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French Reading Proficiency Exam

The Graduate Reading Proficiency Exam in French is designed to allow graduate students to demonstrate reading proficiency in French in their area of specialization. The exam is offered once each semester and consists of the translation of a 500-word passage from a secondary source, typically a scholarly journal, in the candidate's area of study. Candidates will have two hours to complete the translation and may use a dictionary.

The reading passage is provided by the student's department (either the advisor or the Graduate Studies Chair), with guidelines for the selection of the passage detailed below. The exam is graded on a pass/non-pass basis by the exam coordinator in French.

Note that students are responsible for contacting their advisor and requesting that they submit a passage.

Dates and Deadlines 2023-2024

The exam takes place on the eleventh Wednesday of the semester. 

Autumn 2023

Deadline for registration and submission of translation passages: Wednesday, October 25

Exam date: Wednesday, November 1

Deadline for notification of exam results: Friday, November 17

Spring 2024

Deadline for registration and submission of translation passages: Wednesday, March 13

Exam date: Wednesday, March 20

Deadline for notification of exam results: Friday, April 5


Summer 2024

Deadline for registration and submission of translation passages: Wednesday, July 10

Exam date: Wednesday, July 17

Deadline for notification of exam results: Friday, August 2

Additional Information

Upon receiving the request form from the student, the Advisor or Graduate Chair will select and submit a 500-word reading passage from a secondary source, bearing in mind the student's research interests and emphasis of study.

Owing to the individualized nature of each exam, the perceived level of difficulty of the reading passages will vary. The following stylistic descriptions of scholarly texts are offered as a reference in assissing the appropriateness of any given passage.

Types of stylistic scholarly texts

Type 1: Conventional academic style (e.g., a typical scholarly article with conventional style, syntax and word usage)

Les documents de la "Dhabtia" encore peu exploités contiennent une massed'informations à défricher pour faire renaître les vestiges de l'histoire sociale engénéral et plus particulièrement celle des Juifs tunisiens en ce qui nous concerne. Lesmilliers d'affaires nocturnes et diurnes enregistrées par le conseil de "Dhabtia"permettent de dévoiler des aspects de la vie quotidienne relatifs à la criminalité.

Type 2: Unconventional critical style (e.g., post-modern blending of philosophical, literary and critical discourse characterized by a complex style, syntax and word usage)

La passion ne cesse d'inventer des limites qu'elle veut enfreindre, elle ne se déploieque dans la tension engendrée par les limites étroites que sont la famille, l'idée dudestin, la guerre et la politique, elle veut connaître l'excès, l'en-trop de sondébordement. La folie originaire d'Eros n'est que transgression d'une loi, n'est quejouissance dans la profanation du débordement. D'où la beauté.

Type 3: A pre-contemporary style (e.g., pre-twentieth-century criticism or commentary characterized by archaic style, syntax, word usage, and spellings)

Pour opérer ce changement important, le maître de police, accompagné d'un ingénieuret de quelques agens, traçoit successivement la largeur des rues, de manière à cequ'une voiture pût y passer. L'alignement étoit soigneusement observé, et l'onaccordoit aux habitants un délai assez court pour rebâtir en briques leurs maisons, quin'ont, en général, que douze ou quinze pieds de hauteur.

If the advisor or Graduate Chair chooses a text whose style is ABOVE Type 1, he or she should inform the student accordingly.

Take a course:

The Department of French and Italian offers a course designed to give students a reading knowledge of the language.

  • French 6571 is designed for students with little or no background in French.  It includes an intensive study of the basics of French grammar and vocabulary and develops the students’ ability to translate general interest articles as well as texts in their specialized field of study.

Credit for 6571 does not apply to the minimum number of hours required for the master's or doctoral degrees.

Review the textbook:

The 5571 series uses French for Reading by Karl C. Sandberg and Eddison C. Tatham. It is a programmed textbook giving an overview of French grammar and vocabulary with self-corrected exercises and sample translation texts. Even if you have studied French before, you would be advised to review this text, as it presents in a simple form advanced constructions not normally addressed in beginning language courses. These would include exclusively literary verb tenses, complex syntactical structures (including inverted word order), and idiomatic phrases among others, all of which are typical of the primary and secondary sources used in graduate research.

Talk to your advisor or Graduate Chair:

Have a discussion with your advisor or Graduate Chair about the different research materials in French which you could expect to find useful in your field. Specifically, it will be helpful to assess the stylistic type (or types) of scholarly texts which you are expected to be able to translate for your work and for the exam.


Following your discussion with your advisor or Graduate Chair, select several texts and, if appropriate, a variety of textual types (e.g., primary and secondary sources, conventional and unconventional critical style) to read and translate.

  • First, read lengthier passages to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary of your specialized field. Practice identifying key words or phrases, and look these up immediately as you read so as to be able to have an overall view of the work.
  • On your first reading, you may underline words you do not know and look these up as you proceed to translate the text. Remember, consult an unabridged, or at least college-level bilingual dictionary; pocket dictionaries are not designed for research-level work.
  • Keep a short list of "trouble" passages. Is the word order inverted? Is there a pronoun with a mystery antecedent? Is there a verb form you have never seen before? Are there phrases that make no sense, even though you have looked up all the words? It is important to try to resolve these problems, as they are likely to reappear on the exam passage. Consult French for Reading for simple explanations of advanced grammatical forms and make sure that your dictionary has thorough entries including idiomatic usages.
  • Finally, choose a passage of approximately 500 words, and with your dictionary at your side, practice translating the text in two hours. When you have finished, read your English translation for coherence and fluency. (For more on the criteria used to evaluate translations, see the American Translator's Association: http://www.atanet.org/certification/aboutexams_error.php
  • For additional advice on taking a translation exam, consult the American Translator's Association's "Tips for Candidates" preparing the ATA certification exam

Why is the exam limited to secondary sources?

Traditionally the exam has been limited to secondary sources, primarily articles taken from scholarly journals. Primary sources, including works of fiction, diaries, journals, field notes, etc., may pose problems of interpretation in the original which are beyond the scope of a translation exam. Included in these challenges may be extra-textual references, use of slang or non-standard vocabulary, sentence fragments, puns, and all varieties of poetic language.

What is the best dictionary?

There are a number of good bilingual "college" dictionaries, and best of all would be an unabridged version. Harper Collins Robert, Larousse, and Harrap's are among the most popular. Above all, avoid using a pocket dictionary; they are not designed for translating complex, scholarly texts.

May I use an online dictionary?

Yes, online dictionaries are allowed in the exam. DO NOT use Google Translate or other such service to aid with this translation. It is also not recommended that you use translators to practice, as they are designed to translate simple oral communication and not written documents typical of graduate-level research.

Do I translate literally or should I put my translation in fluent English?

Your English translation should read fluently while preserving the meaning of the French original. A too-literal translation can lead to faulty meaning, while a too-free translation can miss essential nuances in the original. For a lengthier discussion of this question, see the American Translator's Association.

Is the exam written long-hand or on a computer?

The exam is typed on a computer using Microsoft Word. 

The completed translations are graded by the Exam Coordinator in French according to the following criteria:

PASS: The translation is complete and accurately conveys the sense of the passage, without distortions (although minor lapses are permitted). Basic verb tenses and idioms are translated correctly. The translation is not overly literal and is written in fluent, idiomatic English.

NON-PASS: The translation shows a general misunderstanding of the basic events of the passage or is repeatedly inaccurate. Verb tenses and idioms are repeatedly mistranslated. The translation is overly literal, displaying no sense of the nuances of the original. The translation is incomplete.

Example of Successful and Unsuccessful translations

French original

Elevée dans un milieu simple et rigide, la princesse ne s'adapta que très mal à la vie brillante et dissolue de la cour de Louis XIV. Elle "boudait souvent la compagnie, dit d'elle Saint-Simon, s'en faisait craindre par son humeur dure et farouche et, quelquefois, par ses propos, . . ."

Unsuccessful translation

Raised in a simple and rigid middle, the princess did not adapt herself that very poorly to the brilliant and dissolute life from the court of Louis XIV. She "sulked often the company, says of her Saint-Simon, made herself to fear of it by her hard and ferocious humor and, sometimes, by her words."

Successful translation

Raised in a simple and rigid milieu, the princess adapted very poorly to the brilliant and dissolute life of Louis XIV's court. She often stayed away from people at the court, Saint-Simon said of her, and made herself feared by them owing to her hard and unsociable mood, and sometimes, to her words."

For a more detailed description of the criteria used to judge a translation, consult the website of the American Translator's Association, specifically the page devoted to the grading of the Certification Exam.


The application to take the proficiency examination consists of two parts:

1. The student must complete the Graduate Proficiency Exam Registration Form by the registration deadline. 

2. The advisor must submit the translation passage via the Advisor Translation Passage Submission.