Are professional associations still relevant?

March 20, 2023 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The internet, and in particular social media, are making many professionals in all fields wonder if these 21st. century resources can replace professional associations as the place for professionals to meet their peers, support each other, and continue learning about all subjects relevant to their profession.

We must start by distinguishing between mandatory and voluntary professional associations. Mandatory professional associations are public entities, created by legislation, that group individuals who practice the same profession. Its main purpose is to regulate the practice of a profession, to establish the requirements to be admitted to the practice of such activity, and to aide on the enforcement of such professional obligations together with government authorities. Every person who wishes to practice that profession must meet these requirements and belong to the association. These associations represent and protect the interests of their members and the profession. Because mandatory professional associations are created by legislation, they can only exist within a jurisdiction, which means they cannot exist beyond their borders. A clear example of this associations in the United States and all common law system countries are the attorney bars.

Voluntary professional associations are private entities; they are not created by legislation, but by a group of private individuals in the same profession. Their main purpose is to establish professional and ethical cannons to be observed by their membership, to oversee the compliance with the rules, and to offer continuing professional development opportunities to its members. Unlike the first group, participation in these associations is voluntary, and membership is unnecessary to practice a profession. Sometimes, they participate in development of academic standards for the profession, and actively protect the profession by issuing opinions, position papers, and lobbying. Some are reminiscent of the guilds and unions of the past, and on occasion help negotiate fair contracts for their members (and non-members). Unlike mandatory associations, voluntary professional associations are not exclusive associations in a profession, which means there could be several associations in the same jurisdiction or country. Good examples of these entities are the American Bar Association (ABA) and the American Medical Association (AMA).

Voluntary professional associations can recommend a college degree to work in their professional field, but they cannot demand a professional college degree to practice a profession; Mandatory associations can.

Sometimes it is easier to tell these two entities apart in other legal systems and languages. In Spanish, voluntary professional associations are usually (not exclusively because there are many countries and systems in the Spanish-speaking world) called “asociaciones profesionales” and mandatory professional associations are called “colegios”.

Because interpreting is an unregulated profession in most countries, voluntary professional associations outnumber mandatory entities. This is an important (not exclusive) reason for the abundance of interpreters with an education below a college degree; and because membership is not needed to practice, many interpreters ignore them.

Many interpreters erroneously believe that the non-mandatory nature of these associations justify their decision not to belong to one of them. Unfortunately, because our profession lacks regulation in many places, it has been left to the market, where non- interpreters influence commercial and professional practices, to decide what goes. This “wild west” scenario makes it even more important to have a body of our peers setting professional and ethical standards for the practice of the profession, providing a space for interpreters to network, and offering continuing education to all who ethically practice the profession. Since these associations are not mandatory, or created by any government, they can easily turn international, thus guaranteeing the same ethical standards and quality control across the planet.

For all these reasons, the answer to the question at the beginning of this post is a resounding yes! To elevate their practice, and protect the quality of the profession, interpreters need to belong to local or national associations where their immediate needs will be met and resources will be provided; to international associations, because in the age of globalization and high technology, we are constantly working, collaborating, and competing with clients and colleagues everywhere on earth; and associations that specialize in that interpreter’s field so they can keep up with the latest developments and get continuing education in their discipline. I will mention no organizations because I do not want to leave anyone out, but I am convinced we have such associations throughout the world, I belong to some wonderful associations, and I encourage you to join them now that a new year is beginning.

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