Who Are ATA’s Certification Graders?

At present, ATA’s Certification Program enlists the services of more than 130 ATA members, who are commonly known as “graders.” That name, however, does not do full justice to the range of activities performed by these individuals on behalf of ATA and the program. Who are these people, how are they selected and trained, and what do they do?

All graders are ATA members who work professionally as translators and/or interpreters and are certified in their respective language pair.1 Potential new graders are identified by three main channels. First, if a candidate performs especially well on a certification exam, the graders of that language pair may request the translator’s name from ATA Headquarters. Second, a translator may be recommended to an existing grader by a colleague or client. Third, an individual will occasionally contact ATA Headquarters or the Certification Committee chair expressing a desire to become a grader.

Each workgroup, which is headed by a language chair (LC)2, considers the merits of potential new graders and, if possible, reaches a consensus decision about inviting them on board. The LC then sends the potential grader’s CV and references to the Certification Committee chair, who has the final say about whether to proceed with recruitment. In the case of a positive decision, the final step is a “grading test,” in which the candidate is given a prior actual exam and asked to grade it using the program’s tools (e.g., Flowchart for Error Point Decisions and Framework for Standardized Error Marking) and other materials. The prospective grader and the LC then discuss the results, and if satisfactory, the person becomes a new grader.

So, what are the criteria for becoming a grader? An individual should have ample experience working as a professional translator. A background in evaluating translation performance in other contexts is a big plus, but not required. Besides broad knowledge and competence, it’s also important for a grader to have experience in group projects, because grading is a highly collaborative activity. Therefore, each member of the team should be willing to learn and compromise, as well as be able to maintain humility and set their ego aside. Other sought-after qualities are compassion and awareness of the limitations imposed by exam conditions.

Once an individual is officially on board, training continues under the LC’s direction. For a certain period, the new grader is paired with the LC when grading exams3, which offers further opportunity to align the grader’s practices with program standards. Of course, new graders also take part in the formal training opportunities available to all graders. These include a Wednesday afternoon session right before the conference, as well as an all-day grader meeting held each spring at ATA Headquarters. These sessions are essential opportunities for graders to fine-tune their assessment skills, share experiences and challenges with their colleagues, and contribute to enhancements of grading methodology, including testing new tools. In addition to these in-person training opportunities, the program is also developing online content, an enhancement that has been further spurred by the pandemic.

Grader Activities

I already mentioned that graders do much more than just mark exams and practice tests. The grading process itself is the only activity for which graders receive substantive compensation. By far the most time-consuming activity, for which graders receive next to no pay4, is passage selection and preparation. This involves:

  • Identifying source-language texts that could be used for exam material.
  • Trimming them to a suitable length.
  • Revising them to eliminate unfair challenges, better balance the reasonable challenges, and improve cohesion.
  • Submitting them for inspection by the counterpart group (i.e., those who grade in the opposite direction, usually native speakers of the source text).
  • Preparing sample translations of the text and reevaluating its suitability on that basis.
  • Identifying and articulating challenges and submitting those materials to a passage selection task force (PSTF), which comprises experienced graders who assess whether the proposed passage meets the program’s overarching passage standards.

Only after the PSTF approves a passage does it go into use in the exam. At that point (or sometimes sooner), the workgroup prepares passage-specific guidelines (PSGs). At the very least, these guidelines consist of a list of the challenges previously identified by the workgroup, together with one or more successful solutions to these challenges, unsuccessful solutions, and errors markings for the latter (e.g., error category and points). After the passage goes into use, the PSGs are augmented continuously by adding information about errors actually encountered in grading and how they were marked, which promotes consistency throughout the specific workgroup. Maintaining the PSGs and consistency in general is another time-consuming task performed by graders, often requiring extensive consultation by email, Skype, and other means of communication.

Despite the volume of work, much of it unpaid, most graders find the job extremely rewarding. Anyone who is interested in taking on this task or getting more information is welcome to Caron Bailey, the Certification Program manager, at [email protected].

  1. Exceptions are graders in newly offered language pairs, who are carefully vetted through ATA’s professional networks. These graders set up their exams under the mentorship of the Certification Committee, then grade exams until newly certified replacements can be recruited, allowing the initial graders to cycle out and earn their own certification.
  2. The language chair position is rotated among the workgroup’s members on a regular basis.
  3. Each exam is graded by two graders, who must agree on the pass/fail evaluation.
  4. A small fee is paid for producing a sample translation during the passage selection process.
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