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And What About the ATA (American Translators Association)?


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The following piece outlines a strategy of growth for the ATA (American Translators Association) and was written while I served as Chair of their Public Relations Committee. It is for the reader to decide to what extent these proposals have been implemented.

Changing the Perception of the Translator
A Long-Term Strategy for the ATA

Our Bylaws could not possibly be any clearer about the primary purpose of the ATA: "to promote the recognition of the profession." It is in fact the very first policy statement this document contains. Yet this simply-stated goal has eluded us over thirty-five years of ATA history. How can this be the case? I will try—as tactfully as I can—to explain the reasons why this objective has not yet been reached. But I will also attempt—more importantly and more positively—to outline some truly useful steps we can take to remedy previous failings in the immediate, mid-term, and long-term future. In so doing I also hope to clarify what the objectives of a truly active and effective ATA could be.

In previous PR Committee reports I have already asked for your help in creating the new information we will need to advance the cause of translation: establishing an effective nation-wide media watch on the print and electronic media, building a fund of stories that show how translators and interpreters can and do make a difference in many areas of life, collecting your thoughts and bons mots about the process of translation. I have also taken the first preliminary step that could one day lead to a traveling exhibit about translation and am trying to devise a media event that could spotlight translators and interpreters. But all of this is only a beginning—it could take a few years before it bears fruit and will have little immediate impact on other problems facing the profession.

I have already pointed out what I believe to be the root elements of current misperceptions concerning translators. It is the false belief that our work is essentially simple: the "just type it out in Spanish" attitude, the "just say it in English" syndrome. According to this view, translators do nothing truly challenging or important—they are merely drones who are called in to make mechanical changes where needed. Those of us who work on a more advanced level have become aware that much of translation is considerably more demanding, that we are often called upon to transform not merely words but larger concepts and customs, sometimes even whole social and cultural milieus.

The general public assumes that any two languages are generally interchangeable, down to the finest details. We as translators know better—we are aware that even two languages with a common history and a seemingly related structure—such as English and French or English and German—are often worlds apart in the way they express complex (or even simple) ideas. But every profession likes to see its work at the center of the universe—how are we to make our point without indulging in what others may view as hyperbole?

We are not entirely alone in facing such a problem. At a recent conference, technical writers—who we might suppose are on a more advanced plane than translators—vented their own anger at their subservience to engineers in the companies where they work. These engineers frequently monopolize knowledge or refuse to explain it in a simple way, so that writers can pass on their insight to those unlucky enough to read manuals. In a hilarious skit these writers defined an engineer as "someone who knows absolutely everything there is to know about writing, after all they know the 26 letters of the alphabet." Translators and interpreters can readily come up with comparable complaints about their clients or perhaps some of the agencies which employ them.

But how can one deal with such widespread every-day attitudes? How can one get through to society at large and efficiently redesign the insides of everyone's head so that such questions do not recur? This would indeed be an impossible task, but fortunately it is not the one which faces us. A primary goal of public relations is to focus on two crucial target areas: first the print and electronic media, and second the major opinion makers and decision shapers, which in our field means leaders in funding, business, and government. This task is also a formidable one, but at least it is more dimensional and manageable in size. It is also one that can be performed step by step over time in an orderly way, though once begun it must be unfailingly pursued. By concentrating on these two influential sectors, we can bring about a trickle-down alteration in public perception of translators over a ten to twenty year period. In terms of moulding public opinion, this is a conservative and reasonable prediction.

But before we pursue this task any further, there are some crucial questions we must all ask ourselves. Do we really in our heart of hearts believe that the public perception of the translator can or should be raised? Do we truly see ourselves as major contributors to world commerce, communication, culture, and peace? Such questions lead us straight to the central underlying point: do we in fact have a persuasively high perception of ourselves as professionals? Or do some of us intrinsically view ourselves as dependent on others, powerless, trapped in our own low self-image and consequently unable to bring about a change in the way others see us?

I realize from reading recent issues of the Chronicle that the answer to this last question from many readers is a loud and decisive NO!. But I am concerned about those other members who are less sure of their answer. One former Board member informed me last year that the ATA was essentially an organization of amateurs—at least in all affairs outside their chosen field of translation—and that it was altogether proper (and even preferable) that the ATA should remain an organization of amateurs, whatever setbacks this might entail. He had great difficulty understanding something I saw quite clearly and tried to explain to him, namely that many organizations tend to cherish such "amateur" status at first, but that over time—provided they can evolve methods that do not compromise their original goals—they will inevitably come to "professionalize" more and more of their functions. This is in fact the normal path an organization follows as it begins to assume a more mature form. But it is precisely such maturity that our association has done its best to avoid over several decades. Now at last (unless I am deeply mistaken) there appears to be a chance that the ATA will finally grow up.

Precisely what would a more mature ATA look like, and how would it differ from what we have known until now? Look at the Chronicle you are holding in your hands, compare it with the Chronicle of one year or three or five years ago, imagine comparable change in all ATA activities (including some that do not yet exist), and you will begin to have an idea of what our association can become.

For starters, a more mature ATA would be routinely interacting with other major players in the fields of commerce, communication, culture, and government. It would be regularly co-sponsoring events, projects, studies, and exhibits with leading firms, agencies, and institutions. Its name and goals would be well-known and be quite matter-of-factly reported in numerous publications here and abroad. We would have a full-time PR person on staff, whose salary would be paid not out of dues but from the grant money our growing contacts would facilitate. (No, this person will not be myself—by then I will have long since moved on to other activities). We would also have at first a part-time and finally a full-time fund-raiser, whose position would be contingent on raising $30,000 for every $5,000 of salary.

Such an ATA would enjoy close relations with important international agencies and corporations and play a role in the field of communications. Translators and interpreters themselves would frequently be sought out as information sources and might even enjoy the odd run on TV as talk show guests or quiz contestants. On a more scholarly level, approaches to language pioneered by "Translation Studies" would enjoy at least equal respect with so-called research by Chomskian or "decon-recon-pomo" advocates. In short, translation would be treated as a major construct binding together and supporting all the other stories in the edifice of knowledge, and not merely its sub-basement.

Is all of this more than a dream? Is there any possibility that it could actually come about? Oddly enough, the answer is a definite yes, though subject to at least two provisos. The first of these provisos concerns time—we are necessarily speaking of an ATA permitted to evolve in a single direction without disturbance over a period of five to ten years. The other major proviso concerns our own strength of will—are we sufficiently wise and strong to allow such an evolution to take place without resorting to negative atavisms? If we are, then the actual work of transforming public perceptions of the translator—and thereby enhancing the perceived dignity and centrality of our profession—is little more than a series of stratagems that can be mastered by a growingly professional PR task force. But if we instead fall victim to our earlier atavisms, this whole process will be destroyed.

The question of course is how to get from here to there. As already noted, none of these changes can take place tomorrow—on the positive side, this means that all our members will enjoy a period of grace, during which they can adjust their own perceptions as the process ripens. But it should also be noted that today is unfortunately not the most ideal time to initiate such changes, even though we have no choice but to begin them now.

It is a great pity that ATA leaders were not sufficiently alert in 1970-71, when our association was already eleven years old. At that time the Arts and Humanities Endowments enjoyed unprecedented windfalls, and a more liberal funding policy reigned elsewhere as well, so that great strides could have been made. I make this claim advisedly, as I was then able to help initiate grants for a much smaller group based on far narrower grounds then those the ATA now commands. If the ATA had made any attempt in this direction as late as 1975 or even 1980, it might still have found a friendly reception. By 1985 and 1990 conditions grew considerably less favorable, but with discipline and perseverance even 1995 may not prove too late. No one should expect miracles, and it is well-known that some foundations do not deign to favor a group's proposals until they have been turned down for at least three years in a row.

Such additional funding could help the ATA to undertake projects currently beyond its own budget. Members should be kept closely informed throughout the early phases of such a process, and it would be useful for this purpose if we could invite a representative from a major foundation, a major corporate funding officer, and a government leader to address a plenary session of an upcoming ATA Conference concerning their funding policies, perhaps even as early as 1995. In my experience such an invitation could serve as a prelude to our organization being taken more seriously by these and comparable agencies.

Naturally, such a course of action will lead to some changes within the ATA, both in its structure and Bylaws. To qualify for the funding rat race, it would probably become necessary to set up a "Board of Advisors" in addition to our Board of Directors. Those whom we might invite to serve on this new board should be influential representatives from the worlds of culture, communication, and commerce. Obviously, they must also be well-informed about translation and should be assigned certain clearly defined tasks, so they themselves do not feel that they are merely names on a letterhead. It is also arguable—as part of a growing professionalism—that the unusual requirement for ATA President-Elects to organize two national conferences in order to become President should ultimately be waived and some other means of organizing our conferences be evolved.

If we decide on this course, we must also develop a more conscious discovery of what our organization is and what tasks it has undertaken in the past. It recently became apparent that the Ethics Committee, for instance, operates under no real rules or guidelines but simply improvises procedures as it goes along. While some might find this shocking, it now appears that most ATA Committees have operated in this fashion over many years. There is almost no history to fall back on, and most Committee heads have simply followed their own leads in developing their own projects until they either succeeded or burned out. Such a historical vacuum cannot help us to reach our broader goals.

It is crucial that we have a more accurate notion of what our committees have accomplished or attempted, and I have agreed to undertake a review of present and former committees with the aim of documenting their activities. Such a process could reveal what projects were abandoned for want of funding or might prove most fundable in the future. At present our standing committees and divisions most likely to be eligible for such funding might be Accreditation, Continuing Education, Dictionary Review, Interpretation, Publications, Terminology, Science and Technology, and Literary Translation, though the review of committee work I have described might uncover other potential candidates. Unlike arts and humanities organizations, the ATA may also qualify for grants and titles under other government departments: Education, Commerce, Labor, State.

There is a name in the world of funding and administration for the overall direction I have outlined: it is called "strategic planning." It involves a self-searching and methodical attempt to visualize where an organization is now situated and where it ought to be one, three, five, or even ten years in the future. Although texts on this subject abound, until now the ATA has never come close to approaching such a notion. Unless we conscientiously follow the path of strategic planning, not only will the doors of funding remain closed to us, but we will also forfeit the chance of ever coming near the totality of our organization's potential.

Such planning does of course also pose some dangers. As Ben Teague long ago pointed out, this sort of grant-form drudgery is a process much more congenial to our academic members than to our working translators. Thus, there is a possibility that the academic wing of our association could gain power at the expense of full-time professionals. This would be regrettable and ultimately self-defeating, but at least we would have a fair amount of time to think out the implications of such a development and arrive at some meaningful compromise.

Perhaps such an effort will also help us to gain a handle on one of the most perplexing problems surrounding translation. Even at this late date, no one has the foggiest notion concerning the actual size of the translation market and how it fits into the rest of the business and economic picture. To my knowledge, no other profession suffers from such a problem. In 1989 the New York Times estimated the size of this market as somewhere between ten and twenty billion dollars per year. In 1991 I tried to point out this glaring information gap in a Chronicle piece on Machine Translation, ultimately censored by a former editor, and Lee Wright also took up this theme in an excellent 1992 article. As Lee pointed out at that time:

"We cannot persuade young people to commit two years or more to our translator-training programs and to the need for ongoing skills improvement if we are unable to tell them what they're likely to gain from it all."

Both corporations and translation agencies are notoriously reluctant to reveal business details which might help us, and Lee suggested a two-tiered solution involving university translation departments as the investigators and financial support from the ATA. One thorny aspect of this problem involves how much "hidden" translation work may be performed by "bilingual secretaries" or "bilingual executive assistants," and its solution may require a novel statistical approach.

Perhaps if the ATA were to begin to work closely with a Fortune 500 Company involved in export, we might gain access to some useful information. Another problem involves companies that intensively hire translators or bilinguals during the early stages of establishing a foreign branch but then dismiss most of them when a sufficient body of knowledge has been gained by native-speaking workers.

As in cases of "depreciation" for machinery or "appreciation" for real estate, one could perhaps assign an arbitrary percentage of a foreign branch's gross receipts each year to the amount that would have been paid translators had they been retained. And some arbitrary but broadly arguable figure could also be evolved to cover the translation work done by bilingual secretaries and assistants. Accountants will surely raise their eyebrows at such concoctions, but these "guesstimates" might help us to arrive at a more accurate final figure for translation work within a single company, which could then be used as a basis for estimating similar costs for other companies in related fields. Out of this—with a modicum of help from our agency members—could emerge something approaching a realistic and defensible figure for the translation market as a whole.

Needless to say, it would also be useful if we could determine whether this market is expanding or contracting and how to detect tendencies in either direction. There are those who would claim that the translation market is always expanding and inherently limitless, but this assertion also lacks any objective proof. How much of the world's verbiage truly requires translation, and how much can quite conveniently remain in a single tongue? Will the spread of MT or CAT techniques change the answer to this query in any meaningful way? All of these questions could well do with answers, and perhaps a more mature ATA will be able to provide them.

We must also take pains to develop new ways of looking at translators both for ourselves and others. Such new perspectives can trigger an enhanced recognition of what our work is really about. What do I mean by new perspectives and new ways of looking at ourselves? What follows provides one example. It is intended primarily for the eyes of CEO's, foundation heads, and government leaders—it may be assumed that this audience knows what a "utility" is but is less familiar with the workings of translation. By comparing the one with the other, some form of "Aha" experience may possibly be induced. Such a message could—with outside funding—provide the text for a public service ad promoting our profession.

(see the section below)

I am grateful to PR Committee member Mark Herman for writing an alternate version of this text. Over time this concept can go through various changes so as to best make its point to different audiences.

I remain convinced that in the long run despite many obstacles it will become possible to bring society's overall perception of the translator into closer conformity with our own view of our work. But it is almost certain to require the changes in our organization—and in our own attitudes—which I have outlined. The time for beginning to confront these changes must be now—any further delay can only return us to the torpor of the preceding thirty-five years. What lies ahead can be the most vibrant period in the history of the ATA.

TRANSLATION: The Human Utility

We all know what utilities are—power, gas, the water supply, phones, faxes, and the like. Some, like water, we have always needed—most of the others we have grown so dependent on that we scarcely notice they are there. Except when they run badly—or run out altogether. We depend on all of them. And we count on certain standards being maintained.

But there is another utility we also use all the time. Or if we ourselves do not use it directly, we are still deeply dependent on it. And just as with water shortages or power glitches, we only notice it when it works badly. Or fails to work at all.

This utility is Translation. The conversion of words and ideas and processes in one language into words and ideas and processes in the language we know best. This conversion is going on all the time around us, even though we may not notice it. We really need translation. Sometimes it can be a matter of life and death.

In some ways translation is just like the other utilities. Just as we only notice water and power when the tap runs dry or the light starts to flicker, so too we only notice translation when it doesn't work.....when the translator makes a mistake.....or no translator is available.

But there's one big way that translation is different from the other utilities. Once the water and power are streaming along towards us, you only need humans to make repairs when things go wrong.

But to translate language you need humans almost all the time. Translation is The Human Utility. Language is about nothing else but being human, and you need humans to make sure the human side doesn't get lost. Only humans can be sure—at least most of the time—of getting it right.

You can set up standards for water pipes and electric wires to keep those utilities running. But only humans can maintain standards in language and translation. Fortunately there's an organization around to help them.

The American Translators Association.

The ATA.









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