My Experience with IoL Diptrans Exam English to Chinese

Since you are reading this, I think you already know a bit about the Diploma in Translation (in short: Diptrans). This Diploma is awarded by the IoL Educational Trust– an associated charity of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) and is a postgraduate level qualification intended for working translators and for those whose linguistic competence levels are equal to a good university degree in one or more modern languages. To get the diploma, you have to pass the Diptrans Exam which takes place once a year in January in both UK and abroad. For the general benefits, format, language list and practical information about Diploma in Translation, please visit

 In this article, I will share with you my personal motives, experiences, and tips on taking the Diptrans Exam. 

Firstly, a little bit background about my story with Diptrans. In 2014, after obtaining my Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences and having my second baby in my arms, I decided that my life and career had to change in order for me to have a peaceful mind and a better work-life balance. I searched extensively inwardly and outwardly, and finally get an idea that there may be a possibility to bring my interest in language and writing from background to foreground and make a career out of it. From this idea came the idea of being a freelance translator. There were a lot of things to learn and to test out in the beginning of my career change, such as positioning myself in the translation market, getting clients and carrying out translation projects. After being a busy bee multi-tasking at different fronts for about a year, I found 70% of my working time had already been taken up by translation tasks and I knew for sure that my career path as a Europe-based English-Chinese translator is sustainable. And then, the rates become an issue. Although my average monthly income is similar to what I earned as a researcher, with all the secondary benefits (pension, insurance, income security etc.) gone, the income of a freelance translator is still below the ideal. High rate on high quality is my goal from the start. To reach this goal, I find it really important to differentiate myself from other translators. The majority of my clients came to me with medical related projects because of my medical expertise, i.e. my Ph.D. diploma. Then, I thought to differentiate even more in the market, I need some accreditation in the translation field. Since I live in the Netherland and wish to have a widely accepted accreditation, the Diptrans Exam from IoL became my logical choice. In May 2016, I contacted one of the computerized examination centre in London (European College of Business and Management) and registered for all 3 units of Diptrans for English to Chinese translation scheduled in January 2017. You can see that I had already been working as a freelance translator for 1.5 years when I registered and would have more than 2 years’ hands-on translation experience at the time of the examination. I passed all 3 units in one go, with one distinction (Unit 02, Science), one merit (unit 01 General) and one pass (Unit 03 Technology). 

Is this exam something for you?

To answer this question, you have to ask yourself the following sub-questions: 

  • What are my motives to take this exam?b) To prepare myself for the job market by getting one extra diploma?d) To show my professionalism in translation and to have one extra piece in the marketing toolkit?
  • c) To reassure myself that I can translate properly?
  • a) To deepen my career path as a translator?

My own motives are item a) and d). There is no good-better-best in judging your motivation. So long as your motivation is strong enough for you personally, I don’t see why you should not seriously consider taking the exam. 

  • Am I the right candidate at this moment?

The passing rate for the exam is quite low. This is because Diptrans is a Masters qualification and requires high competence in translation skills. Thus, to know if you are ready for this is important: 

  1. a) you should be fluent in both the source and target languages;
  2. b) you should have vast knowledge about the source language and culture;
  3. c) you should be able to read in the source language almost effortlessly (near native level);
  4. d) you could write fluently, flexibly and almost effortlessly in your target language (native+level); and
  5. e) you should know translation theories and have a certain amount of solid translation experience.

How much experience is enough? I think you should have at least one year experience of translating at 50% of your working time. But this also depends on the quality of your experience and your linguistic talent. Practice makes perfect. Without experience as the foundation, it is nearly impossible to build your translational skill set. In order to reduce the chance of failing, it may be wise to take the exam at a later time when you have fully developed your skills.

 How expensive is the exam?

  • Diptrans exam is quite expensive. But it is still much more economic than undergoing a master’s program in terms of both time and money. Below is my cost list for taking the Diptrans Exam. 

Personal Cost list Diptrans Exam 2017




May, 2016

Cost Dictionaries


May, 2016

Diptrans exam centre fee


May, 2016



November, 2016

Train Ticket booking Rotterdam to London


November, 2016

Hotel London booking


November, 2016

UK visa application fee


January, 2017 London

food and local travel fee





 *The total cost is based on 3 units and living in Rotterdam area and taking exam in London

For financial reasons, apparently you should take the exam at a nearby exam centre. For me at the time of the registration, the nearest is London. Now there is also a Diptrans examination Centre at University of Amsterdam (UvA).

Since I passed all 3 units in one go, the total cost for getting the diploma is roughly 1500 pounds. But if you have to re-sit, one unit would cost you 412 pounds for unit 01, and 305 pounds for unit 02 or 03 plus 53 pounds/unit Centre fee. Therefore, the cost can go up quickly if you have to re-sit. In general, it may cost you 1000 (pass all units in one go) to 3000 pounds (re-sit a few times) before you have the diploma in hand. Relevant Courses and more dictionaries also lead to more cost. Besides monetary investment, you also need to invest time to prepare for it, which will make you earn less if you are a freelance translator. Therefore, before you sign up for this exam, please weigh your motivation against the amount of investment.

My experience with exam preparation

I think the best way of preparation is just keep translating with care. In addition, to improve your accuracy in decoding source text it is beneficial to read extensively in the source language. 

There are 3 units in the Diptrans exam: 

  • Unit 01 Written translation of a general text (600 words, 3 hours)
  • Unit 02 Written translation of a semi-specialised text: choosing one from Technology, Business and Literature (450 words, 2 hours)
  • Unit 03 Written translation of a semi-specialised text: choosing one from Science, Social Science and Law Business and Literature (450 words, 2 hours)
  • For semi-specialised text, I selected Technology and Science and prepared accordingly. Since I am a medical Chinese translator, the most of my translation projects are in medical and pharmaceutical fields. Translating in technological or scientific field come natural for me. So, during the preparation phase, I took unit 01 (the general text) as my weakness unit and thus my focus. From the registration to the exam day was my preparation phase, during which I have
  • Prepared reference materials. Although you can type out translation on a computer during the exam, you can only use paper reference materials, thus no google, no Wikipedia, and no online dictionaries. On the day of the exam, I brought with me 3 dictionaries: the 2nd edition of 《英汉大词典》 (The English-Chinese Dictionary, Chief Editor Lu Gusun), the and the 《精编新英汉科学技术词典》(A New Concise English-Chinese Dictionary of Science and Technology, Chief editor Sun Fuchuand the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary. When you buy dictionaries, please keep in mind to buy the newest version and those with the best coverage. For my exam, both of the English-Chinese dictionaries I brought with me have failed me and almost caused the failure of my technology translation. There was a frequently appearing word “Graphene” in that text, which I could not find in either of these two English-Chinese dictionaries. Since it is really improper to left it untranslated, I created a Chinese translation for this technical term on my own. After the exam, by a simple search on google, I learned that this word has a very standardized translation called “石墨烯”. I am sure that I got low scores because of this severe mistake. And I feel really lucky to get a pass. So, please make sure that your dictionaries are up to date and have wide coverage. If your target language is happen to be Chinese, you can use the word “Graphene” to check if your dictionaries are competent enough to be your companions on the exam day.
  • Practiced with all the available past exam papers. For the 2017 exam, there are only 3 years of past papers available: 2009, 2010, and 2012. These papers are not digitally available. After arrangement and payment, the papers are sent to you by post. For papers from 2009 and 2010, I translated each unit loosely when I happen to have a block of 3 or 2 hours’ time. After finishing each unit, I would read very carefully the prewritten comments on the performance of the candidates that year and check if I have made similar mistakes. I kept the 2012 paper until 2 weeks before the exam day and did an exam simulation with it, i.e. translated all 3 units in one day according to the same schedule as in the exam.
  • Spent time reading texts in source language. From the registration in May 2016 to Mid-January 2017, I deliberately spend more time reading British news and articles. The content on the website of the Economist is similar to the general text in difficulty and style. When I was in London for the exam, on the day before the exam, I read almost the whole day the Economist magazines which I bought at the Liverpool Street station upon my arrival. On the day of the exam, I noticed that the English texts are flowing very smoothly into my mind, which speeded up my translation. So, I think it may help if you read extensively just before the exam to help prim yourself for the linguistic battle—the exam.
  • Kept translating. During the preparation phase (from the registration to the exam day), I worked 4 days a week in average as a freelance translator.
  • Searched and read extensively on translation theories and English-Chinese translation tips and tricks, which I actively applied in my translation practice.

These are basically all I have done to prepare for this exam. In the beginning of the preparation phase, I considered to take a course as well, but later I found that the available courses were too time-money consuming and the expected gains were too uncertain. I hope my experience can be of some value to you in some way. If you are motivated to take the challenge, I encourage you to make a plan, take actions and go for it!



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