I’m going to let you in on a little secret — at the end of October I traveled to Washington D.C., where the American Translators Association was holding their annual conference, not to attend the conference but to take the association’s certification exam.
I’d first heard of the ATA after I began to translate for money (“professionally” may be a little premature for that time). I pored over every mention of it that I could find online. It’s very, very hard, everyone said. There’s only a 20% pass rate. Bring a suitcase of dictionaries. I took consolation in knowing that one could have a perfectly nice career without certification, but the idea of it hung in the air, like a benign Sword of Damocles, influencing everything I considered doing with my future. Business cards? Wait a bit, they’d look better with certification. Rates? Well, what can I demand, with neither a degree in translation nor certification?
This all being in the back of my head, I was planning a trip home to the states to see my family when I saw that the ATA conference would be in D.C. — just a few hours’ drive from where I would be. I have friends living just outside of town, and they were happy to put me up. So I made plans to take it, knowing all along that I should think of this as my “first attempt”, and not get my hopes up. I passed the practice test. I studied all the recommended materials. It was all systems go.
Now, I have to back up a bit to explain something that happened at the exam. I have been a loyal Mac user since the 90s, and only started to learn how to work with Windows in the past two years. Last summer, my Mac started acting up, and certain keys were not working properly. Not being able to get it repaired in time, I outfitted my second laptop, a new and little-used Asus, for the exam. And brought home a big German to English dictionary, just in case.
I arrived at the exam site, a room in the lower levels of the D.C. Hilton, and set up my little workstation like everyone else. So far so good. I knew how to open Word Pad, I had my bookmarks where I needed them. About 15 minutes before we begin, it suddenly dawns on me that although I know how to make m-dashes and n-dashes in Word, I don’t know if they work the same way in Word Pad. I start tinkering with key combinations –- and inadvertently set my German keyboard into U.S. mode. This meant that suddenly I had no m-dashes, no n-dashes, no parentheses, no apostrophes, no semi-colons… all gone. Those keys all suddenly started giving me different symbols! But, as necessity is the mother of invention, I quickly surfed the internet for these punctuation marks and copied/pasted them into a Word page, and copied those every single time that I needed them.
I won’t give details about the exam (why spoil the mystery?) but I left with a pretty good gut feeling that I had done pretty well, even with the punctuation issue. About a month later I was overtaken by a sudden dread that perhaps I had inadvertently left something out — a word, a phrase, whole sentences, who could say?
Although ATA says not to expect results before 16 weeks, mine arrived in less than 7. I don’t think there is any meaning to read into that, outside of the likelihood that, if my language pair were, say, Spanish to English, I might still be waiting.
The result? I passed!
(Three days after the exam, the Asus broke down. And a week after that, the Mac gave up the ghost as well.)
Now I have a newly-repaired Asus (thanks to it still being under warranty), a brand new Mac Air (I love you, Mom!) and a certificate to hang on my wall to remind me that where there’s a will, there’s a way.