buyers of our services, the other side of the coin is, How can I be reasonably assured of contracting with someone capable of meeting my or my client’s needs?

In preparation for this article, I invited members of ATA’s Translation Company Division and others to respond to an informal survey about professional certification and its role in their selection of translators and interpreters. While the number of responses (9) was not statistically significant, the respondents represent a good cross-section of buyers of T&I services with varying degrees of insider knowledge, some of whom are also practitioners. I was primarily looking for insights that would validate, clarify, or modify impressions I had formed over 20 years of reading and working in the field. I was gratified to find that my impressions were validated, and I gathered a wealth of commentary from which to draw for the article. My thanks to all who took time to respond.

What is professional certification?

The most concise, on-target definition of a “certified” translator or interpreter came from Pat Newman, a past president of ATA and long-time translation manager for a science and engineering laboratory. Let’s take it as our working definition: “One whose interpretation or translation competence has been tested and approved by a professional association or governmental body.” Though ATA’s credential is currently called “accreditation,” it falls within this definition. Therefore, for purposes of this discussion, please understand “certification” to include ATA accreditation.

A key element of any professional certification is testing. Most respondents to my survey, if they did not mention it explicitly, cited credentials here and abroad that are known to be based on testing. Some also named training as part of the equation, but two respondents mentioned only training in their definition of “certification.” Training can take the form of community education courses or one-day conferences and seminars, which, though useful, come only with a certificate of attendance or completion. Training may also be offered by an employer as preparation for work in a particular company or agency. But even if we rule out these kinds of training, we are left with the question, Does a degree or certificate in translating or interpreting from a recognized institution of higher learning constitute professional certification?

I asked Dr. Michael S. Doyle, of the Department of Languages and Culture Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, whether graduates of his department’s long-established Certificate in Translating program or its new M.A. program in Spanish Translating and Translation Studies could be considered “professionally certified.” This was his response:

When I think of a “certified translator,” it is definitely along the lines of “ATA-accredited.” For me, earning an academic or workshop certificate simply means that the institution’s requirements (course work, grade-point average, etc.) have been met for that particular certificate. We say that our certificates in translating serve as preparation for taking (no guarantee of passing, of course) the ATA accreditation exams. But to be certified or accredited as a professional translator goes beyond the coursework and institutional requirements completed. It entails such recognition by a professional certifying or accrediting agency or association, just as occurs with accountants, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals.2

Dr. Virginia Benmaman, director of the M.A. Program in Bilingual Legal Interpreting at the College of Charleston (South Carolina), has a similar perspective:

Our programs are academic; that means academic graduate credit is awarded upon successful completion of either program. Our exit examination in the M.A. program offers two options. The first is a passing grade on an official court certification test, that is, the consortium or the federal interpreting examination, or one that is specific to a court jurisdiction. The second option is taking the exit examination at our institution. This examination includes a written part that tests much of what has been taught in our courses and an oral part, similar to the format of the court certification exams. This second option only allows the student to graduate with an M.A. degree. It is not a court certification examination. We do not offer a certification exam as part of the program. If the student opts for the first choice, that student can graduate with an academic degree and official court certification.

So while it is possible to exit the College of Charleston program as a “certified” court interpreter, it is not by virtue of one’s having completed the training, but by virtue of one’s having passed a test given by an independent certifying body.

Some buyers of language services regard passing the U.S. Department of State examination as a valuable professional credential. The test for translators is at least as hard to pass as ATA’s accreditation test. The State Department also has tests for escort (consecutive) and conference (simultaneous) interpreters, the latter requiring a higher level of skill. However, these tests are given only to candidates for actual employment or contract work in the Department. Furthermore, and more importantly, the State Department does not certify any translators or interpreters, according to Shuckran Kamal, senior Arabic language translator in the Department’s Office of Language Services. After describing the testing levels for various positions in the Department, Kamal emphasized once again that “passing the test does not (repeat not) mean certification.”

I should point out that governments in the U.S. are not generally in the business of certifying people. They may test candidates for employment or contract work in a particular department or agency, as in the case of the State Department, but certification is normally awarded by independent professional organizations. A notable exception in the area of language services is court interpreter certification. But even the government-sponsored court interpreter certification programs profiled in the sidebar at the end of this article are administered with the help of independent bodies under contract.

While some translation companies test and “qualify” or even “certify” their subcontractors, these credentials are of limited value in the general marketplace. That is not to deny their value as means for a translation company to determine whether a potential subcontractor meets its standards. Michael Collins, of Global Translation Systems, Inc., in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, says his company uses a short test of its own to screen applicants. “We do not really use the term ‘certified’ with translators or interpreters who work for us, unless they are court-certified interpreters,” says Collins. “In some cases, when asked by a client to supply the credentials of a given translator, we may indicate whether that person was certified/licensed in another country or possesses accreditation of some kind.”

One more aspect of our working definition of a certified translator or interpreter merits attention: “One whose interpretation or translation competence has been tested....” Certificates of language proficiency or credentials for foreign-language correspondents or teachers, for example, are not translating and interpreting credentials, even if translating or interpreting was included in the test.

Do I need it?

If you already have all the work you need and want, a wealth of satisfied clients who keep coming back and sending you referrals, you probably don’t need professional certification. Collins offers this view:

If a translator lists ATA accreditation, it is a plus because it indicates a personal investment by that person in his or her profession. However, the decisive factors are a person’s experience and how well he or she does on a short test given by us. After that, the translator’s work is subject to review by our editors, and that work must maintain a consistent quality standard for us to continue employing him or her.

In fact, most survey respondents mentioned experience, especially in the relevant subject area, as a critical factor in their decision to try a given translator or interpreter for the first time.

For beginning translators and interpreters, this is not welcome news. Suffice it to say that certification helps establish your credibility as a professional. The less experience you have, the more important credentials become, and in some cases they can be decisive. “For languages where ATA accreditation is offered, we do not consider any translator who is not ATA accredited,” writes Richard Paegelow, managing director of Inline Translation Services, Inc., in Glendale, California.

Dr. Jiri Stejskal, ATA treasurer and president of CETRA, Inc., also prefers ATA-accredited translators, if accreditation is available for the given language; if it is not, active ATA members are preferred over associate members. “For others, including translators living abroad,” says Stejskal, “certification by CTIC [Canadian Translators and Interpreters Council] or NAATI [National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters, Australia] is preferred; otherwise, the decision is based on their résumé rather than a certificate.”

Newman looks for references from clients in the same general business as hers, ATA accreditation, college degrees in translation or interpretation, State Department credentials, a résumé showing long experience in the subject areas she is interested in, and sample translations with both source- and target-language versions given.

Most respondents mentioned formal education and training as a factor in deciding whether to try a new translator or interpreter, though some placed less emphasis on it. We have already established that training alone does not lead to certification, even if it results in a certificate. But training may be a prerequisite for taking a certification test—e.g., the two-day training required by the Consortium of the National Center for State Courts Interpreter Certification Program—and it is likely to help in any testing situation. Beginning in January 2004, candidates wishing to sit for ATA’s accreditation test will have to meet eligibility requirements that combine education and training with experience. The higher the level of education, the less experience is required.

Sounds like a Catch-22, doesn’t it? You need experience to get certified, and you need certification to get experience. But there is hope. Translator and interpreter training is a relatively new development in the U.S. Many of us got our start in the field just by diving in and doing it, thanks to a mentor, encouraging employer, or trusting client. Nevertheless, certification is a worthy goal for anyone serious about advancing in the profession, and especially the newcomer.

How do I get it?

Back to our working definition: A certified translator or interpreter is one whose interpretation or translation competence has been tested and approved by a professional association or governmental body. There are very few certification programs for translators or interpreters available in the U.S. on the national level. The ATA, with its 30-year-old accreditation program, is clearly the leading, if not the only, body in the U.S. that accredits or certifies translators.

Interpreter certification is largely limited to the field of court interpreting between English and Spanish. The U.S. Federal Court Certification also has exams for Navajo and

Haitian-Creole, but there are no plans to administer them in the near future; rather, efforts are now being channeled toward the development of exams in additional languages. Some states certify court interpreters in other languages through the Consortium of the National Center for State Courts. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators recently established a certification program that tests a candidate’s competence in both translating and interpreting. For more information on these programs, see the sidebar at the end of this article.

Formal certification for medical interpreters is available in the State of Washington, and programs are in the development stage in other states. In the Carolinas, medical interpreter certification still appears to be a long way off, though the need is widely recognized.

Professional certification for translators and interpreters is also available in other countries. Jiri Stejskal has been researching the certification available in other countries for the past two years and publishing the results in the ATA Chronicle. Each article features a particular country or region. ATA members can download past issues of the ATA Chronicle from the Members Only section of the association’s website at

www.atanet.org. But first, you may want to click on the ATA Chronicle link, which lists the articles in each issue, to determine which issue you need. If you are not an ATA member or have difficulty downloading the file, Stejskal has graciously offered to help. He can be reached at jiri@cetra.com. Also see Stejskal’s articles about certification in North America in the June and July issues of the ATA Chronicle.

No Blanket Claims

Remember that certification is specific to the skill(s) tested (e.g., translating or interpreting, the latter in consecutive or simultaneous mode) and to language pair and direction. Any claim of certification by a translator or interpreter is meaningless unless accompanied by this information as well as the name of a verifiable certifying body. An uninitiated client might be impressed with someone whose letterhead or business card bears the blanket claim of “certified translator/interpreter,” thereby implying that it applies to all the language pairs in which service is offered. But this breach of professional ethics is likely to draw censure from the certifying body if it becomes known, and will diminish your credibility in the eyes of knowledgeable clients and colleagues in any case.

Now then, if your career could use a boost, review your qualifications and consider doing what it takes to earn professional certification, either through one of the programs listed in the sidebar or through other avenues mentioned in this article. You might even check into opportunities in your state for helping to develop a certification program—especially if you specialize in medical interpreting, where the need is great.

Where can I get more information?

American Translators Association (ATA) Accreditation
Information on one of the most widely recognized professional credentials for translators in the U.S., available in 24 language pairs, is available from ATA (
www.atanet.org; (703) 683-6100; ata@atanet.org).

Consortium for State Court Interpreter Certification

A program of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to the improvement of justice. Certification for Spanish is available in 29 states, some of which also certify in other languages. For details and links to websites of the individual state programs, see www.ncsconline.org/D_Research/CourtInterp.html. Note: If your state is not a member of the Consortium, you may be able to take the examination in another state for a higher (nonsubsidized) fee. However, member states may restrict their programs to state residents because of the high demand.

Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination (FCICE)

A program of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, administered by the NCSC (see above). Currently, only the Spanish examination is being administered,  though Navajo and Haitian-Creole certification exists. Contact: www.uscourts.gov/interpretprog/interp_prog.html; (916) 263-3494; FCICE-spanish@cps.ca.gov or marijke_van_der_heide@ao.uscourts.gov.

National Judiciary Interpreters and Translators Certification (NJITC)

A new credential (2002) offered by the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators to members and nonmembers. Currently available only for Spanish>English. Candidates must pass both a written and an oral examination to earn the credential. Contact: www.najit.org; (206) 367-8704; headquarters@najit.org.



Books | Business | Career | Certification | Content | Dictionaries | Documents | Education | Finance | Free Translation | Freelancers | Globalization | Interpretation | Interpreters | Jobs | Language | Legal | Letters | Localization | Marketing | Online Translation | Proofreading | Resume | Services | Software | Subtitling | Tips | Tools | Translation | Translators | Website