Posted by: patenttranslator | March 14, 2011

Are Translators’ Associations Losing Longtime Members Because They Don’t Believe in the Principle of “Audiatur Et Altera Pars”?

I received an e-mail this morning which said the following:

Hi, Steve,


I am a former ATA and now former NCTA member who remembers you as the best contributor to the NCTA Translorial.  I still have a copy of your “Reflections of a Human Translator on Machine Translation” (even though it did not persuade one non-linguist friend that machines will indeed get there soon….).


Are you still a member of NCTA?  The reason I ask is this:  I wrote a letter to the Translorial a couple of years ago in response to an article by Nina Bogdan that appeared in the September 2009 issue, which I thought — and still think — was ridiculous.  Whatever the case,  I thought my response could be useful to translators eager to take the ATA exam, and I was also deluded enough to think it could start a dialogue.  Unfortunately, the reaction was :”How dare you?!”  The “editors” would consider it but only after editing, because they did not like my “tone.”


I could not believe that “we” members could be denied space in the Translorial, which I still think has become an advertising vehicle rather than a place for translators to exchange ideas.  I would have liked the readers of the Translorial to respond to the points, but in the end I had no way to circulate what I had written.  Ah, well….


Attached is a copy of my letter.  I’d love to know what you think.


Kind regards,


Ricky Lacina (Ms)


Ricky’s letter is here:

Dear NCTA,

I read with interest Nina Bogdan’s humorous “rant” on “The Great ATA Certification Debate.”  Let me state at the outset that I do not know Nina Bogdan, nor am I familiar with her work or skills, so this is a reaction to the content of her piece and attitude, which I can only describe as really angry.  Nor should my response be construed as support for or defense of the ATA or its certification methods.  I have no dog in this fight, but observe nevertheless that Ms Bogdan is barking up the wrong tree, so to speak.

Ms Bogdan’s chief complaint seems to be, and I quote:  “…the venue for taking the exam is, to put it mildly, primitive and therefore not particularly conducive to producing brilliant work.”  Moreover, “…candidates must still, in 2009 A.D., take the exam using pencil or pen and paper,” and “…this does not in any way mirror the contemporary world of translation where computer skills rank only slightly below language skills themselves [???] in order for a translator to be successful in their [sic] chosen career.”  She likens the undertaking to making “markings on clay tablets,” since many people “have not written in pencil since the first grade,” concluding that “the exam format is a culture shock of sorts – a forced regression, perhaps, to those childhood days.”  She further argues that a “case could be made, even, that a person’s brain function changes depending on the tools that they [sic] are using.”  Gosh!  How did the Curies ever function?  What about Mozart?  Or Shakespeare?  Let us have mercy on poor old Balzac, who was ALWAYS scribbling madly away at – let’s see, how many books was that? – while staving off the creditors, to say nothing of his mother!

Ms Bogdan argues, spuriously, that after “using a keyboard…for, perhaps, 25 years, the brain becomes accustomed to operating in this venue.”  For starters, it’s not the brain that is using the keyboard, and a keyboard is not a venue.  She protests that she “thinks as she types and deletes and re-types…. This is not possible with pencil and paper no matter how much one practices erasing.”  (Practices erasing?  Is this a good use of her time?)    Without realizing it, Ms Bogdan has put her finger on what is in fact the key to her problem and angry frustration.  The idea is to read and understand the passage, translating all the while, however unconsciously, and THEN put pencil to paper!  Not only is this method far more efficient, but there will be far less changing to do, not to mention time to reread and reconsider.  The process is virtually the same if one is using a computer.  The more rewrites, the more chance of failing to eliminate something or add something or pay attention to punctuation.  Read, understand, translate, write, reread.

Ms Bogdan also carps about carting “suitcases full of dictionaries to exam sites…in unfamiliar locations.  The added burden of transporting 100 lbs [?!] of books adds to stress levels and complications in logistical planning (not to mention expenses).”  What, are we going to war here?  Finally, she labels an assertion made in the…overview of the exam in The ATA Chronicle that one good general dictionary and one general specialty dictionary are sufficient for the exam “a bit unrealistic.”  Actually not.  It’s one of the best pieces of advice one could receive, and it was GIVEN AWAY at an ATA practice session years and years ago.  The idea that one has to carry a ton of dictionaries to the exam is a very good hint that one is very likely not close to ready.  Time should be spent translating and reviewing for improvement, not frantically looking up words.  Hauling Webster’s “Third” (Unabridged) around is a definite indication that one’s English (and/or spelling) is very likely not equal to the task either.

Now then, combining the “think-first-then-write” method with choosing just the right (small) dictionary or two is the best plan, provided that one has already acquired the necessary skills.  I have a sad memory of one unfortunate fellow at an MA exam in Berkeley years ago who would write furiously, tear the page out of his bluebook, crumple it up, and throw it on the floor, repeating this operation over and over, occasionally rushing out for water.  He was desperate, and the rest of us were desperately disturbed.  Now then, just imagine a bunch of people in one room using voice recognition software!

As for taking the exam home, get serious.  Would the “resources” at the candidate’s disposal include a friend on standby?  I taught at UC Davis when the “so-called” honor system was in effect, before computers, in other words, a truly “primitive” venue.  As for graders being “inundated with exams” if there were but one sitting, I would remark that I had 89 students one semester and corrected EVERYTHING myself, never using the same exam twice.

Ms Bogdan makes repeated reference to the pitiful exam pass rate of 20 percent, calling the 80-percent failure rate a “daunting figure.” Moreover, the 20 percent who pass are “competent,” but not necessarily “outstanding” or “brilliant.”  I was asked to be a grader years and years ago (Spanish to English), a task I enjoyed and would have continued for nothing, but was never given the chance.  I cannot describe my amazement at JUST HOW BAD the translations were; I don’t remember if I passed anyone.  One well-known ATA-certified translation agency owner informed me that I was probably not asked back because I was too tough.  I do not think I was.  I wondered if the candidates were competent in either language.  Their papers looked like kindergarten scribblings.

Two more points:  First, to be a good, even adequate, translator, one has to be a good writer.  If you do not write for or with pleasure, you may be in the wrong field.  If in doubt, ask a skilled translator whose work you know to be good to read something you’ve done.  Ask a good writer to read your English translation (if that is what it is).  Tell this “grader” to be honest and, if possible, make suggestions.  Do you know what a “dangling participle” is? Uh oh!

Second, grammar as such has taken a real beating in the schools of late, whether public or private, and while grammar has been slighted, taught by someone incompetent or not taught at all, the teaching of punctuation has virtually disappeared.  Even so, it does exist, there are rules, and one needs to know how to punctuate.  Many translators do not realize that different languages punctuate differently and follow the same “rules” in whatever language they are doing.  Good luck on noticing mistakes.

Finally, fluency and being bilingual or multilingual provide NO guarantee that one can translate.  Nor does coming from a bilingual and an educated and/or intellectual background.  It came as a shock to me that persons speaking two languages equally well, truly “natively,” could not translate, translated literally, had no idea that the “feel” was not right, or did not realize that the “correct” version was an obvious literal translation.  Moreover, since such translators might know idioms “natively,” they are unaware when they translate them wrong or miss them completely.  Working as a wiretap monitor was a real revelation for me.  Defendants often “plead out,” and thank God they do, because the transcripts are sometimes so bad and so hilarious that one remembers the bloopers for years.  Pity anyone forced to testify using them.

Finally, some of us entered the computer age somewhat late in life, so just as Ms Bogdan thinks being forced to use that primitive tool the pencil is unfair, we oldsters might look askance at the computer geniuses who use every on-line “aid” available, while we soldier on bravely with just our pencils, brains, and a dictionary or two.

Ricky Lacina (Ms)

And here is my response to Ricky Lacina:

Hi Ricky:

Thank you for your e-mail.

After 24 years, I decided to no longer support NCTA with my dollars this year due to what I consider dictatorial and undemocratic behavior by the NCTA board, in particular by the moderator of the NCTA discussion group, Michael something, I forgot his last name.

I described my experience with NCTA on my blog, you can read about it by clicking on this link.

Another longtime friend of mine, Rich Markley, PhD. in Japanese linguistics, is no longer a member of the NCTA discussion group as of this year for the same reason. He had also been a member for many years. It looks like NCTA is trying hard to get rid of people who have been paying dues to the organization for decades if they dare to express an opinion that does not correspond exactly to what the board believes. I don’t think it’s very healthy for an organization of translators to behave like this. Let people disagree and have a discussion. It’s much more fun that way.

I basically agree with Nina Bogdan’s points about clay tablets and such and I think that her article is well written and pretty funny. The main reason why I did not sit for the ATA exam many years ago was the fact that I could not use a computer for the test. At this point, I see no reason to take it because the exam is completely irrelevant for my purposes. Since no patent lawyer ever asked me about ATA, I assume that they don’t know that there is such a thing. I was also told that a Portuguese translation done by a machine was deemed by an ATA grader to be close enough to the real thing to receive a passing grade. So 80% of the tests are rejected, but a machine can pass the test? How does that work, I wonder?

However, I strongly disagree with their decision to censor your letter. Whatever happened to the ancient principle of “audiatur et altera pars”? [let the other party be heard as well]. If you wish, I will be happy to publish the entire letter on my next blog, along with a link to Nina’s article and my comment.

Again, thanks for your letter. I hope you will leave a comment on my blog once in a while. Incidentally, since your letter would remain on the Internet indefinitely, more people are likely to read it on the blog than if it had been published in the Translorial, including many NCTA members.

Best regards,

Steve Vitek

(Ricky said she was looking forward to reading my blog with her letter).

Here is my simple (or maybe not so simple) question:

I wonder, are there other organizations of translators in other places and other countries as authoritarian and anti-democratic as the Northern California Translators Association seems to be these days, to the point when it is losing longtime members who used to faithfully pay membership fees for decades (and many of them were doing so mostly because they believed that they were supporting a good thing), without seemingly caring one bit about it?

It also seems that translators in other countries are not very happy about the test procedures that other associations of translators use to evaluate tests, as described for instance in this post on Naked Translation.

I would love to hear from people living in other states, other countries and on other continents who have an opinion on these issues. I would like to add that people with strong opinions who disagree with what I am saying are particularly welcome on my blog.

Post Scriptum

I think I read somewhere that the American Translators Association now allows people to type on a keyboard, but I am not sure about this. Had they made this decision some twenty years ago, I would probably have decided to give it a try back then.


  1. Hi, Steve,
    I’m a grader in the ATA certification program, and from reading quickly through Nina Bogdan’s article in Translorial, it is my opinion (my opinion, NB) that she did a pretty good job of presenting the issues involved in establishing the conditions to take the certification exam by computer. The initiative to establish computerized exams has been ongoing since about 2004-2005. There has been some progress (it seems to me), and a few trial keyboarded exams have been given, but the system has not been established yet. Keyboarding is not the only issue, another consideration is how to make it possible for candidates to use electronic dictionaries. Some language combinations lack authoritative or up-to-date print dictionaries, and some electronic dictionaries are available online only and/or require a license.

    I didn’t see Nina Bogdan’s article as a rant at all — I looked at her frustration at the lack of 21st Century technology as more of a hook for the article (and the basis for a very funny cover illustration!). That said, I thought Ricky Lacina’s response made some very good points, and that there was no reason to refuse to print it.

    What I want to know is: If there are no computerized exams, then how did a computer take the English into Portuguese exam and pass it? More realistic question: How did a candidate or someone outside the program get hold of an exam passage? And what grader would spend time on such an exercise?

    There is a possible answer in that someone requested a practice test, typed it into the computer, ran it through an MT program and submitted it for an evaluation (as Nina wrote, for a $50 fee). I would be curious to look into it further, and see whether a human-translated target-language text existed online at the time this experiment was done (if it was ever done).

    My comments should not be interpreted as representing the views of ATA, the board of directors, or the certification program. (Had to say it.)

    (Long-time reader, first-time commenter.)


  2. Hi Paula:

    Thank you for your first, hopefully not last, comment.

    This guy Jeb in Japan (I am sure he will read this and respond) keeps telling me that MT passed that ATA test and that human translators are doooooomed!!!!

    He keeps repeating it over and over again and it seems to make him very happy that in the near future, the only choice people like me will have will be flipping burgers at Burger King or editing MT. (Personally, I would prefer flipping burgers).

    So just like you, I would like to know what really happened, although I doubt that it will shut Jeb up.

    I liked Nina’s article and I agreed with her points (I did not see the bad grammar, though, when I read it).

    But I think that they should have published Ricky’s letter and get a discussion started.

    What people don’t realize is that just about every translator lives in a completely different universe, which is why it can be a lot of fun when these very different creatures start communicating with each other.


  3. “What people don’t realize is that just about every translator lives in a completely different universe, which is why it can be a lot of fun when these very different creatures start communicating with each other.”

    I agree, and I think that as long as we do communicate with each other, we are not doomed. Although, I think that there is a certain amount of defeatism in the translation community, and it would do everyone a lot of good to get out and mingle once in a while — even online — with people who are not primarily translators.



  4. It is a problem to meet other translators in person. We have a group of 4 or 5 translators here in Virginia. We have been meeting in a restaurant about every other month for close to a year now.

    I really miss San Francisco in this respect, there were so many people like me there who lived just around the corner.

    Here, most of my neighbors are military officers, not exactly my favorite kind of people. But, hey, we get to live in really big houses here with a lawn in front of them!


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