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  • Writer's pictureCarlie Sitzman MA, CT

An ATA-Certified German to English Translator at Last!

Updated: Feb 23, 2021

The October of my tenth year as a German to English translator had nearly come to an end when I checked the mail to find an 8.5 by 11 envelope from the American Translator’s Association inhabiting my mailbox. In disbelief, I rushed up to my apartment, envelope in hand, and ripped it open – to reveal my German to English certification from the American Translators Association (ATA). What a shock! After ten years as a successful translator and countless attempts at passing the exam, I had done it! Right before the yearly ATA conference too! I arrived at the conference ready to enthusiastically tell everyone how I had passed the exam and was surprised to hear that many had very interesting certification stories of their own. It made me wonder if my story might be worth putting to paper (or to screen in this case). So here goes.

Of Conferences and Testing

It is hard to pinpoint when my dictionaries and I first embarked on our journey to pass the ATA certification exam. We started out taking the test at the annual ATA conference. This arrangement allowed me to save on travel expenses and my dictionaries to update their knowledge of the translating profession. Strangely, they didn’t ever seem any different afterwards. Nonetheless, I would pack my dictionaries into a small, wheeled carryon sized suitcase every year and roll them through the streets of various and sundry US cities to attend the conference. On our inaugural testing trip, we strolled along the shores of the San Diego Bay, the wheels of my suitcase clicking and clacking on the pavement and the bag itself groaning under the stress of the hefty tomes within. Then came a ramble along the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, followed by a jaunt through the bustling streets of Chicago.

A New Approach

It wasn’t long before I grew tired of missing out on an entire day of the conference to take the test. Who wants to be sitting in an exam while their colleagues are gleefully discussing the nuances of definite article usage and comma placement in German? No one! I needed to take the test separately so I could focus on it completely and free up my conference days. My first test attempt outside the confines of the conference was in my home city of Philadelphia, where the little blue suitcase carrying my dictionaries sacrificed one of its wheels to the cause.

With a new suitcase and a fresh new approach, my dictionaries and I jetted up to New York City a year later. Having completed all previous tests on a computer, this was the first and only test I wrote with a paper and pen. Deprived of my phone as a method of telling time and lacking a traditional watch, I was hard-pressed to keep track of time. The ambience could only have been more complete if I had arrived in a horse-drawn carriage and written by candlelight. Unwilling to waste a perfectly good weekend in New York City, I invited some friends to explore the city with me afterwards. After getting stuck in the rain outside our Aribnb rental, we spent one hour homeless in New York City before checking into a posh Manhattan hotel randomly selected for us by a discount travel website. The rest of the weekend was filled with sightseeing and a wealth of fascinating food from the diverse selection of restaurants in New York City.

The Final Attempt

Then came my defining moment: a trip to take the test in Chicago. The night before the flight, I nestled my dictionaries into their suitcase as I had done so many times before. Carefully printing out the test details, I tucked them in with the dictionaries to satisfy the curiosity of any TSA agents puzzled by the absurdly large collection of dictionaries traveling with me. Luck was on my side as I boarded the plane and quickly uncovered a free overhead bin for my dictionaries. Heaving them into the bin, I took my place at the back of the plane and was delighted when no one arrived to share my row of seats. Touching down in Chicago exactly as expected, a very nice man helped me get my carryon suitcase down from the overhead compartment.

“That is heavy!” he exclaimed.

“I know, it has all my dictionaries,” I said, aware of how bizarre this must sound.

“Seriously?” he asked with a hint of a chuckle in his voice. Heads were turning now, the entire plane surreptitiously eavesdropping as we waited to exit.

Basking a bit in the dictionary-centric spectacle, I replied “Yes, I’m taking a professional German language translation certification exam and I need them as references”.

“There’s a test for that?” he said with the surprise I have come to expect from complete strangers in the United States.

“Yes,” I answered, feeling irresistibly proud of my dictionary collection despite the nagging voice in my head reminding me that not everyone lives and breathes German dictionaries. “I’ve brought my German-English dictionary, my German-English marketing dictionary, my German-English legal dictionary, Merriam Webster’s English Dictionary, my German-English engineering dictionary, my German-German dictionary. Everything. You’ve really got to be prepared on this test. They could throw anything at you.”

“Well that’s amazing. I had no idea.” He replied, scratching his head.

“Good luck,” a woman a few seats ahead of me chimed in, followed by scattered well-wishes from the other passengers.

My dictionaries and I exited the plane as minor Chicagoan celebrities.

Dawning sunny and clear, the day of the test was relaxing by design. A start time at 4 pm gave me plenty of time to have breakfast in style and lounge about the hotel room studying for a bit. At 3 pm, I slung my laptop bag over my shoulder and stepped outside with dictionaries in tow to catch a ride to the destination 20 minutes away with a rideshare app. My driver was an animated fellow eager to tell his life’s story punctuated by impassioned political rants about Donald Trump and Barack Obama. He was so passionate, in fact, that he forgot to drive. Wrong turn after wrong turn followed as I watched the “time to destination” on his phone’s screen grow. I had built in extra time, but not this much extra time! Interrupting his tirade, I pointed out the mistake and began directing him myself. Clearly embarrassed, he followed my directions to an unmarked building in a seemingly residential area. It was 3:50. We had arrived just in the nick of time! Bidding him a hurried goodbye, I ran into the building.

I was the last to arrive and found myself surveying a mass of translators huddled together discussing exam logistics. It was difficult to tell who was in charge. Just as I had picked someone out to approach, I heard “We’re missing two, Carlie Sitzman and..”

“That’s me!” I said, as she whirled around.

“Oh good, let’s get you set up.”

My dictionaries and I set up camp among an eclectic assemblage of translators. To my right sat a Spanish translator, who had seemingly resolved to write the entire test on a piece of paper and had just two dictionaries by her side. An Italian translator with a respectable stack of dictionaries sat on my left booting up a small laptop. Across from me, another translator had clearly brought along his entire office. Lifting a large computer screen out of a bag onto the table, he quickly hooked up a mouse and keyboard, completing the look with some dictionaries. All that was missing were a houseplant, a framed photo, and a cup of coffee.

Laying my suitcase open on the floor beside me, I arranged all of the dictionaries with their titles peeking up over the rim. My faithful Langenscheidt German->English Engineering Dictionary, Merriam Webster’s College Dictionary, German Concise Dictionary, Hamblock/Wessels German-English Business Dictionary, and Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus were arrayed on the table beside my computer. Nervous, I read the test instructions through several times without comprehending a thing. When time started, however, I was ready. I translated the two required passages in no time at all. Forty-five minutes into my three-hour exam, I started proofreading. Every word, every phrase, every comma was analyzed. The spelling of every word was checked and double checked in the Merriam Webster Dictionary that had covered so many miles with me. Three hours later, I was finished!

Every time I take the exam, people ask if I felt good about it. Every time, the answer is that I felt great about it. And every time, my feeling has been completely inaccurate. I left the exam room that day with the complete satisfaction of knowing that I had done a great job and probably failed. It wasn’t until I opened my mailbox on that fateful day two months later to see a large 8.5 by 11 envelop staring back at me that I knew I had done it! All of my efforts had paid off! I dare say my dictionaries will not be nearly as well-traveled from now on though.

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