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When it comes to ordering a translation, there are a variety of certifications available to customers. This article will explore the different types of certifications, what sets them apart, and why a customer might need them.

First, it is very important to clarify that, unlike a state bar exam that needs to be passed for a lawyer to become qualified to practice law, there is no state or federal equivalent in the United States to become a “qualified translator.”

This lack of regulation means anyone can technically call themselves a translator, regardless of their training, expertise, or experience. This, in turn, creates confusion for clients because it makes it difficult to know who is qualified and competent to complete their work. Moreover, when a court, tribunal, or government agency says the magic word “certification” is needed, many wonder what that means.

Without a recognized governing body to regulate the translation industry, it falls on the individual translator or an experienced translation agency to demonstrate their qualifications and expertise to potential clients. This can be done through obtaining certifications from professional associations or by building a solid portfolio of work that demonstrates their abilities.

That said, joining even the most prestigious translator associations often means paying an annual fee. Becoming a certified member is more challenging, but these certifications are typically for general translation topics, not specialized industries. As an example, to become a certified member of the American Translators Association (“ATA”), passages to be translated are “typically written at a university reading level but avoid highly specialized terminology requiring research.” While the ATA is indeed a reputable organization with low pass rates for their test, the most significant burden for determining who should be deemed truly qualified to translate competently in a particular field is ultimately left to translation agencies who must know how to properly vet translators using specialized tests that include complex terminology across various fields such as law, finance, and technology.

It is worth taking a moment to make clear that we are only discussing translators and document translation, as opposed to oral interpreting. In the United States, there are court-certified interpreters available for legal proceedings. Some state courts provide certification of these interpreters. However, court-certified interpreters differ from certified translators in that they specialize in interpreting oral communication, while translators specialize in written translation. Interpreters do not necessarily provide translation services, just as translators do not necessarily provide interpretation services: these are two completely different skill sets.

Since there is no one-size-fits-all solution for translation certification, those needing a certified translation tend to feel the urge to overcompensate. Whatever seems the fanciest and has the most stamps on it seems the most appealing. However, going that route can cost you a lot of time and money. It need not be so complicated.

The Punchline: Do You Need a Certified Translation?

Whether or not you need a certified translation depends on the purpose of the translation. It is essential to carefully consider the purpose of the translation and the requirements of the receiving entity before deciding which certification to choose. Dig into the specifics of whatever instructions you have received regarding the “certified translation” that is needed. Does it state that the translator must attest to the work? Must their signature be notarized? Does it state any minimum qualifications that the translator must possess? If any of these points is not specified, it is for a reason—to provide flexibility, and thus, the aforementioned requirements are likely not needed. Then again, asking and verifying is always the best course of action.

Here are the most common types of certifications:

Translation Certifications

  1. Translation Agency Certification: Language services providers generally provide what might be called a “general certification’’ or a “certification of accuracy’’ (CoA) on company letterhead, which is then signed by one of their company representatives, not the translator who did the work. This means that the translation agency attests that the translation is, ‘to the best of their knowledge and belief, a complete and accurate translation’ of said document. The wording is typically flexible and can be tweaked to include as much or as little detail as the client feels is necessary. A commonplace step for this option is that a notary public notarizes the signature of the translation agency’s representative. This is the easiest, quickest, and most cost-effective of all options. From Divergent’s standpoint, this is by far the most requested option.
  2. Translator Declaration: A translator declaration is a signed statement completed by the professional translator attesting to the translation’s accuracy and completeness and a basic outline of the translator’s experience and qualifications. These declarations are not notarized. This is what the USCIS requires, as does the UK for legal filings (see 6.47 of, for example. Again, there is generally a bit of room for both the language services provider coordinating this and for the client to review the language of the translator declaration before it is signed to ensure that they are comfortable with the wording. These declarations are typically similar in cost to the Translation Agency Certifications but may take more time to coordinate and arrange.
  3. Translator Affidavit: This takes option 2 (a translator declaration) one step further in verifying the translator’s identity as a translator affidavit is notarized. It is important to note that notarization is not a guarantee of the quality or accuracy of the translation itself but rather a confirmation of the translator’s identity. Since the translator must spend time going to a notary public, this option costs more than the first two options and can take a bit more time to arrange, as not every translator can arrange notarization.
  4. Translator Association Certification: Due to the lack of regulation outlined at the beginning of this article, some government agencies may request that a translation be done by a certified member of a professional translator association such as the American Translators Association (ATA) or the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) using the requirements set by those associations as a minimum threshold as to what they deem acceptable. Again, these certifications are not issued by any governing body in the United States but rather by the association itself. These certifications should include the translator’s name, association member number, and a statement expressing their belief that the translation is complete and accurate. Depending on the association, this may or may not include an association seal.
  5. Sworn Translation: This concept does not exist in the United States. However, if you need to submit a translation abroad and are told you need it to be sworn or certified, it is important to get clarification on what exactly is needed. In many countries across Europe, South America, and the Middle East, a sworn translation is a translation that has been certified by a sworn translator, whom a court or government agency expressly authorizes to provide an official translation. Known by many unique names depending on the country, a sworn translator must take an oath before a court or government agency and then be authorized to provide official translations of legal, administrative, or other documents. This means only a select subset of translators with this official governmental authority can provide the certification you need, making this a time-consuming and expensive option.

The main differences and considerations [between these certifications] come down to whether the translator’s signature appears on the certification and if it needs to include an additional seal of a notary, association, or other governing entity, for example. That said, it often comes down to the perceived value of assurance each certification provides. Because there is no federal standard in the United States, organizations are at their own discretion to demand what they feel provides the most assurance while balancing essential business factors such as time and money. Given the multiple factors involved, determining what certification you may need is best discussed with an established and reputable language services provider.