In the 1970s, I took the “wagon-lit” train from Prague to Moscow and back three times to work with Russian students on construction of new production facilities for a “kolchoz” (collective farm) in a little town called “Mednoye” on the river Tvertsa between Moscow and Leningrad. Three weeks of work were then followed each time by a week of sightseeing in Moscow and Leningrad.
I worked every summer as an exchange student in different countries in the Soviet bloc (and once I was even allowed to go to Southern France to my utter delight and amazement) because this was the cheapest way to travel back then for a penniless linguistics student. So I traveled to USSR three times because I wanted to know how the things worked back in the USSR as the Beatles put it, and also because I loved (and still do love) the Russian language and culture.
My Russian did improve and I did find out many interesting things about how the big country called the USSR worked back then in the 70s.
For example, I realized that most intelligent and educated people distrusted and ignored official media and instead listened to Western stations available on their radio’s short waves in Russian. Once, during my last trip to the USSR at the end of the 70s when I was working for the same big collective farm, I overheard two Russian students discussing some thorny issue with passion. “And just how do you know that?” one of them asked his discussion partner. “Golos eto govoril” (The voice said so) answered the other one. “The voice” in this case meant Russian broadcasting of The Voice of America, one Western source of information that, although it was obviously state propaganda too, supplied much more reliable information than the official Soviet media. The reference to “The Voice” seemed to have settled the issue. If “The Voice” said so, it must have been true.
One of the Voice of America programs the Russian students who I was working with were listening to on their radios was a serialized reading from Andrei Amalrik’s essay called “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” The essay was written in 1969, just after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks (with a symbolic presence of a few troops from other Warsaw Pact countries) by Andrei Amalrik, a Russian writer and dissident who was eventually exiled in 1976 and died shortly after that in a car accident in Spain in 1980.
It was an unforgettable experience for me to watch the faces in a group of Russian students who were listening with great interest to Amalrik’s essay booming in Russian from the speaker of a big transistor radio placed on a wooden table outside the kitchen so that everyone could hear the broadcast.
Amalrik did not live to see the breakup of the Soviet Union, but he was off in his prediction of the ultimate demise of the Soviet state by only eight years, although he obviously picked the date as a reference to George Orwell’s famous novel “1984”.
Amalrik believed that the Soviet empire would collapse because unlike Gorbachev, he thought that liberalization and democratization of the Soviet state was impossible. He said, for example: “If … one views the present “liberalization” as the growing decrepitude of the regime rather than its regeneration, then the logical result will be its death, which will be followed by anarchy.”
I am paraphrasing the title of his essay in the title of my blog post about the American Translators Association today because, although ATA is obviously not the USSR, I see certain similarities between the former Soviet state and the present association of American translators.
The Soviet Union did not live up to the promises and ideas upon which it was based. I believe that the same is true about the American Translators Association and that is why I dare to question its prospective longevity in my post today.
According to ATA’s mission statement on its website, “The ATA was established to advance the translation and interpreting profession and foster the professional development of individual translators and interpreters”.
However, the paragraph just underneath this sentence says: “ATA’s 11,000 members include translators, interpreters, teachers, project managers, web and software developers, language company owners, hospitals, universities and government”.
So it would seem that it’s not really a translators’ organization, if for example various bodies of “the government” can become members too. Why should “the government” be eligible for membership in an organization for, of and by translators and interpreters? I don’t think it should because evidently, the interests of the government, (whatever the word means) do not necessarily coincide with the interest of translators and interpreters. Sometimes they may coincide, and sometimes they may clash. And when they clash, who do you think will be in a position of more power, the translators, or the government?
But an even bigger problem that I see with the definition of the purpose of an organization of, for and by translators is the reference on ATA’s website to the fact that “project managers” and “language company owners” can become ATA members as well.
Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but it bothers me to no end that anybody can become a member of the American Translators Association. It bothers me that anybody can become a member of the American Translators Association because many members of the association who are not translators joined the association as corporate members, obviously not in order to promote the interest of translators, but to promote their own interests, since translators’ interests are not exactly theirs as well.
Why should non-translators try to promote the interests of translators?
Are translators likely to be promoting the interests of butchers, airline pilots, or postal workers? Well, no, not really, and why should they? We translators certainly appreciate the hard work of all of these folks, or most of us do, but we’re not joining their associations, are we? If we did so, we would probably have an ulterior motive for that; the act of joining an association where one has to pay an annual fee would otherwise be somewhat inexplicable, would it not?
I would only join their association if they gave me something in return for my money: butchers could offer the best cuts of meat or my favorite Cajun sausage at a discount, airline pilots an upgrade to first class at no additional cost, and postal workers … well, I don’t know off hand what they might have for me, but I could figure out something in return for my money from them too.
So I have to ask myself: when non-translators are free to join an association of translators, as they are now, why are they doing so, unless it is to secure an advantage, such as gaining easy access to cheap and pliant labor? As I wrote in a previous post about ATA, this is the biggest problem with the ATA at present and many translators have come to the conclusion that the reason why ATA is unable to represent the interests of mere translators is that it is being pulled in different directions.
However, the biggest clash between interests of different and disparate parties who, as things stand now, are perfectly free to become members of an association that is supposed to serve the interests of translators, is in this case not the potential clash between interests of the government and of translators, or between the interests of website developers and those of translators, or between the interests of representatives of hospitals and universities and those of translators, although, again, our interests do not necessarily coincide with the interests of these non-translating corporate ATA members either.
By far the biggest problem I see in the definition of who can become an ATA member is that translation agencies are also able to join the same organization for translators as corporate members.
It’s no coincidence that translation agencies no longer even call themselves what they really are.
They’re trying very hard to change their name from mere “agencies” to “companies”, or even “Language Service Providers (LSPs)” to make it seem as though it is them, the brokers, who are providing translation services. But of course, these services are provided by translators, not by translation agencies who want to be seen as “language service providers”. Another minor, really quite tiny conflict of interest that I see here is that if the translation agencies want to be able to survive and prosper, since the services must be provided by and purchased from translators, the translation agencies need to buy the services at the lowest rate possible so that these services can then be sold at a higher price. The lower the translation cost, the better for the bottom line of the translation agencies, who can then sell the translations to actual customers who need to have something translated at a healthy markup.
But as far as ATA is concerned, there is no conflict here between the interests of translators and translation brokers. What is good for agencies is good for translators as well because we are all one big, happy family.
But is it really the case that translation agencies and translators are one big, happy family? Well, not exactly, not really, not at all! As a commenter on my blog brilliantly put it in my previous post about the inherent conflict obvious in the pros and cons of the concept of corporate membership in an association of translators: “Such an association or institute can best be compared with a cart that has a horse at both ends, pulling in opposite directions. Everything else is just noise”.
I believe that translation agency owners should have the same right as anybody else to join ATA, provided that they can prove that they are in fact translators, which is to say that they translate a language (or a few) for a living. But if they don’t make a living in this manner, if they are only corporate brokers who are not able to generate income from their own translation, what are they doing in an organization for translators?
Translators’ associations in a number of other countries have solved the problem of corporate members in an organization of translators in the manner that I am suggesting as it really is the only logical choice: they don’t allow corporate membership.
As far as I know, Germany is among countries that don’t allow corporate membership in an association for translators, and so is Australia. In other countries, such as UK, corporate membership is still providing a healthy income stream to the Institute of Translation & Interpreting, although translation agencies in Britain also have an association for what they call translation companies, as do their counterparts in the United States. I talked to several people from the UK a few days ago at the Third Conference of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI) in Bordeaux, France, and they were not very happy about this arrangement. Incidentally, IAPTI does not allow corporate membership.
If you’re a translation agency, it makes very good sense to put ATA’s logo on your website if you want to inspire trust among translators and customers alike. But the only thing the logo proves is that your membership fee is paid up. In fact, it means nothing about the quality of the agency’s work or of the translations, nor does it mean that the translation agency uses honest practices for dealing with its translators. I have read at least a dozen complaints from translators who protest on LinkedIn and other online media that they were lured by ATA’s logo to accept work from an agency that turned out to be a non-payer.
As things stand now, you get to put the logo on your website if you pay ATA, which means that the ATA logo has in this case become simply an advertising gimmick. I think this is wrong. I think that the ATA logo should stand for honesty and quality.
The USSR in the end collapsed because it was based on dishonesty combined with poor quality. And that was why, just like Humpty Dumpty, it had a great fall, and all of Politburo’s tanks and soldiers couldn’t put USSR back together again.
I hope that ATA will in fact survive to the year 2025 because even as it exists now – even as it exists based on a contradictory principle according to which one donkey cart is pulled in two opposite directions by two donkeys (and one of these donkeys is much more powerful – you can make up your own mind which donkey would that be), the ATA still does a lot of useful work as most of its members are hard working translators who try their best to survive in a very difficult environment that has been recently created for them by greedy, dishonest, and extremely ruthless translation agencies.
But these important issues facing translators in the environment that has recently been created for them by the so-called translation industry are never even mentioned in the ATA Chronicle. As far as I can tell, ATA is not doing much, if anything, to help translators to change this environment that unlike a couple of decades ago, is much more hostile to translators. I think the reason why the ATA Chronicle, the journal of the American Translators Association, never even dares to mention subjects that are vital for our professions’ survival is that an honest and impartial analysis of these subjects might displease its corporate members.
I for one hope that ATA will survive the year 2025, 2035, 2045 and for many more decades after that. But unless it abolishes corporate membership to finally start solving the problem of conflicting interests, I am not really going to care much about its longevity because whenever I open up an issue of the ATA Chronicle, (my only means of communicating with the association as I only participated in one ATA conference in 1998), I have a weird déja vu feeling of being again back in the USSR.