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We are the ATA – the ATA is us November 23, 2010

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in ATA.

A comment posted to my blog post on certification while I slept last night has spawned this current post. The commenter stated she was going to let her membership in ATA lapse because it did not offer Italian>English certification. I have taken the ATA to task here on this blog over the last few years, and often achieved some change (I like to think the reason we had free Internet this year at the conference is partly due to a blog post I wrote after the last conference. I know it’s probably due to years of comments about paying for Internet, but please leave me my delusion 😉 ). However, I would never in a million years make the bad business decision to let my membership in ATA lapse.

It concerns me to hear people complain about the ATA without trying to do anything to effect change. No organization is perfect. Organizations by nature are bloated and bureaucratic. We the members make up the organization. ATA is more than “Headquarters” and “The Board.” Our Board is made up of volunteers who are willing to serve three-year terms to run the organization – not corporate lackeys who are there to “bring us down” or serve their own interests. In fact, I believe there are only one or two agency owners on the Board at the moment. We are the ATA – the ATA is us!!!

There is so much more to ATA membership than simply certification. I feel my membership in ATA brings me countless benefits, including attendance at the annual conference and smaller specialized conferences (where I have met some excellent clients), a discounted subscription to Payment Practices and the Translator’s Tool Kit, the monthly ATA Chronicle, the Business Practices Archive and, most importantly to me, the GLD, LTD, Medical Division, and Business Practices listservs, which allow me to discuss terminology, technology, and business practices with other ATA members. The BP listserv has both freelancers and agency owners on it, which allows us to see both sides of issues. This is extremely enlightening and eye-opening, let me tell you.

If you are considering letting your membership lapse for whatever reason, ask yourself what you can do to make things better. Let’s use the example of the commenter. Just because they don’t offer Italian to English certification, have you thought about possibly being on a committee to make sure that eventually happens? The ATA probably doesn’t offer that language track because it doesn’t have enough volunteers to chair the committee and serve as graders. Tess Whitty could probably tell you how to do that. ATA can only be vital if it has members that are willing to do work in order to get things it wants to see done done. ATA is more than Headquarters and the Board. We are the ATA – every single member. It is up to us to ensure it benefits us.



1. Sarah Dillon - November 23, 2010

“Our Board is made up of volunteers who are willing to serve three-year terms to run the organization – not corporate lackeys who are there to “bring us down” or serve their own interests. … We are the ATA – the ATA is us!!!”

This is such a great post Jill, and I love this point above. All very true, and applicable to professional membership associations the world over.

I heard someone say at the recent AUSIT Conference that joining a professional association is an investment in your long-term future career as a translator or interpreter. I thought that was a great point. So it’s not just about instant results or profit, or about what the association can do for you now, but rather being a contributor to and supporter of small incremental changes, which added together will help ensure your profession looks the way you want it to, 5, 10, 15 years down the track. Jettisoning a long-term investment for a couple of bum years (a subjective assessment in itself) is foolish and short-sighted.

So many of us forget that the people who ensure that Things Get Done in our associations are people exactly like you and me. They have translation businesses to run & personal lives to lead, and they generally do *not* get direct financial compensation for the time they choose to *not* spend on their businesses or families – in order to make *all our* working lives better. (Granted there’s much else that volunteers stand to gain from their involvement – but still, a bit of understanding wouldn’t go astray).

Professional associations work when we make them work. Professional associations fail when we make them fail.

2. Marcello Napolitano - November 23, 2010

I am going to renew my ATA membership for next year, even though it is a waste of money. Not sure if I am going to do it after next year. I used to go to the ATA conference every year and do a presentation to share the things I learned, but I would lose one day of conference to prepare and present, and the other day would have little to no presentations to attend in my field (software localization/technical translation, into Italian). With a total cost of over $2000 per conference (including lost revenue), it was a lot of money just for the privilege of sharing my knowledge with others. So I haven’t been to an ATA conference since Seattle. Which also means that I am no longer ATA certified, because without the easy 10 CE credits for each conference, the ATA requirements for documenting all the articles that I read for the purpose of keeping my skills current are a lot of work for very little benefit. Which in turn means that the very small pool of IT>EN potential graders is now even smaller. Unlike other groups, the Italian division has been somewhat dormant for many years, with no newsletter and no active mailing list (we average maybe one or two messages a month, and even when I was the division administrator it was not a lot more than that). We are businesses, and the ATA membership is a cost that needs to provide some benefit. For many people it is well worth it, for me it is not. And it is not for my personal lack of trying to make it worth it.

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 23, 2010

It’s a shame that you feel the conference is a waste of your time and money. I look forward to the conference for its networking aspects instead of educational aspects. In my case, I rarely attend the German language sessions. There are occasionally sessions in my fields, but they are usually targeted more towards beginners. The sessions also depend on finding someone willing to share their knowledge, and a lot of people are intimidated by that idea so they don’t bother submitting a proposal. Instead I attend sessions on how to make my business more efficient, how to market my services, and learn about the new tools out there. I don’t think relying on the conference as your only method of continuing education is a very good idea. You can earn CE points for being a member of your local organization, writing an article for the ATA Chronicle and/or division newsletter, and even attending local community college courses in your chosen fields of specialization. You don’t even have to attend every conference. You can earn CE points for watching the eConference sessions. I’m not even certified and easily earn the required 20 CE credits every three years. However, in my case since I’m not certified I don’t have to turn in proof to ATA. But I know I am keeping my skills up, and that is all that matters.

3. Caitilin Walsh - November 23, 2010


Thanks for that reminder! I would chime in that it’s not just the board working hard: there are literally hundreds of volunteers pulling in large and small roles to make the association work at so many levels. There would simply be no “them” without “us.”


4. Kevin Lossner - November 24, 2010

The bits I’ve heard about ATA certification have often struck me as a bit odd, and I’m sure there is plenty of opportunity for reform and improvement there as there is with any other certification scheme of which I am aware. The translators’ association I belong to in Germany (BDÜ, there are a number of other good ones) doesn’t do certs, but the state governments and chambers of commerce (among others) do, and they are deeply flawed in many cases.

Nonetheless, I have to agree that membership in a good professional organization like the ATA, ITI, ADÜ, BDÜ and others is one of the most important business investments one can make. I am not very active in my own organization; I’ve made it to exactly one seminar in four years and I only occasionally haunt the members’ private forums because the GUI is beastly. However, networking through those forums as well as the publicly available members’ directory have brought me some of my best clients. I think the ATA offers no less than that, doesn’t it?

Like Jill said, it’s the opportunities to connect with other people that really matter. The platforms for doing so are inevitably flawed in some way, but where enough good people are gathered, something of value can always be derived. The rest can be ignored or fought.

5. Judy Jenner - November 26, 2010

I completely agree — the ATA is a wonderful organization, albeit not a perfect one. And as the vice president of my local T&I group, I cannot say it enough: participate and volunteer! We do indeed need more people and hard-working linguists willing to create, change, and improve thing — whatever they might be. Actually, 3 years ago we didn’t even have a T&I organization here in Nevada, and now we do. It did take a tremendous amount of hard work, but anything is possible with a few very dedicated people.

And not having a membership in a professional association is just a very poor business decision, period. If I were a client, I wouldn’t hire a professional with no credentials.

6. patenttranslator - November 29, 2010

I have been an ATA member since 1987. I disagree with their approach to some issues, certification is a big one for me. The way they certify translators, based on a short, handwritten test, is simply insane. They still don’t allow using a laptop, right? You still have to write in longhand on a piece of paper, correct? And the requirement that you have to go to “continued education” sessions is also kind of nuts if you ask me. Why do they do that? To make money, probably.

However, I really don’t know much about the current situation. Maybe things have changed. But many people share my opinion. For example, my friend Rich who has a PhD in Japanese studies proudly and loudly announces to everyone interested that he is not an ATA member. The main reason, I think, is that he probably thinks that things like “certification” and “continued education” are a joke for somebody like him. He is not going to demean himself by attending mandatory “continued education events”. And I agree with him.

On the other hand, ATA does a lot of good work for translators. Once in a while the ATA Chronicle has a really good article. I don’t go to conferences because if I have to spend 2 thousand dollars, I much prefer to spend the money with my kids in Prague, but I really enjoyed the one conference that I went to in San Francisco in 1997.

And I always get some work from my listing in the ATA in the ATA database even though I am not certified (just like Rich, I am not going to bother). I don’t get a lot of business from the listing, but the membership fee of 160 dollars is definitely returned every year to me many times over. And I get a kick out of stating on my certifying statement that I am “a member in good standing” of the American Translators Association”, which I evidently am because every year when I send them some money in December, that’s what it says on the little piece of paper they send me back.

So my evaluation of the ATA would be mostly positive, although I think that they should do something about the certification and continued education issue.

However, to say that certification by ATA is a credential of anything is in my opinion not based on reality, whether you are certified or not.

In 23 years, I have never been asked by a direct client, usually a patent lawyer or patent agent, whether I am accredited by ATA. None of them seems to have any idea that the ATA even exists. I have been asked this question maybe 5 or 6 times over a period of 23 years by various assorted agencies, but every time when I said no, no further questions were asked and I got the job anyway.

Best regards,

Steve Vitek

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 29, 2010

Hi Steve,

Just to clear up a misconception for the readers – there is no such thing as a “mandatory continuing education event.” You can take a course at your local community college or online and get continuing education credit. Continuing education was not instituted to make the ATA money.


7. Andie Ho - December 9, 2010

As a PM, the only thing ATA membership tells me is that you are at least one notch above the hacks who think they can be a part-time translator because they happen to speak two languages. You’ve at least put some time into finding out what the industry requires or what clients like to see and invested a bit of money into it. Then again, my pet goldfish could be a member in good standing as long as he (she?) sent in the money.

Being certified or active in the industry means you’re probably organized enough to be capable of responding to my e-mails and meeting my deadline. (Probably.) It still doesn’t tell me that you’re a good translator. Some of my best translators are not members of the ATA (and still have more work than they can handle) and some of my worst are certified and very active in the industry, often with seemingly impressive credentials. Furthermore, some of the active people are clearly overextended and bang out bleary-eyed translations in the middle of the night, leading to sloppy mistakes that have nothing to do with being a “good” or “bad” translator.

I enjoy attending the annual conference, where I always learn something, and I think many, if not most, translators could benefit from having a membership if they were able to use it to their benefit (as it seems Jill does). If I were a full-time freelancer, I would get a membership if only to get my name on the list. But being an ATA member is not the be-all and end-all of the translation world.

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