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Testing Translators and Interpreters

The standard method to evaluate translators or interpreters is to subject them to a proficiency test. Certification may on occasion replace onsite testing, but most employers prefer to do their own, and most translators and interpreters, whether freelance or in-house, have to take such tests many times in their careers.

Few people volunteer for testing, and few professions include routine testing the way the translation and interpretation profession does. In most industries, a would-be entrant takes a series of courses or earns a degree, and then takes a standardized test for the profession. After that there may be occasional testing to maintain credentials, but the professional, whether in accounting, law, or medicine, is done. In many other professions, including various forms of engineering and computer programming, there is virtually no testing except as a part of the educational process of while earning certifications.

So the translation and interpretation profession is distinct. As is the testing. Many companies will send a would-be translator what is called a translation test, usually a text from a few paragraphs to a couple of pages long, and then have their own staff evaluate the translator's performance. Similarly, would-be interpreters are often put through performance tests, sometimes even on the telephone. Each company and organization has their own tests, and few give any credence to prior experience or testing done elsewhere. In other words, a translator or interpreter who has been working full time for a decade or more after completing and undergraduate or graduate education in the field can expect to take a proficiency or performance test for each new job applied for, in-house or freelance.

More interesting is the content and system of testing. Some organizations ask the translator or interpreter to come in, at their expense, for a round of testing. These organizations often prohibit their job applicants from bringing electronic dictionaries or glossaries, allowing only printed reference material, or in some cases, no reference material. The test itself is at times even done by hand, with no use of Web-based resources allowed. And few tests evaluate a translator's ability to use glossaries, dictionaries, or reference material on the Web, or machine-assistant translation tools. Interpreters are rarely tested on their ability to use interpretation equipment accurately and responsibility either.

Given the nature of testing, it is hardly surprising that most companies and organizations prefer to implement their own than rely on results obtained elsewhere. At the same time, they perpetuate the problems that may, at least in part, be motivating them to test job candidates themselves. Meanwhile, translators and interpreters, in particular freelancers, have to build into their rates the costs of being tested on a regular basis. And everyone in the industry should be wondering if these tests are meaningful in any particular way.

For better or worse, this situation is unlikely to change. The ATA certification exam has not and probably never will become recognized nationally as a form of accreditation for translators, and there is at present no such exam for interpreters. What is required for such exams to exist is a national organization with power and authority over its industry and practitioners. The ATA is barred from becoming such an organization by the U.S. Department of Justice, so the vicious circle continues.

Meanwhile, back in the trenches of daily life for translators and interpreters, there are several approaches to solving this problem. Besides the obvious and trivial ones of not changing jobs often or working hard to retain clients, there are a few strategies that seem to work well. First, insist that tests be short and meaningful, and share with other translators or interpreters which organizations and companies perform what kind of testing. Second, offer references and sample work in place of testing: these will sometimes be accepted and can save both time and money on both sides. Third, offer credentials, including degrees, certificates, or results from widely known exams; these may also be accepted in lieu of testing. There may not be any quick, simple solution to this uncomfortable problem, but translators and interpreters, as well as the organizations that hire them, can work together to ease the stress and frustration that testing often creates.

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