5 Most Common Questions in Becoming a Certified Translator

  • Time to read: 10 min.

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It doesn’t matter if you’re a freelance translator, if you’re thinking about becoming a freelance translator, or if you are translating as part of your 9-5 job.

You’ve most likely run into the question of translation certification.

If you’re an established freelance translator, you’re wondering if you’re getting the right return on investment for continuing to renew your translation certification year after year (especially if you’re certified by an organization like ATA which requires more of your cash every 12 months).

If you’re a freelancer just starting out, you’re questioning whether it’s worth it financially to go through the translation certification process in the first place.

And if you’re an employee who works for a boss (other than yourself) as something other than an in-house translator, but you’re tasked to do translations as part of your job description, you’re confused about becoming certified at the request of your employer.

To Be Or Not To Be (Certified). That Is The Question

Or more like five questions.

But before I answer those questions, let’s talk about certification in general. First of all, as with most opinions, there are two sides to becoming a certified translator.

(Remember, I’m talking mostly about translation certification in the United States. I live here. I work as a translator here. I don’t keep a pulse on what goes on in other countries regarding translation certification.)

Half the translation community believes in translation certification. Believes that it can enhance your career, find you more prospects, and lead you to more direct and agency clients.

The other half? They’re incredulous. Non-believers if you will. They think that translators can get by just fine without being certified by a translation organization that is only interested in taking their money.

Which opinion is right?

Neither one.

Which is wrong?

They both are.

Look, the extreme of almost any opinion is not going to be right. Sure, they are cut and dry, black and white issues. Translation certification is not one of those.

Becoming a certified translator can be a benefit to a translator in building more credibility among potential clients, which could lead to more jobs, and thus more financial reward.

But certification in and of itself is not going to get you or your name in front of future clients. Certification alone isn’t going close a deal with a prospect. Certification does not equal automatic success as a translator, freelance or not.

There can be benefits, but that’s all they will be. Benefits. Certification is not a game changer for a translator.

Now on to the five questions about translation certification:

1. My company wants me to be a certified translator. Where do I start?

Here’s the scenario:

You’re an employee who has been working for company X for five years. You’re bilingual and have proven awesome at your command for both languages. Because of that, you’ve been asked to do translation work for the company. However, now your boss wants you to become certified.

What do you do?

At first glance, this could seem like a really crappy situation to be in.

You’re translating for the company you work for as an “additional duty as assigned,” which is OK, but then you’re told that you have to be certified. WTH?

Before you take it out on your boss, though, think about the situation a little more deeply, and you’ll see that this “unfortunate” event can actually be the blessing you’ve been waiting for.

Here’s why.

You’re providing a valuable service to your company. One that your boss would have to pay for with more money out of her pocket if you weren’t there to do it.

Therefore, you’re saving the company money.

And you’re getting valuable translation experience you can market if you want to try your hand freelancing.

The fact that your boss now wants you to become certified is just an added bonus that you can leverage to your advantage.

Since your boss wants you to become certified, he is the one that should pony up the dough for your certification. You’ll just have to find the certification program that will be best for you.

Here’s where you’ll need to do your homework and have a couple of options on hand to give to your boss.

Most people who have been around the translation industry for a while would automatically recommend that you get an American Translators Association (ATA) certification.

However, this is not the best option. The ATA certification process is very arbitrary. You have to pay to take a test that very few people pass. You then have to engage in certain “professional level” activities throughout the year in order to keep your certification valid.

If you’re an employee that is getting paid by your company to get certified, what happens when you don’t pass the test the first, second, or third time? How’s your boss going to react when you hit her up for funds to travel to professional translation conferences in order to keep your certification?

No bueno.

A better option is to look for a translation program (not a single test) that will award you a certificate upon completion that you can show your boss. Many of these can even be completed online.

Pick one that works best for you, your situation, and your boss’s financial constraints, and you’ll be in a great position, whether you want to keep translating at your company, or strike out on your own as a freelancer.

Next question:

2. Is [fill in the blank] certification any good?

Here’s a question I’ve received multiple times:

I’m a translator looking to get certified. I found a company online, but I have no idea whether their certification program is worth it. What should I do?

The issue is that there is no way for me (or anyone else) to give you a definitive answer for every single translator certification program out there.

Of course there are some good programs, but there really are some terrible ones only interested in sucking as much money from you as possible.

What I can (and will) do, however, is provide you with a specific list of questions that you should ask yourself before you sign up for any program.

  1. Is the program run by a well-known university?
  2. Universities are great places to take certification courses because they have a reputation to uphold. Even programs that are run through the adult education extension of a university and not part of any degree granting program are still held to the standards of the university.
  3. If not, what is the address of the outfit running the program?
  4. You probably want to stay away from any organization that only uses a P.O. Box for an address. You want to be able to track the company down to a specific address, with specific phone numbers.
  5. And speaking of phone numbers, don’t be afraid to call and talk to someone.
  6. Ask questions like how many graduates they have had over the past three months, what kind of background do the students have when they begin the program, and what kind of measurable success do the graduates see after becoming certified. You could even ask them to get you in contact with someone that has already completed the program to see if it would be right for you.
  7. What are the backgrounds of the program instructors?
  8. I wouldn’t get hung up on any type of certification they may or may not have. Instead, I would ask the program manager what kind of success the instructors have had as freelance translators. Who have they had as clients? Do they still freelance? Are they plugged in to the current state of the translation industry?
  9. What’s the focus of the translation program?
  10. If you’re interested in legal translation, it would be a waste to take a certification course focused on medical translation.

If you get satisfactory answers to these questions, feel free to move forward on getting more information on the program, including checking out what other translators have said on translation forums (like Proz.com).

3. I live in [pick a country]. How do I become certified here?

I live and work in the United States. My freelancing clients for the most part are also from the U.S. So in terms of certification, I mainly focus on requirements here.

And what are those?

Well, the important thing to remember is that in the United States, there is no national governing body over translation certification.

However, that changes depending on the country.

Mexico, for example, has its own translation certification process that is quite distinct, as explained by a regular reader, John:

I have been translating for the last 5 or 6 years. Since I got my bachelor’s degree I landed some jobs as a freelancer. After I finished my bachelor’s degree, I got 2 master’s degrees while doing translation jobs. For me, translation doesn’t represent my main income. I have always had a full time job and I translate because I love languages and I love translation.

I became a certified translator a few months ago here in Mexico and want to talk about what my experience is with that here.

It turns out that it’s not easy to find information on how to be a certified translator here in Mexico. It’s like a unicorn: a lot of people are looking but hardly ever find anything. To start with, a certified translator produces certified translations. Of course, that’s obvious, at first. But what’s a certified translation? The easiest answer would be that it is a valid or accepted translation. The question then becomes valid for whom or accepted by whom?

If you need the Mexican government to accept a document written in a foreign language you need to have it translated by a Perito or expert accepted by them. Well, the Mexican Government selects the experts and the translations produced by these experts are the only ones considered as valid translations.

It is important to say that this is for the Mexican government and not for other private institutions or companies. This means that a valid translation for the government wouldn’t necessarily be a valid translation for a company. You could be certified for the government but that doesn’t mean your translations would be valid for other situations other than government-related paperwork or bureaucracy.

Each one of the States of Mexico can have their own experts.

In order to be certified by the government you need to look for the convocatorias públicas of the local courts. Depending on the State you apply for, they will require different things. In some states they ask for 3 years experience in the domain, translation-related studies and possibly you might have to take a translation test.

The requirements depend on the State and there isn’t a consensus among them, so certification from one State might not equal certification in another State. Every state reserves the right to accept or not the certified translations coming from other places.

The important thing to remember is that the process is going to be different depending on the country. Your best bet is to look online at the specific country you’re interested in and see the government’s requirements.

4. I have no degree. Does that matter for translation certification?

I don’t know how many translators have degrees, but I’d venture to guess that a significant portion of freelancers don’t have a formal university degree, either in translation or something else. Most have just decided that being a translator is worth it.

And by the same token, while some translation certification programs don’t have any education requirements, others do.

The ATA certification program, for example, requires you to have an adequate combination of work experience and/or education. If you have less than a bachelor’s degree, ATA requires you to have at least 5 years of professional translation service. (Yet another reason why I don’t think that the ATA membership is not worth the cost of admission.)

The certification program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, however, only requires that you pass a language proficiency test. So it wouldn’t matter if you didn’t graduate high school or dropped out of college. As long as you are able to validate your language proficiency, you’re good to go.

5. How long does it take to become certified? I don’t have all day.

becoming a certified translator

Most people want things right now.

They lack patience and along with that, the ability to stick with one thing until it’s finished.

Same thing goes with translation certification.

You’re not going to find a certification program you can finish in a single day or week. If you do, you should stay away.

Remember, a translation certificate by itself in the form of a mere piece of paper or line on your resume isn’t going to give you access to an unlimited stream of clients banging down your door.

Use the translation certificate program to actually learn something instead of focusing solely on a resume bullet point. Improve your translation craft. Network with other translators and possible mentors. Learn more about the business side of translation.

These are the reasons you sign up for a translation certification program. The certificate at the end is extra.

Back to the certification timeline.

For ATA certification, you have to pass a test. So theoretically, you could become certified after one test sitting. However, most people have to study for the test, and even then don’t pass until the second or third time taking the test.

For university administered certification programs, the process of taking the course and receiving certification could take anywhere from one to four semesters, depending on the program.

Other online certification programs will only take as long as the person takes to finish all the coursework. The online nature of these programs means that they could take anywhere from a month to a year, depending on how dedicated you are to completing the program.