Translating German in Miami

This weekend I drove four hours from my home in Orlando to Miami.


Was I there to visit its beautiful world-famous beach? Eat a medianoche at a Cuban sandwich place? Go dancing with models at a trendy nightclub?

Nope. I was there to take a translation test. (Womp-wompppp)

After a couple years of studying Deutsch, I took the American Translators Association German-to-English certification exam. Here’s how it went down.


I didn’t take any pictures of myself on the road, so here’s the selfie aftermath. Notice the sad, dead eyes of a defeated man.

I got off work on Friday afternoon, drove home, packed, and gave my wife and son a hug and kiss goodbye.

My wife, who was aware of the exam’s high price tag, said, “Good luck. Pass it. You’re not taking it again.”

Then I got on the road in my old Honda Civic that’s behind in its oil changes. I said a serenity prayer, telling myself if I ended up broken down on the side of the Turnpike in Yeehaw Junction, it didn’t necessarily mean I was going to be killed.

I’m pretty vocal about my love for Florida, even if it gets tons of bad press. But I’ll be honest–anything south of Disney World creeps me out. I feel the same way about South Florida that the rest of the United States feels about Florida as a whole: terrified but intrigued.

I stayed in a hotel in Ft. Lauderdale, in a sketchy neighborhood that Google Maps said was about 45 minutes from the test center.

The hotel itself was great. Rooms were clean. Staff was friendly.

Paid for with points. Thanks, Marriott!

Paid for with points. Thanks, Marriott!

In the morning, I woke up and felt kind of gross from the drive. I said, “Maybe I’ll go for a walk.” Then while I was still in bed I heard someone yell at the top of their lungs from out in the parking lot, “Shut the f*** up!”

I decided, you know what, I didn’t feel like a walk.

I checked to make sure I had my materials ready.


Ignore the $9.99 price tag.

Then I did my test prep, which consisted of watching Spanglish on the hotel TV.

Adam Sandler's never been funnier...

Adam Sandler’s never been funnier…

For this kind of a test, there was no use cramming. I had given one last good push in the weeks leading up to this. Any last-minute studying I did would get me nothing and only make me tired.

The test was in the library on the Florida International University campus at 1 p.m. I left the hotel at about 10:45. Keep that time in mind.

I stopped for lunch at a Subway. The cashier who rang me up assumed that since I had brown skin and was in Miami, I must’ve spoke Spanish. She told me in Spanish to hold on, since I was paying by card I had to wait, okay go ahead and swipe it now. Afortunadamente hablo un poco de cubano, so when she told me, “Buen provecho,” I could respond with “Gracias” and not my first thought, “Danke.”

So I came to Miami to take a German test, but I had to get my Spanish tested first.

After dealing with terrible drivers and traffic, stopping to eat lunch, getting lost on the road, and getting lost on the FIU campus, I finally made it to the exam. Remember how I left at 10:45 to drive “45 minutes”? I arrived at the test center at 12:45.

There were between 15 and 20 test takers in the library, including someone who had traveled from overseas. Several language combinations were represented, but Spanish-to-English and English-to-Spanish seemed to be especially popular. Arabic was well represented too. Some people had literally a dozen dictionaries and reference books on their desk.

The test was a 3-hour exam. I had to translate two passages from German to English. Other than that, I won’t get into any specifics of the test, because I signed a “No Comment” agreement, and after all that hassle I went through this weekend, the last thing I want to do is get DQ’d because I can’t keep my trap shut. (Not to mention the ethical part.)

I will say, though, that I can appreciate how well the test was put together. It posed some true translation challenges.

I’m torn about my performance. By the end of the exam, I had understood everything. There was nothing about the passages that left me in any way flummoxed. But I know I may have mistranslated some individual words, which probably led to a couple clunky sentence constructions, which in turn probably led to some mistakes in tone or register.

Basically, when I left, I felt like I did fine, but I knew I could’ve done better. My final translations weren’t quite what I would give to a client or an employer, but to be fair, I don’t produce publication quality work in a closed, proctored environment. Now I really understand why the pass rate of ATA exams is less than 20%.

I may have passed (I find out in 15 weeks), but there’s a good chance I failed. If I failed, I really think the only remedy would be getting better at German. I know that sounds silly and obvious. But what I mean is, in my case, it wasn’t about test prep or translation practice or understanding translation theory better. It was about knowing German. Having a deeper, more intrinsic understanding of German would’ve helped me navigate the subtleties better.

I wanted to take a bunch of pictures of the weekend for the blog, but I was too busy trying to make it to the test on time without being mugged. I did manage to get this one, which summed up my most common view of the trip:


8 hours of driving. Crazy South Floridians. A little pre- and post-test anxiety. Sixty bucks worth of gas.

But honestly? All in all, I had a pretty fun weekend. I like taking language tests. I enjoyed the challenge. I liked being in a room full of multicultural, multilingual, like-minded people.

Still, I hope I don’t have to take the test again.


  • Phil

    Another great blog entry, with your trademark humor and self-effacement (not phony modesty, either, but your honest assessment of how you think you did). It’s good that you felt you had prepared as much as possible for the test, and that any problems would be as a result of just needing more time to master the language itself. That shows a high level of self-awareness, I think, so congratulations for that, because without it, a self-learner faces an uphill battle.

    My guess is that the 15 weeks of waiting will be as challenging as the weekend itself.

    I loved the part where you (wisely) decided to skip the morning walk after hearing the conversation in the parking lot. Good luck and I can’t wait to find out how you did!

    • Ron G.

      Thanks, Phil! Yeah, that 15 weeks is gonna be tough. I kind of like having the deadline off my chest now, though.

      Reflecting on all this, I know it’s kind of a Catch-22. I did rush this whole process, but if I didn’t I wouldn’t have made as much progress as I did. As the tattoo says, No Regerts. (haha)

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    Hey, did you forget the main reason people flock into Miami: to hang out with Mike Shayne? And when I think of Florida, German doesn’t come to mind, but Haitian Creole does.
    It’s a little refreshing to learn that people who, unlike me, are more skilled in many things are not perfect. (No offense; I’m just saying that their level is not unreachable).
    Does Miami resemble Vice City?
    My latest post: This time, forgive the shameless plug, I really brought some value.

    • Ron G.

      Haha yeah, I heard some Haitian Creole this weekend too. I stopped to get something at a pizza stand and every employee except the manager was Haitian, and they were speaking Creole with each other.

      I had to Google Mike Shayne. Adding to reading list…

  • Natalie

    Good luck! I hope you passed. And as for crazy south Floridians? I used to live there—are you saying I’m crazy?

    JK! Who am I kidding? I’m obviously crazy because what kind of person studies Russian and obsesses over Russia unless they ARE crazy? LOL! :)

    • Ron G.

      LOL, thanks, Natalie! It’s all relative. We Orlandoans (or in my case, Orlando-ish-ians) don’t get off scott-free either. It’s not like people who voluntarily live in the town Walt Disney built are particularly not-crazy. It’s just a crazy I’m used to. hahaha

    • Roman Shinkarenko

      Put me down in this crazy camp too. It’s a badge of honor to be dissimilar.