A professional interpreters’ association or an employment agency?
November 17, 2015 § 11 Comments
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.