Notes about the computerized ATA exam

I just wrapped up my first time as a proctor for the American Translators Association certification exam. Everything went pretty well, no one violated the rules  or caused any trouble; but as I watched everyone working so hard on their exams, I thought it might be good to share some suggestions about how to give yourself as much of a boost as possible.

Since the exam is now set up so you can work from your computer, let’s start there:

The Instructions

You will get instructions before the exam. Read them at home as soon as you get them. Make sure you understand the rules, code of conduct, and the technical requirements before you get to the testing site. Your proctors will go over the main points, but will not read the entire package before the test starts. Do not waste your money, time, and effort by violating a rule that invalidates your exam.


The physical device
You will be using a laptop. If you have been working as a translator (or studying translation) long enough to be ready to take the ATA exam, you probably already have some preferences in this regard. The most important point to take away here is that you will be working from this device for the full three hours of the exam.


There may not be a lot of power outlets in your room. I’m sure your proctors will bring a few power strips, but it would be wise to be prepared with one of your own. Also be sure that your battery is fully charged. Most computers made in the last five years or so will have a battery life of greater than three hours, but why take the chance? Charge up, bring your power supply, and bring an extension cord.

Screen Size

I think most people select laptop computers based on what they are willing to pack around. It is not always easy to make the compromise between a large enough screen to use as your single, full-time computer, and a small enough system to carry around with you. I won’t make any recommendations here, except to say that if you have two laptops, e.g. a larger home laptop and a small one you usually travel with, bring the bigger one! The last thing you want to have slowing you down is eye strain.

Keyboard and Mouse

Most of the folks at this exam used the trackpad and keyboard built in to their laptop. Some people brought external mice, and one person brought an external, ergonomic keyboard. You are allowed to do this as long as it is a silent keyboard. At home, I use a loud, clicky-clacky mechanical keyboard because I find that noise comforting and a nice indicator that I am actually getting something done. In an exam room, however, I think you would make a lot of enemies if you make a lot of noise. So, external keyboards are OK as long as they have silent, laptop-style keys.

Operating systems: Windows

I am a Windows user (with some background in Linux/FreeBSD, more on that in a moment). I am not trying to bash Windows, but it is notorious for updates. Since you will be connecting your computer to the internet to do research during the exam, it is possible that Windows will run an update in the background. This can make your computer misbehave in all kinds of mysterious ways. Here is my recommendation: manually run Windows update two or three days before the exam. You can do this by clicking the Windows button and typing “update,” then select “Check for Updates.” Run the check and then install anything that is pending, then reboot if needed. If you have time before the exam on that day, boot up the computer and run updates again. If you happen to be using Windows 10 Pro, you can pause the updates from Advanced Options on the Windows Update page.

Operating systems: General

No matter what OS you run, you need to understand how to use it. Here is a list of the computer-based tasks you will need to be able to do:

  • Connect to a WiFi network.
  • Insert a thumb drive.
  • Use a rich text editor (not a word processor) that is capable of creating double-spaced, 12-point (or larger) text.
  • Save this rich text file to the thumb drive as you work.
  • Create a PDF of that text file when you finish your translation.
  • Save the PDF to the thumb drive.
  • Delete the rich text files.
  • Safely remove the thumb drive.

PRACTICE THIS SERIES OF STEPS! Yes, I’m shouting. Start a week or more out from the exam. Grab a thumb drive and go through this process – boot up your computer, hook up to WiFi, insert a thumb drive, create a rich text file saving it ONLY to the thumb drive (NOT your computer!!), create a PDF and save it ONLY to the thumb drive, then eject the drive.

Your proctors are going to be selected because they have some computer skills; in our group we made sure that our three proctors included at least one familiar with Mac OS. Luckily, I have some background in Linux because one candidate brought a laptop running Linux for the test.

Text Editors

You are not allowed to use spelling or grammar checking as you work; if you did, it would put the people who still choose to take the exam by hand at a disadvantage. If you are using Windows, you will be required to use Microsoft WordPad which is part of every Windows OS since Windows 3.1. For the Mac OS candidates, they use TextEdit and must disable spell-check.

Linux is not addressed in the instructions; I’m going to go out on a limb here (and send this to the testing group) and recommend AbiWord on Linux. It is in pretty much every flavors’ software repository and not terribly difficult to build from source if you have experience in that sort of thing. Unlike most of the plain text editors (KWrite, Gedit), it has the ability to set your paragraph style to double-space, disable spelling (under tools->language), and create a PDF file directly from file->save as. I’m going to be setting up a spare laptop with Linux in the next few days, I’ll be double-checking AbiWord and I’ll create a step-by-step tutorial for the ATA. I’m sure you understand, though, that because of the massive number of different flavors of Linux, I (we) cannot provide installation instructions.

Web Browsers

You can use any web browser you like. Make sure you know how to use it. Do not copy and paste from your translation into the search bar, type in all of your searches manually. Copy and paste will make your proctors nervous; you aren’t allowed to save your translation anywhere other than the thumb drive.

You are allowed to use dictionaries, glossaries, references (like Wikipedia). ProZ is specifically listed as a forbidden site, and as a general category any web site you can submit a question and have another human being answer you is forbidden, as are, of course, all forms of chat tools and programs.

I cannot emphasize how strongly I recommend using an ad blocker during the exam. I understand that most of these online dictionaries get their revenue through advertising, and I usually let the ads run. For the exam, however, you cannot risk having an advertising script lock up your web browser (that happened to one poor soul today). There are plug-in ad blockers for pretty much any browser you chose. If you happen to like a browser that does not have an ad-blocking plug-in, consider switching. If you switch, do so enough in advance to create any bookmarks and get familiar with how the new browser works before you get to the exam.

Window Layout

At home, I use multiple monitors. I like to have my source document on one screen, my translation on another, and a research/browser in a third. That does not work when you are only on one screen. For a single screen, I prefer to “snap” my tools to each edge of the screen. You can manually resize the windows to do this if it isn’t built in to your operating system. The important thing is for you to be comfortable. I recommend doing something that lets you type in your translation while you can still see the content of your research browser or glossary file. Again, practice is key to having this be a natural part of your workflow.


No matter where you are taking the exam, I can promise your proctors have almost no control over the environment – chairs, tables, temperature, lighting; all outside our control. We do not select the chairs, the tables, and probably cannot alter the thermostat.


If you have back trouble or sciatica or anything of the sort, bring a cushion that will ease you for the three hours. Exams are often held on college campuses, and schools are not known for tending to student comfort – chairs that are great for a 50-minute class lecture can get very uncomfortable at the two-and-a-half hour mark.


Dress in layers. I personally like cold rooms, 68°F or 20°C is about right, particularly for keeping me alert and focused. Unfortunately, it seems most of the rest of the world likes rooms a few degrees warmer. Old buildings are hard to heat or cool, and air conditioning is sometimes disabled on weekends. Be ready for anything: dress in layers. A bottom layer that will be comfortable if the room is warm, a mid layer for “just right” and a sweater or jacket in case of a cold room.

Food and Drink

Three hours is a long time. You will likely get a little hungry and thirsty during that time. Feel free to bring a thermal mug with a hot beverage, or bottled water, or whatever you prefer; spill-proof containers, please. For food products, repackage them in something that won’t make noise when you access it and try to avoid crunchy foods that might distract people around you. No crinkly paper or crunchy chips or nuts, please.

Restroom Breaks

If you need to go to the restroom, you’ll have to deposit your cell phone with the proctors. You aren’t allowed to access the cell phone during the exam, either, but we have to be sure it isn’t in your pocket when you leave the room.


All of the people around you will be taking the certification exam, too, so they will almost certainly be behaving in a way that is respectful to your focus. However, they will be shuffling papers, writing by hand, typing, opening and closing suitcases full of books, searching through books, and typing. Proctors will be hovering around the room, looking over your shoulders. People will be going to the restroom, there may be events in rooms around you and people talking in the hall outside. I did not see anything in the rules forbidding you from bringing earplugs, if you are easily distracted. My recommendation would be to make some of your practice sessions at a local library. Sure, you could go to a coffee shop, but a library is likely to be closer to the environment you’ll experience for the exam – people will be trying to be quiet, at least.


I am nearsighted, and I wear glasses. Some people prefer contact lenses for vision correction. If that is you, bring your glasses. The last thing you want is for a mishap with a contact lens to cause a huge distraction or make it impossible for you to finish the exam.

If you wear reading glasses, even if only rarely, bring them. You might end up in that one spot in the room without quite enough light, and the glasses might make the difference between being able to read easily and needing to squint and concentrate for the full three hours.


Whether you are taking the handwritten or computerized exam, your source text will be on paper. I know, but again – if you have a computer failure, you could at least go on with the exam writing your translation by hand.

Copy Holder

There are many options: clips that hook up to your laptop screen, metal mesh stands that you use magnets to hold up your text, or plastic stands with a sliding ruler. You can create something of your own with a wire coat hanger if you must, but it will be a lot easier to work with the text held vertical next to your screen than with it lying flat on your desk. Do a little searching, you’ll find something you like, I’m sure. And again: practice with it.

A ruler might also be a good thing to have, to help keep your eyes trained on the line of text you are translating and to be sure you do not accidently skip a line. The copy holder I use has a straight edge that slides up and down the page, this works well.

Pens, pencils, and highlighters

At the very least, bring a pen for signing things. If you like to mark up your source text as you translate, bring the tools you usually use for that. I like to use mildliners (they aren’t as brilliantly bright as highlighters) and a mechanical pencil. Your proctors will have plenty of paper if you need some for notes or end up needing to handwrite the translation. All paper notes must be turned in with your exam at the end of the session, so do not use a personal journal or notebook.


Almost all the advice I have read about taking the ATA exam – including the fantastic prep video available on the ATA’s YouTube channel – focuses on the translation task. I wanted to share some of the things I observed while watching a group of candidates. Taking an exam, particularly one that could be as important to your career as the ATA exam, is stressful. The more obstacles you can remove from the path, the better you will be able to focus on the test. The exam is intended to mimic a short-deadline assignment in the real world, so the best way to approach it is the way you would approach a real translation assignment; use the things you normally use in the way you normally use them. If that’s impossible (e.g. a second monitor is out of the question), then adapt and practice as much as you can.


One comment

  1. I just tested AbiWord on my installation of OpenSUSE, under Edit>Preferences, the Spell Checking tab has a button to disable automatic spelling, and it does save in both RTF and PDF formats. So: still recommended!


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