A professional interpreters’ association or an employment agency?

November 17, 2015 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

A few weeks ago I started a controversial debate among interpreters and translators that made me think of one of the bigger challenges that we will ever face on our quest for professionalization: To think, act, and react as individual professionals who are trying to advance recognition, remuneration, and understanding of what we do for living.

When a colleague who works for the government suggested that the American Translators’ Association (ATA) should start a “government division” for interpreter and translator members to have a place to communicate, and learn from government agencies what they want from us in order to get work, I immediately got this extremely uncomfortable feeling that we were about to sell ourselves cheap once again; that the hated premise that we are under the client (turned employer, turned master) was going to be the basis of a debate where individual colleagues would decide not if they were going to jump or not, but just how high.

As fast as I could, I went on social media to point out this enormous danger, and from all my concerns, the only thing that most people picked up was the matter of the name that the new division would get: Instead of debating (and rejecting) the notion of having a government division, our colleagues discussed a name for a division that apparently was instantaneously accepted as a reality.  Agreeing with my rationale, those participating in the discussion saw the absurdity of vanishing all interpreters and translators from the name-description of the group by naming this entity “government division” and seemed more inclined to go with a “more inclusive” name. (I learned later that ATA bylaws will not even allow for a vote against the creation of such a monstrosity: To reject the idea we would need to amend the bylaws).

Unfortunately, the fundamental principle that makes such a division an absurdity went undetected. Let me explain:

ATA, like all interpreter and translator associations, are professional groups for the benefit of individual members to protect, disseminate, and advance the profession and the individuals providing the service.  As such, a professional association must clearly define who is one of us (a member), and who is not (clients, third parties, government officials). Once this has been established, the organization can do its work looking after the quality of the professional service, promoting educational opportunities, and defending the interests of its members.

The process above puts the professional association, and its members, in an advantageous position to sit down, individually or collectively depending on each situation, to negotiate professional services’ conditions with the counterpart: clients, agencies, government officials, and others.  All of these actors are active participants in the process, but none of them share the same interests or perspective of the professional interpreter or translator.  This is the purpose of a professional association. This is the only way that interpreters and translators can be considered, viewed, and treated as professionals instead of laborers.  An association with an organizational model where interpreters and translators commingle with the people who sit across the table can be many things, but it will never be a professional association.

For years I have defended our services as the type that only professionals can provide. I have fought for recognition at the level of an attorney, a physician and an engineer.  All of these professions have professional associations that follow the model I described above. None of them would even dream of having a format which included their counterpart in their organization.  Medical doctors deal with pharmaceuticals, government officials, and insurance companies every day; yet, none of these entities are part of the American Medical Association (http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/about-ama.page?)  Attorneys work with court systems everywhere, they deal with government agencies and police departments, credit institutions, and many others. Nobody, unless that person is an attorney, can be part of the American Bar Association (http://www.americanbar.org/about_the_aba.html) Our very own AIIC groups professional conference interpreters worldwide and it does not include agencies, government officials, or international organizations as members (http://aiic.net/page/6757/about-aiic/lang/1)  By the way, none of them allows “corporate memberships” either. A corporation cannot be a professional, it does not go to college or pass a certification exam. By definition, only human beings can be professionals. Other membership categories can be explained away by associations, but never justified. A professional association cannot become a place where young professionals go to be indoctrinated on the principles of being a good “language service provider to the industry”. We are a profession, not an industry. Professional organizations work to protect their members, profession, working conditions, ethics and quality of the service. They are never job fairs where people play a dating game with multinational agencies who want your services in exchange for rock-bottom fees and humiliating conditions far from the minimum standards acceptable for a profession.

The “government (or whatever the final name may be) division” is a serious blow to the professional recognition of interpreters and translators by clients and intermediaries because it perpetuates the idea that we are subservient to a specific entity; that we do not view the government as a client.  That we are willing, and eager, to fulfill all of their conditions so they can give us some work, regardless of the shameful terms and awful fees.  I fully reject this mindset. Dealing from weakness devaluates us as individuals and diminishes the profession. If we want to be government contractors, let’s have a special group of interpreters and translators where we can brainstorm and exchange experiences. This would be a place where professionals get stronger before going out there to negotiate with government officials. The time and place to deal with government agencies is across the table as counterparts, not within the organization as fellow members. We do not need them to tell us what is acceptable and what is not. We must let them know what are the minimum conditions we are willing to negotiate from, and let’s treat them as clients, respectfully but firmly. Always as equals.  Until we are ready to adopt this attitude, we will stay where we are, and we will quickly move to the place where the counterpart wants us to be: a hole full of blind obedience and compliance.  Some of us will never walk down that pathway, but many will. I now invite you to share your thoughts on this crucial subject that could impact the rest of your careers.

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§ 11 Responses to A professional interpreters’ association or an employment agency?

  • Tony, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I have often wondered about “corporate memberships,” and this “government division” proposal sounds crazy to me. What is it going to take, for member of our profession to view it and defend it as such?

  • mercedesguhl says:

    Well put, Tony. I am coming back from Miami, and watched the wrapup video of the conference and was a bit disappointed at confirming that the business of translation is becoming the focus of the annual conference, instead of the craft of translation. There was little of interest to me in the whole conference and what I enjoyed the most played no part in videos or photo slide shows: the sheer pleasure of organizing a presentation to show your ideas and having to explain and back them up to receive the attention and eventual blow from the audience. Discussion around translation problems, enlightening solutions, questioning around concepts and words, that’s what I expect from a professional conference. How to set up your business and market your services is just a marginal field. What we need is the opportunity to become better translators and interpreters, and not the drumming of new techniques and ways to advertise, promote and market our services.

  • Julia Poger says:

    Hello Tony,

    As a member of both the ATA and AIIC, I can’t agree with you more about the attitude that you describe. If the ATA were truly a professional association, then having a “government division” so the government could communicate its criteria to colleagues would not be a good thing at all.

    However, the ATA was not established as a professional association of the sort that you describe. It has always had members among both the provider and the user communities. It could not have been set up to defend a profession from outsiders making false claims or attempting to practice, as the doctors and lawyers do; after all, anyone can translate or interpret – there are no laws or regulations that say otherwise. The ATA provides more of a forum for the providers of the service to exchange best practice, and for the users of the service to communicate what they need most. As such, the ATA plays a very important role in education and promotion of its members’ interests: finding work, providing that service in the best way possible and in line with employers’ needs. Until the government sees the value of certifying translators and interpreters generally, not just for court work, and excludes anyone else from practicing, we can’t be exactly like the doctors and lawyers.

    The title of this post echoes one of the discussions that has been going among some members of AIIC for a long time: are we a professional association or a trade union? After all, AIIC collectively bargains for all conference interpreters, members or not, who work in international organizations. But at the same time, we like to think of ourselves as doctors or lawyers, working in a profession that requires a certain amount of education, a degree (though many of our members – excellent interpreters – never got a degree in conference interpreting), etc. So we get involved in ISO discussions, we teach in interpreting schools, etc.

    This is one of the reasons that The Translators and Interpreters Guild was created: because the explicit trade union aspect was missing. Under the umbrella of the AFL-CIO, we wanted to help our members, without having management be one of those members. We were hoping to set up an apprentice / journeyman / master structure to help young colleagues get a foot in the door but to make sure they were supervised. So both a trade union and an employment agency, but without management.

    All this to say that this “government division” being created within the ATA isn’t a disaster. It will allow people who work for the government to have a forum to exchange information, talk about trends, and it will allow the users to let our members know how best to be able to find work. This is not a negligible benefit to members of an association that includes both groups.

    What is a disaster is that members of our profession do not see themselves as individual professionals, knowing their worth, and act as such both inside and outside the ATA.

  • […] Dear Colleagues: A few weeks ago I started a controversial debate among interpreters and translators that made me think of one of the bigger challenges that we will ever face on our quest for profe…  […]

  • Marianela says:

    Well said. I cannot agree more with you.

  • Hi Tony, and thanks for this post. Just to clarify, here is the information from ATA’s website about how to form a new Division:
    http://atanet.org/divisions/division_start.php
    Divisions are not in any way formed or instituted by ATA; they are, by definition, an initiative from the membership. Twenty voting members have to sign the Division petition, and a voting member has to step up to be the administrator. The Government Division, like every other Division, was not created by the Board; it was initiated by members because they saw a need for it.

    Every ATA Division serves as a “home” within the association so that people who work in similar languages or specializations can meet each other and share ideas. As a former FBI contract linguist, I would have loved to have a resource like the Government Division, so that I could meet other people who worked in that type of job; at the time I was the only French translator in the Denver office, and it would have been great to meet other ATA members who worked as FBI linguists. The purpose of the Government Division is for translators and interpreters who work for government entities to be able to connect with each other, and as an ATA officer I very much support that.

    • Corinne, I don’t understand why do I need a “Government Division” to “be able to connect with each other.” or “…meet each other and share ideas.” I’m already able to do that, and do so, as the need arises.

      What’s the use in talking to each other, when Federal Court employees basically use the Guide To Judiciary Policy Vol. 5, Court Interpreting, for example, as if it was toilet paper? To compare notes on how bad things are in each other’s district? I’m sorry, I have better things to do than that.

      The powers that be simply don’t care about the “interpreter.” They (the judges/clerks/coordinators) don’t even know that there is an AOC YouTube channel that has all kind of information on how to use interpreters properly. The same disastrous situation is in effect with the SSA, Immigration, etc.

      They must reason: What are they (the interpreters) going to do? Quit, go on strike? Refuse to work? So what! We use whomever, and whenever WE please! Hey, fellow-corrupt-government-worker, hand me the interpreters’ Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility please, I ran out of toilet paper.

      If 500 of us wrote all the judges and clerks a formal letter asking them to respect our Terms and Conditions, they would NOT CARE! They don’t!
      Obviously, there are a very few good people in the judiciary still, but very few. I was recently replaced by an “interpreter” with ZERO credentials on a week long murder trial, because I said that I needed to work with another FCCI, and the judge had never ever heard of using two interpreters for a trial! I could tell another 100 other horror stories. For what? It’s a waste of time.

      Of course, I know your motivations are pure. Talking accomplishes nothing. A good class action law suit against the government could help.

  • I have interpreted in well over 7,000 assignments; however, recently I have noticed that the “government” is broke –as in bankrupt– and so they are using non-certified interpreters for every kind of hearing. I have pointed out chapter and verse in their own policies and rules governing interpretation. They don’t care; they don’t even have the courtesy to respond! One cannot “negotiate” with people like that. One cannot sit across the table with people like that. A “government division” makes ZERO sense.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    I addition to everything that has been stated in this particular subject, there’s the problem of making people understand that OUR WORDS ARE OUR PRODUCT and that these words are just as important in the field of international communication as any of the other devices normally required to perform in that field, whether it’s for court interpreting, conference interpreting, translation, transcription, etc.

    I’ve seen a lot of jealousy and envy from those who don’t understand why —in come cases— we as certified interpreters get paid more per hour than members of their own staff. I’ve heard snarky remarks such as “…you’re just talking, so how come you get paid so much for just talking?”

    They don’t see the value of the interpreter / translator because they’re not getting a physical product in their hands and therefore they can’t relate to having to pay for something that they can’t package and take with them like some commodity. Clearly, those people have no earthly idea as to what an interpreter or translator is, nor what his / her function is.

    I’d like to see the law schools in the United States —and maybe the rest of the countries everywhere— adopt a mandatory course in court interpretation and translation / transcription, etc. and make it a permanent part of the law degree curriculum, so that when the attorney graduates and practices and / or eventually decides to become a judge, they’ll be able to appreciate what all is required to carry out our profession, and with that—hopefully— begin to cure the balking that seems so endemic to their attitude.

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