Notes on the state exams for a) translators and b) interpreters in Germany

This text is about the state exam. The translator assocation BDÜ has a good overview of exam venues. I strongly recommend that you go venue shopping. There are 2 different authorities that let non-enrolled students do an accredited exam in Germany – Chambers of Trade & Commerce (IHK) or the federal education ministries (Kultusminsterium / Schulamt / Bildungsagentur).  You can apply in any Bundesland, not just where you live.

For example, Berlin offers the state exam for translators, but not for interpreters for the English language. So I had to reapply in Leipzig to do my interpreter exam after completing the translator exam in Berlin.

Many people fail the state exam, so the application process is very thorough (although they’re said to be more lenient with applicants for rare languages). I had to provide references for my entire freelance work history, although I did an English-language BA in management and did my Abitur in Germany. They explicitly say that studying or being bilingual is not enough. Especially for world languages you need some kind of training or work history as a translator. You also have to pick a subject field; I chose business.

The written exam (for translators) has 3 parts:

  1. Translations and essays in all of your exam languages & subject fields at the Ministry – without dictionary
  2. Translations in all of your exam languages & subject fields at home
  3. Oral exam at the ministry – extempore translation (off the paper) & conversation about current news & culture of both language regions

My grades for the on-site exams were pretty good. I work very fast (for agencies), so the exam time was plenty. I got articles from business newspapers to translate and a topic of my choice to write about.

If you’re a student without translation work experience, I really recommend you do some fast-paced projects before attempting this. Also practice handwriting, I don’t really use it anymore. You should be able to translate the next sentence in your head as you’re writing.

I didn’t do well in the homework exams. I had to translate 2 general magazine articles and 2 business-related articles. Unfortunately they only gave limited feedback. Maybe I researched something wrong, or I was too literal. When you’re used to translating sentence for sentence, like most practicians, you easily lose sense of the larger text. Classically trained translators might do better here.

At the oral exam I was extremely good in the extempore part. I can basically read a German text out loud in English, and I speak both languages accent-free, so that impressed them. The exam committee here consists of one senior translator and the head of the Ministry’s language department. It helps if you dress and carry yourself well, but here it’s just a sidenote – in the interpreting exam it’s part of the grade.

I flunked the cultural knowledge part. I hardly knew how the German parliament works or who some famous authors are, except the ones you read in school. You should really watch the evening news in both languages 2 weeks before the exam.

The interpreting exam I did a year later in Leipzig (Saxony). They have a big translation institute at Leipzig University, so the Ministry here offers more languages than other cities. Mainz (Rheinland-Pfalz) is similar.

I did it in a single sitting, but the application process also required a lot of letters and took some months. I even bought a suit, but I should’ve also done some speaker training. My performance showed I’m a very solitary worker. So translators – interpreting really is a different kind of work. I was prepared linguistically, but you need to make a personal impression.

To prepare I watched a lot of training speeches at the EU Speech Repository. You have to know consecutive translation with note-taking and need a really good memory. So read a little bit about note taking (not shorthand!)  and practice jotting down 5-minute speeches and interpreting from your notes – a lot!

Also practice liaison interpreting, where you have to recall passages of up to 90 seconds (!) from your memory, with only enough time to jot down numbers.

Simultaneous interpreting practice is the easiest I think, because you just need to keep going – there’s not really time for embarrassing gaps.

I had little actual experience – I’d done some liaison interpreting (sentence for sentence) and a little simultaneous whisper interpreting, but not in extremely official settings, like a court.

So I was way more nervous than before the translator exam. In the waiting room at the Ministry, I met the only translator (out of 4!) to pass the translator exam that day.  The exam board consists of 4 senior interpreters (in my case one of them was a professor, which made me more nervous) and the head of the Ministry’s language department.

This exam also has three parts:

  1. Liason interpreting in both languages (Verhandlungsdolmetschen)
  2. Simultaneous interpreting into one language
  3. Consecutive interpreting into the other language

I didn’t do too well in the 1st part, but not for the reasons I thought. I thought I might have missed some facts. The piece was a business interview, with lots of facts (KPIs, sales figures, etc.), which are hard to grasp even for the exam board. So I think they didn’t even notice, if I mistranslated a figure, but they did notice I was hesitating. You’re graded for overplaying parts of the conversation you misunderstood – just keep going.

I asked some important questions – like one time the German speaker said “our sales are 25% of the whole UK economy”, and I asked if she meant the WHOLE economy of the UK or just the company’s global sales – but you’re encouraged to ask only very few questions (as in real business).

I thought I’d flunked the first part, but they called me in for the second, and simultaneous really saved me. I’m very fast, but my memory is shit. I interpreted a speech by Tony Blair on Brexit, read by one of the examiners. You have to stand up and speak very clearly and confidently, and don’t let the speaker confuse you – sometimes they talk stuff that just makes no sense. Just keep going and smiling!

In the third part, consecutive, I messed up for 4 reasons:

  1. I just learned some rudimentary note-taking and haven’t yet developed my own style, so I often pause to riddle what I just wrote down.
  2. I take too many notes and forget to listen and remember. Definitely practice reproducing speeches without notes.
  3. When these gaps due to sloppy note-taking occur, I use filler words, such as “also.” The examiners didn’t really care so much about the gaps, but about how I filled them. If you get in the habit of using more pompous fillers (“furthermore”), it’ll help you a lot in public speaking situations.
  4. I was just so nervous. Although I’m not a horrible introvert; I always did well in presentations, I used to do cold sales, and I spent 50 EUR on that sink-washable suit from C&A! (I would’ve felt much more comfortable in my pajamas, which is my usual work outfit anyways!)

So practice public speaking and consecutive interpreting at your next translator pub night. Go accompany your friends to official appointments – wearing a suit. You have to know how to fake it.

In the end I passed with a very good grade, because I’m technically good, but I could’ve done much better, if I’d practiced more people skills. If you have anything, please comment below and I’ll answer.

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