Posted by: patenttranslator | June 4, 2014

Our Translators/Interpreters Must Periodically Pass Rigorous Tests and Other Lies

About 25 years ago, in 1988 or 89, I passed with flying colors a difficult test administered by Berlitz Languages, a well known translation agency, to aspiring interpreters who wanted to interpret at the hearings of the Immigration Court in San Francisco.

I was back then just starting my career as a translator. I had no idea whether I wanted only to translate, or translate and interpret as well, and neither did I know whether I wanted to specialize in a certain field and what that field would be. I simply sent a dozen résumés to translation agencies in the city and then accepted whatever offer they would throw at me.

It took me a couple of years to realize that based on my education and interests, the best way to use my master’s degree in Japanese and English studies would be to specialize in translation of Japanese patents to English. It would take me a few more years to add to my tools of trade also translation of patents from German, French, Russian and a few other Slavic languages.

Berlitz Languages needed a Czech interpreter for a hearing at the Immigration Court in Financial District and because they had just received my résumé, they called me to test my interpreting abilities. I was sure that I would pass the test because I was pretty cocky back then when it came to my abilities to do just about anything, although I did not really interpret anything before in my life, with the exception of the time when I was interpreting about 8 years ago for about a month for a Japanese film producer and couple of Japanese actors who were shooting a movie in Prague.

Here is what the rigorous test looked like: The man who was answering the telephone in the Berlitz office on Market Street brought me a text on a sheet of paper and a tape recorder and said: “Now, take a look at this paragraph, and when you’re ready, translate it into Czech.” On the sheet of paper was a paragraph full of legal jargon in English having to do with immigration law.

I had no idea how to say something like that in Czech because I have never done anything like that before in my life. But since I had a pretty good idea that the Berlitz coordinator had no idea what the correct translation of these terms would be either, I just said something in Czech that I thought would more or less corresponded to the general subject (to the extent that I was able to understand it).

“OK”, said the man, “thanks”, and he left me standing there because he had to answer the phone again. When he was done with the phone, he told me at what time the immigration hearing would start the next day and he gave me the address of the court.

Although I am certain that nobody ever listened to that tape since nobody ever asked me about it, they probably just recorded over it when another “test” was given to another “Berlitz-certified interpreter”, I did OK at the immigration hearing. The only minor glitch was that unbeknownst to Berlitz personnel and to me, the client spoke Slovak rather than Czech. But both the client and the judge accepted me as a substitution Czech interpreter (since they really had no choice). Did the Berlitz employee who tested me know that Slovak is not the same language as Czech and that there is no language called “Czechoslovakian”? Who knows. He never told me that this was for a Slovak client, not a Czech one.


 This was an example of how “strict processes and periodical tests” were administered by translation agencies before they came up with the clever idea to advertise on their websites that all of their translators and interpreters are periodically tested and evaluated as a requirement for maintaining their “ISO-certified status” for “ISO 9001:2008, ISO 13485:2003 and EN15038 certifications.”

Many translation agencies will simply make things out of whole cloth (although they probably keep fake records of all tests and procedures). And why not? Most of the advertising surrounding us everywhere we go is based on half-truths and blatant lies.

I don’t really blame creative managers of translation agencies for coming up with ingenious schemes such as the ISO/EN and other types of certifications. Berlitz came up with a similar idea 30 years ago, and it worked for them very well for a while. It worked well as a clever marketing ploy, because that is all these claims generally are.

This does not mean that it is not possible to create a system for certification of translators and interpreters. In some countries, for example in Europe and in Latin America, only translators and interpreters who have a degree in translation are allowed to work as qualified translators and interpreters. And some courts have created their own system for certification of interpreters, and some of these system presumably work well.

In many other occupations, licensing is strictly enforced.

I checked at the place where I get my haircuts: hair stylists must have a license in all states in this country. If you want to work as a hairdresser, you must have specialized education and hundreds of hours of experience as a trainee first. But since translation is an unregulated business in the United States, you don’t need any of that nonsense here and anybody can just hang out a shingle and call himself a translator upon payment of a modest fee for a generic business license.

It is of course a good thing that the City Hall is not in the business of certifying translators. Nobody at the City Hall in my town, and probably in your town either, wold be qualified to do that.

But it is also a bad thing, because in the absence of a reliable certification system that could be based on specialized education and years of experience, creative marketing types have come up with the idea of “our own strict certification test”, and “ISO 9001:2008, ISO 13485:2003” and “EN15038 certification”, which is just a marketing ploy when it comes to translation as I wrote for example in this post.

Lawyers must pass a difficult bar exam, physicians must pass a rigorous medical licensing test and then they must work for years as “residents”, but the fact is that there are no magical tests or other requirements that would guarantee that a translator or interpreter is fully qualified, at least not in this country.

The only way to determine whether a translator or interpreter is in fact qualified to perform a certain task is to take a close look at the translator’s education, specialty and experience.

But because translation agencies are brokers standing between the translator and the customer, it is very much in their interest to prevent direct contact between the translators and the clients, which is how various strict in-house tests, ISO/EN certifications and other convenient lies came into being in the so-called translation industry.


  1. Ah, yes, ye old certification matter. Is it only by the product that one can judge translations and interpreting assignments? As a budding freelance translator and interpreter, I see this to be the only surefire way. And to some extent it’s the same for doctors and lawyers. Just because the man’s a lawyer doesn’t mean he is a GOOD lawyer—for that you need a recommendation, you need to know someone, you need to know the person! Are we perhaps relying too much on a “certification” being the magic key to tell us someone is a good translator or interpreter? That someone has some kind of certification at least tells us that person cares enough or is professional in some way, in some part of the world and has gone through some standard process. But I don’t know that it will ever tell us that they are a GOOD translator or interpreter. I’m pretty sure Judy Jenner is an awesome interpreter, yet she failed the federal interpreter exam. Are we back to the old “she scored high on the test because she’s good at taking that type of test” situation?

    A colleague passed me some work recently, some fairly technical stuff, and I’m very excited about it, but they know I don’t have buckets of experience in that area. It’s a fun situation for me because I get to learn about an area I want to specialize in and he’ll be checking the work to be sure it’s all hunky dory. But his comment was that he had previously used ATA certified translators for other massive jobs that had to be split up and that a couple of them were simply terrible; all those errors that we all complain about being incredibly glaring.

    So far I am getting 80% of my work from other translators, and I love that, I love working with them. Even if you’re certified they’re not coming back if you’re no good. And there’s no one who knows it better than our own colleagues in the industry. I know there will always be more more work, more translating, more interpreting—it’s the nature of the world we are living in and the one we’ve always inhabited. So what do you think Steve, about building a reputation instead of focusing on certification? By the way I’m a Certified Expert Translator by the Judiciary Council of the State of Jalisco. 🙂


  2. 1.

    “So what do you think Steve, about building a reputation instead of focusing on certification?”

    Well, I am certainly not focusing on certification, am I?

    I am mostly focusing on various types of bogus certifications whle trying to deconstruct them and let people know that we have no choice but to use our brain in these matters.

    And I am not mentioning ATA certification on purpose as I have already written a few posts about this association that were less than flattering and don’t want to overdo it.

    I will just repeat again one thing in this respect: Although I have been translating patents for patent law firms for more than a quarter century, not once has any of these clients asked me whether I am and ATA member or an ATA-certified translator.

    Which leads me to believe that they either don’t that ATA exists, or if they do know, that they don’t care about this particular association or its certification.


    “By the way I’m a Certified Expert Translator by the Judiciary Council of the State of Jalisco. :)”

    Yes, I believe that this is the best way to do this.


  3. […] About 25 years ago, in 1988 or 89, I passed with flying colors a difficult test administered by Berlitz Languages, a well known translation agency, to aspiring interpreters who wanted to int…  […]


  4. As I have said on previous occasions, the practical option is to develop a system of ‘accreditation’ ourselves, which is what I am working on to keep me out of the pub 🙂


    • You could work on it in the pub too.

      It might even be more fun that way.


  5. Great post, as always.

    While I agree with you on principle, I know translators who have fancy translation degrees and are terrible, as I know translators without formal training/education who are great. The same can be said for doctors, lawyers, and hair stylists I suppose… So I think the best way is a happy mix of training, experience, and reputation (i.e. recommendation by other translators or former clients).

    Regarding memberships… I see your point about clients never being interested in it (same for me, by the way). However, I have a translator friend here in Germany who is a member of the BDÜ (the German equivalent of the ATA), and she says it definitely helps if only to give the impression that she’s the real deal and not some housewife picking up a couple of hours here or there. Maybe it depends on the country.


  6. “Maybe it depends on the country.”

    It depends on the association. Some, in some countries, are probably better than others. I am still an ATA member mostly because there is nothing else here.

    You can call it inertia.


  7. You should see the bogus certification hunt in the IT world. Some certification there are worth something, but so many don’t and bogus new ones keep popping up with every new trend of the day. The problem with certification is, in my opinion, that it assumes that in-depth skills, knowledge, and expertise are acquired just by having gone through some course. It is not different than to assume that if one took a language class of some sort, one can automatically become a translator (a real one).

    Still, I think that no certification/accreditation is just as bad. In professional circles it is common to complain about the low entry barrier to the profession and blame it for most of the issues we experience as professionals. While this claim is valid to a certain degree, I don’t think that just having a higher barrier will change much. There main problem is the low-buying barrier, or in other words, the low priority/importance many assign to translation (perceived by many as some kind of low-level clerical work) and the skills, knowledge, and experience required to carry it out, coupled with the perception that translators are not respectable professional service providers (one thing that the corporate agencies succeed doing is planting the notion – both among clients and nanolators – that they are respectable and professional outfits that police the market and put some order into it), thus the idea that a professional is need sometimes never even crosses the translation buyer mind.

    I think that in more ways than one the professional translation market failed at communicating the profile, position, and importance of the profession and service. The long-term cots and damages of poor translation quality are very real, but they are never emphasized in the discussion.

    The European Committee has put together an overview of Quantifying quality costs and the cost of poor quality in translation. I will take everything there with a little grain of salt, and it is quite a tiresome read (full disclaimer, I got discouraged about quarter way through and just jumped around to some sections that I’ve found interesting), but it could serve as some reference. I suspect that it could become even more useful when dealing with “MBAs” and other “Business persons”.


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