An Outsider’s View About the American Translators Association

I first heard about the American Translators Association when I was in college taking translation courses.

The main professor in the translation program was a member of ATA and she would occasionally reference the organization or use some of the organization’s materials in class.

She never overtly encouraged us, however, to take the ATA exam or to become members of the group.

I’m not sure the reason, but that initial introduction to the organization made me fairly ambivalent to it in general.

To my knowledge, nobody in my program became a member during the two years we were all together.

Maybe the other students had their own reasons for not becoming involved with ATA, but for me, I never felt that it offered me anything that would help me in my career as a translator.

Sure, I could take the ATA exam and maybe pass it, which would give me a feather in my cap. But if I didn’t pass the test, then what?

What good was the $80 to spend on a student membership (money which I didn’t have anyway) when I wouldn’t even be allowed to be listed in their translator’s directory?

So I stayed ambivalent about the whole thing.

My views changed once I left school and became a professional translator.

I started to meet other translators and network on my own with other professionals in the field.

And what I found surprised me.

A lot of translators were becoming very successful translators without the help of ATA.

They didn’t need a professional organization of translators and interpreters to help them run their business.

Instead, they did it on their own.

Networking, marketing, and working harder than every other translator around them.

And I started to wonder. Did the majority of translators find success without ATA?

Was being a member of ATA necessary for the modern-day translator?

So I started an email campaign.

I sent emails to as many people I could find on the ATA directory, asking them specifically about their feelings towards membership in ATA.

These were the specific questions I asked:

  1. Has being a member of ATA led to more clients?
  2. Have people contacted you from ATA’s website needing a translator or do you still get most (if not all) your jobs from outside agencies?
  3. If you don’t get many job offers by being a member, in what way(s) does ATA membership provide value to you as a translator?
  4. What benefits does ATA give you that you couldn’t do without as a freelance translator?

Now for the interesting part. The responses.

Nearly everyone that emailed me back indicated that being a member of ATA did not directly lead to more clients.

Rather, the consensus was that being a
member didn’t provide any tangible benefits.

(OK, well that seems like a waste of money and time to me.)

Interestingly, though, all admitted that being certified by ATA could provide more work, but it was hard to tell how often this was true, since most clients didn’t specify the reasons they chose one translator over another.

Basically, it was too difficult to determine whether or not their being chosen as the translator for a specific project had anything to due with their ATA certification.

I thought this was pretty telling.

Here were people that were members of ATA because they thought it was possible that they could get more work by being certified, but they had no way of knowing whether their certification actually provided any tangible benefit.

This is why it’s important to test everything you do in your business, so that you know where your successes are coming from.

If these translators knew that clients were choosing them for their certification and membership, they could continue to invest in that part of their business.

But if they knew it had no bearing on their success as a freelance translator, then they could divert their resources to something with greater return on investment.

OK. Next trend.

A decent number of translators informed me that they didn’t really know why they were members.

They just lamented the cost and the feeling that they were getting so little back on their investment.

I thought about this.

Why would someone continue to spend money on something as part of their profession without knowing whether or not it contributed to their success in that profession?

If you’re a high-priced lawyer that needs to dress to impress your clients, then you’re going to spend money on a high-end wardrobe. That’s part of the deal.

If you’re an airline pilot that needs the latest resources and training on flying in order to be better at your job, you’re going to spend your money.

But if you’re spending your money
on your profession without knowing why,
then something’s wrong.

The only thing I could figure out was that maybe some translators feel that in order to be validated as a professional translator, they needed to belong to a professional organization of translators.

They were seeking permission to call themselves translators because they had the mindset that gatekeepers in the industry had to acknowledge them before they could call themselves professional translators.

That is no longer the case.

You can become a translator without having anybody give you permission.

And it seemed to me that having a membership for the sake of membership itself was a really stupid reason to become a member.

In all the comments that I got back on my informal survey, two comments really stuck out.

The first was from a 20 year member of the ATA:

I was a member of the ATA for 20 years. I was even accredited. Then they changed the certification rules. In order to retain your certification you had to participate in ATA sanctioned events. Participating twice in three years to the national conference would allow you to maintain certification for those years.

So you registered to the Conference, showed up to pick up your credentials and took a plane back home and you were deemed certified… and the ATA pocketed your registration fees. Everybody was a winner… except no continuing education had taken place at all, but that’s a mere detail.

As soon as I realized the new certification process was nothing short of a scam, I raised the question on translator forums internal to the ATA (I was a member of the French translators section). I was set upon by what i will call the minions of the Board and was the butt of Ad Hominem attacks, I asked to publish an article in the ATA Chronicle and found out that no letters to the editors were accepted or published, except those which waxed laudatory about the certification process which was being sold to the membership with a heavy hand because of the money it was and would be bringing in.

The certification/continuing education process sold by the ATA is an institution-building scheme, not a translators skill-building one. If I accept to pay for a Spanish-language pharmaceuticals seminar in Puerto-Rico, I can get credit points… even though I am not even a Spanish translator. Who cares? The ATA makes money, that’s what’s important.

Young translators feel they have to belong so they can find their way in the profession. As to myself, the year the new certification process was implemented, I left the ATA without a qualm after 20 some years of membership, and I have not looked back once.

And here’s another comment from a translator in New York City in response to the questions asked above:

Is certification by the ATA worth it? Absolutely not. Complete garbage. Look at it economically, for example return on investment. Even if you ARE certified, a) NO ONE CARES; and b) it costs thousands of dollars to maintain a certification that is worthless in the market. The median salary for translators is about $60,000.

Last year I made $275,000. This year I am aiming at $350,000.I gave up my membership when they tried to force me to sit through costly “continuing education” seminars taught by the incestuous bunch of incompetent idiots who run the organization. STAY AWAY!

So What Should You Do?

To be honest, you’ll have to figure it out yourself.

I’m not a member and have never been one.

It’s never been a priority for me.

But some people do enjoy their membership and feel that it is a good return on investment.

If you get value from being a member and you can justify the cost, by all means, feel free to support the group through your membership money.

But if you are being pressured to join because you won’t be a professional translator without membership, you need to re-examine your confidence in your translation abilities.

Professionalization has nothing to do with your ability to pay money to some organization. It has everything to do with how you conduct your business and how your clients respond to your work.

Until next time.

4 thoughts on “An Outsider’s View About the American Translators Association”

  1. Thanks for this post and for your perspective on ATA membership.The vast majority of our members seem very satisfied (over 80% renew from year to year, and on our membership survey, the majority of people say that they have gotten work from their directory listing), but of course we are not the right association for every single translator out there.

    We try to offer lots of tangible benefits for translators at all stages of their careers: mentoring, newcomers program, 20 different Divisions for various languages and specializations, webinars, social media opportunities, Newsbriefs, the Chronicle and of course the annual conference, but if you don’t find anything there that appeals, we’d love to hear your suggestions for how we could provide what you’re looking for!

    Corinne McKay (ATA President-Elect 2015-2017)

  2. Nigel Wheatley

    I’m no great fan of the ATA either, so I’d like to take up Corinne’s offer for a moment.

    My major gripe with the ATA that both its CPD activities and its certification activities are run at a loss: i.e. other members are subsidizing the members that take part in CPD activities (including the annual congress) and also the members who are certified. Lots of people are making a lot of money by offering CPD training to translators: why can’t the ATA be one of them? The SFT in France offers a model in providing high-quality training at prices that truly reflect costs – its courses are regularly oversubscribed. As for certification, if it is as valuable as the ATA pretends, surely its cost should reflect that value. If the actual value is such that the service cannot be sold for a price higher than its cost of delivery, it should be discontinued. Surely we should let professional translators in the free market be the judge of how much they feel that certification is worth to their business: if they don’t feel that it’s worth what the ATA has to charge to make a profit on it, or just to break even, then it’s not worth doing.

    Unfortunately, this is also the problem with this blog post: it assumes a certain number of “business school” precepts, without actually asking why it finds itself confronted with the paradox that the ATA appears to be useless but the ATA exists. A big heading reads “But if you’re spending your money on your profession without knowing why, then something’s wrong.” Let’s take a look at that for a moment.

    For a start, the ATA is not the translation profession, or anything close to it. It is a professional organization, the second-largest in the world for our profession, but it is the *American* Translators Association and so is obviously focused on one particular market. Nobody is required to be a member of the ATA, and its certification carries no formal legal weight even in the United States.

    So why do translators, U.S. translators in particular, pay their ATA membership fees? The post dismisses the idea that any good can come from ATA membership fees unless they can be found in the profit-and-loss account by standard management accounting. It states “it’s important to test everything you do in your business, so you know where your successes are coming from.” Well what if your business is changing, which most translators’ businesses are? You could test what you did in the last six months to be successful, but that wouldn’t necessarily be what you would need to do in the next six months, or longer term, to remain successful or to develop your business. The postulate itself is a fallacy if applied uncritically.

    But there are many other reasons for being part of a professional association. Corinne lists some of them. Not all of them appear in a profit-and-loss account, but that’s OK, because we don’t have to justify our expenditure to anyone (except the tax authorities!). That’s the beauty of being one-person businesses instead of corporations: we have no shareholders to keep happy other than ourselves. Whether we decide to be ATA members or not, we are members of a profession (perhaps the second oldest) that keeps us fed and provides a roof over our heads. We have interests in common. Some of us try to promote those interests through the various professional associations around the world, others don’t. I am a fervent proponent of the idea that there are as many different valid business plans as there are successful freelance translators, and so I can accept neither the postulates nor the conclusions of this post.

  3. Cindy Luquin

    I just stumbled onto your blog and I’d first like to acknowledge and thank you for the sound information you provide on here. I have been in the public education sector as a translator for 10 years and have struggled and doubted myself after getting an accrediation during my undergrad. I never got certified and I always even rejected potential work due to not having that piece of paper. Now realizing, I really could’ve built a clientele that was happy with my work outside as freelance. After reading this and going into 2018, I will no longer doubt the skills I’ve developed and continue developing on my own with the knowledge I know I have.

    Thank you again.

    1. Thanks for your words, Cindy. We should always strive to become better but never doubt our abilities to become so. You’ve prepared as a translator. You are a translator! Don’t let a piece of paper define who you are and what you want to become! You got this!

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