How to prove you know a language

In the US, there is no requirement for translators to prove they know their stuff. The profession is not yet on par with say, the legal or medical profession, in which certification is a prerequisite to practice. This means that, for translation buyers, navigating the market for the first time can be nerve-wracking. How could they possibly be sure they will receive a good-quality text in return for their payment?

There are several options a translator can mix and match on his or her résumé to reassure interested parties of real knowledge of a language:

  • Year(s) spent residing in a source-language country. This one can be tricky, since living in another country does not always equal interacting regularly with source-language native speakers. Just think about the many stereotypes out there about expats—gaggles of privileged (often white) folks drinking heavily and insulting “natives.” You’ll need to show that you were not that person, whether through working for a local company, participating in a local interest group, or attending a local school.
  • BA/MA/PhD from a university in languages or translation. This can be quite reassuring for a potential client, especially for the higher level degrees. Just remember, academic skill does not always equal real-world abilities. Make sure you get some experience applying your college knowledge to more spontaneous situations, even if it just means living in the foreign-language dorms.
  • Publications in or about the source language. The best part about this résumé-builder is that you can use it to show off your knowledge of your specialty area, too. Write an article in Chinese for business owners just starting to consider expanding into the US market, for instance. Focus on how translation can help or harm the process. Or don’t even mention translation at all (except in your by-line bio). Your choice!
  • ATA certification.  The American Translators Association offers translation skills tests in many language combinations. The certification exams are difficult—many have pass rates under 50%—so be forewarned. But they are becoming a standard piece of paper to get.
  • Pure language tests. This was a subject recently discussed at the May meet-up of the National Capital Area Translators Association. In the US, any testing company can create and administer a test of your language abilities. Look for one that uses the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale—created to maintain consistency in language abilities of employees across various government agencies, it is pretty much the standard scale. And, it doesn’t inflate your abilities: on a scale of 0 to 5, zero being no skill whatsoever, a skill at level 5 is equal to a highly educated native speaker with multiple PhDs. Not even native speakers rate that high, really. That can sound scary to someone preparing for the test, but consider this: grade inflation reduces confidence. It’s like the difference between saying, “I earned my PhD at Harvard” and “I earned by PhD at an online mega-college.” Think about it.

How do you show you know a language? What do you look for in others when you want proof they know a language?


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