Posted by: patenttranslator | October 27, 2016

Translator Associations – What Do They Want from Us, and What Do We Want from Them?

I have never thought of myself as a joiner, but I have certainly joined quite a few associations of translators over the years. At least half a dozen of them in the last three decades … so I thought it might be a good idea to write a post about my personal experience with them for my blog.

The first one I joined was the Northern California Translators Association (NCTA). I must have joined in 1987 or ‘88, I can’t remember now. I joined when I lived in San Francisco, mostly because it was a local association and I wanted to meet other translators. I was quite an active member for many years. I used to go several times a year to meetings that were held at the UC Berkeley extension in San Francisco and to Christmas parties held at private houses of translators. It was fun and I met a lot of interesting people at these meetings and parties.

It was the NCTA newsletter editor who discovered that I can write posts that other translators like to read. I started writing a regular feature for the NCTA’s newsletter called Translorial in mid 1990s and continued doing so for quite a few years until I moved from California to Virginia in 2001.

There were no blogs, no Facebook or anything like that back then for me to keep my creative juices flowing, so Translatorial was a good outlet for what I wanted to say to other translators, although it was distributed only in the San Francisco Bay area.

But eventually I quit the NCTA when, after I moved to Virginia while still an NCTA member, the moderator of the NCTA online discussion group on Yahoo first put me on what he called “monitored status” and started censoring my comments by sometimes publishing them and sometime disappearing them to keep me guessing what happened, until in the end he banned me from the discussion group altogether as I described in a post called You Have Been Unsubscribed from the Northern California Translators Association six years ago.

I quit the association in protest. One interesting thing that I found out about people who come to power in translator associations is that many of them like to treat translators, who are adults supporting whole families, as if they were obtuse children. I doubt that I am the only translator who has experienced being treated like a disobedient child by an association’s tin pot dictator.

After I quit the NCTA in protest, I joined the Northern Carolina Association of Translators, (which is now called CATI), and the New York Circle of Translators (NYCT) for a few years, partly because I wanted to see if I could get new business in this manner, and partly also because I needed an outlet for topics that I wanted to write about and share with other translators (it happens to be an incurable and untreatable disease I have).

As I remember, the membership in these regional associations (chapters of the American Translators Association) did not bring me any new business.  I wrote a number of articles for the Gotham Translator, the newsletter of the NYCT, but since it was too far for me to drive to meetings in Northern Carolina or New York, after a couple of years I simply stopped paying my membership fee.

Once I started pouring my creative energy into writing my blog in 2010, I stopped writing articles for translator publications altogether, with the occasional exception of a guest post for another blogger, although over the preceding years I have published many articles in various publications for translators both online and on paper, including several articles in the ATA Chronicle, the magazine of the American Translators Association, such as this one that I called Is Translation a Collaborative Activity?

Two other associations that I joined over the years, in addition to the ones already mentioned, were the American Translators Association (ATA), with offices in Alexandria, Virginia, and the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI), which has an office in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I am still a member of both of these associations, although I intend to quit IAPTI for reasons I will explain in a moment.

What do I think that translator associations want from translators, and what do we want from them?

What the associations want from us is not exactly a mystery: they want our money, money in the form of membership fees and fees that translators pay to participate in online webinars and conferences. The more money the associations make from their members, the bigger their budget will be to do things they want to do with money that was originally ours and now is legally theirs.

There’s nothing wrong with that, everybody else wants our money too, from our spouses and children to various and sundry taxing authorities. The question is, what do we get from these associations in exchange for our money?

As Anthony Pym, a researcher at the Intercultural Studies Group at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Catalonia (Spain) writes in his paper titled Translator associations – from gatekeepers to communities, one of the reasons translators join associations is that, “Associations are able to emit signals of professional status, in the same way as signals of translator quality are emitted by education institutions and professional certification systems”.

This is clearly why it is important for some translators to join an association, especially translators who are otherwise not credentialed, and in particular young translators, those without experience and those without a university degree.

The problem is, since some translator associations can be joined by anyone and any entity, regardless of qualifications (including monolingual people), the signals emitted as mentioned above are kind of like smoke signals that are impossible to read.

I remember when I was in the audience of translators listening to a speaker at a conference in Prague a few months ago and the speaker said, “It is important for translators to join a professional association, like the ATA” (American Translators Association), I said, as if driven by uncontrollable impulse, “ATA is not a professional association”.

I was hoping that she would ask me what I meant by my provocative statement, but she just gave me a quick look that I interpreted as, “Why should I bother with this rude interloper?” and ignored me.

When I am a speaker myself, I generally welcome interaction with the audience, even if it is in the form of a somewhat rude interruption. But evidently, not all speakers do that. Had I been asked to explain what I meant, I would have said that if anybody can join an association (as is the case with the ATA), regardless of their education, legally recognized credentials and knowledge of languages or lack thereof, it cannot possibly be a professional association of translators.

Associations that do not require bona fide translator credentials from translators before they can become members fail to fulfill another important function that Anthony Pym calls in his paper “the gatekeeper function”. If anybody can join, there is no gatekeeper, the gate is only equipped with a vending machine that keeps the gate wide open for anyone willing and able to pay to go through it.

So this is a big problem that I have with the American Translators Association: since anybody can join it upon payment of a fee, I don’t really consider it an association of translators, although clearly it is an association that has a lot of translators in it.

But as I said, I am still a member. I am not sure why, probably out of tradition or inertia because I don’t really get any business from the listing of translators in the ATA database. A few times a year I get e-mails from the “translation industry” addressed to “Dear Translator” or “Dear Linguist” asking me for my résumé and rates, with a handy, non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that is several thousand words long, but I ignore these emails.

The last association that I will mention in my post today is the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI).

When I joined it a mere two years ago, I was full of enthusiasm and hope that maybe, just maybe, I had finally found a translator association that would fight for us translators, an association that is worthy of its name and that does not work for the “translation industry”.

Unlike the ATA, IAPTI does not accept corporate members such as translation agencies or just anybody, including people who are not translators. I had to show them a copy of my driver’s license, diploma, and passport too before I could join.

I participated in the third conference of this young association in Bordeaux, France as a speaker a year ago. I met several fascinating people after I overcame a number of harrowing misfortunes as I wrote in a post that I called “If You Crave the Genuine Refugee Experience, Fly Delta through Atlanta When it Rains.”

But in the last few months I discovered that IAPTI is not really an international association at all.

It is basically a private Argentine club. IAPTI is eager to have as many international members as possible because it then seems as if the club were really international, but that is just an illusion. All decisions are made by a few members in Buenos Aires who are all Argentines and what foreigners living outside of Argentina might think about what they are up to, even those who are officially represented on several association committees, is completely irrelevant to the people in Argentina.

A number of foreigners have already quit the association to protest its highly undemocratic structure, and I happen to know that a few more will do so very soon.

As somebody who has been a member of several translator associations over the last three decades, I don’t think any of these associations I am writing about in this post has really represented or does really represent the interests of translators.

An association representing the interests of translators would really fight for our profession against the immense pressures emanating from the “translation industry”, which wants to turn us all into obedient, underpaid minions of said industry.

An association that would really represent us would not accept translation agencies among its ranks because they represent a “translation industry” whose interests are often opposite to those of translators. Such an association would not be afraid to condemn the application of Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools to shortchanging translators by refusing to pay them for “fuzzy matches” and “full matches” – a transparent scheme that is tantamount to labor theft.

It would also need to clearly express its position regarding “editing of machine translations”, which is again nothing more than labor theft because machine translations can only be “edited” correctly if they are completely retranslated.

To my knowledge, as of yet, such an association does not exist. IAPTI came closest to this ideal, but in its present undemocratic form, it cannot practice the lofty ideals it claims to uphold.

But I think that the situation is not really as bleak as it might seem. I believe that as social media interactions are playing a bigger and bigger role among translators all over the world, translator associations will be becoming more and more irrelevant, especially those that choose to represent “stakeholders” who are not translators, i.e. the “translation industry”, at the expense of translators.

After all, translators can now talk to each other and exchange ideas freely in online groups any time they want and organize themselves without the intermediary (and often censorship) of an association, and they can go to conferences of translators, which are sometimes held by associations, but also by universities and by private parties, without being members of an association.

And that is why I think that despite the unsatisfactory situation when it comes to translator associations, translators still have a future.


  1. ” One interesting thing that I found out about people who come to power in translator associations is that many of them like to treat translators, who are adults supporting whole families, as if they were obtuse children.” No, that is not what I discovered. I discovered that the people who love to wield power in translator associations mostly could not translate their way out of a paper bag! Two, at least, of such directors whom I have known, claimed to be simultaneous (conference) interpreters when they were nothing of the kind and another was given a book translation by a leading translation agency, kept them hanging on a string for months, and in the end produced nothing! The agency was too embarrassed to complain to the association due to the fact that the translator was a director of it! I belong to other bodies and am active in some of them, but never in translators’ associations, because I am too much of a snob to associate with people who are so unprofessional.


  2. Ha, ha, ha.

    Interesting. I heard the same thing recently about somebody like that too.

    It is well known that those who can write, write books, and those who can’t teach creative writing courses.

    Those who can translate, translate, and those who can’t, run translator associations?


  3. Reblogged this on certified medical interpreter and commented:
    Interesting article.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Since associations in Japan are really only active in Tokyo and Osaka (and you really don’t get anything for your money), my translator friends and I decided to start our own group down here in Kyushu. We focus on informal networking opportunities (read: drinking parties), however 😛


    • We had a small group of translators like that meeting here in Hampton Roads for a few years too. Except it was just about having a dinner in a restaurant with wine, usually. We were mostly discussing languages and politics, but then the person who organized it moved back to Germany and that was the end of it.

      So I found a replacement in another Meetup group, this time of francophones and francophiles. We have a dinner with wine in a restaurant and speak (or try to speak) French while stuffing our faces and imbibing wine and beer. We have been meeting once a month for over two years now.

      This is organized through Alliance Francaise, but anybody can organize group like that through Meetup.


  5. It has been my experience that an association or institute is often formed to construct a platform of credible political strength to support the views and opinions of a small group of people who regard the opinions of most other people as ill-informed and therefore ‘unhelpful’ (to their own aspirations).

    As a result they often end up gagging their members’ views and instead provide what they believe should be the collective view of the members, based on their own understanding, opinion and preferences.

    I regard the word ‘represent’ as partly to blame. It suggest that the organisation is an agency expressing the members’ views (if asked), ‘as they see them (like our politicians). It sounds reactive rather than pro-active, and leads to a focus on cultivating the strength (size) of the organisation rather than any recognisable goal or objective that serves their constituents.

    In my view, a professional institute should focus on ‘protecting and advancing the interests of its members’; no more. Any proposed activity or investment must therefore be tested against these two simple goals. For example: inviting corporate members or unqualified persons to join a professional institute increases income, but does not protect or advance the interests of translators; indeed quite the reverse, I suggest.
    It should therefore be rejected as not being appropriate or useful.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Even if it was true that IAPTI is currently nothing more than a “private”, “undemocratic” “Argentine club” wich happens to feature “many international members” (an opinion I mostly disagree with), I would like to see proof that it actually does not focus on “protecting and advancing the interests of its members”, which is, after all, the standard we should be most concerned about, both in your and Louis words above (which is a concern I and those reading this article, I guess, share).

      Because, even if what you say about IAPTI was true, I don’t see how being “private”, “undemocratic” or run primarily by nationals of a specific country (Argentina, in this case), is at odds with “protecting and advancing the interests” of an association’s members. I am clearly missing something important there.

      And it’s not that I undervalue democracy. I do agree that being open, public and transparent, sharing and distributing power, and having the international condition of your membership reflected in your governing bodies (especially the Board) are important in an association (including other qualities, such as having a feminist and pro-worker attitude, a conflict of interest policy, and so on), but you can be as public, democratic, international, and pro-human-rights as it gets (e.g. ATA and FIT) and still fail to actually “protect and advance” the interests of your members.

      I am clearly missing something in your statement that IAPTI “in its present undemocratic form (…) cannot practice the lofty ideals it claims to uphold”.

      I would sincerely appreciate it if you were kind enough to elaborate on that specific statement. Also, I would like to know what makes you think that leaving IAPTI is a better way to fight the alleged lack of democracy and failure to uphold its ideals than staying in as part of the Staff and trying to help it grow out of its alleged imperfect condition.


      • *which happens to…


      • This is an interesting point, Hector.

        Let me try to answer it with a question.

        If a husband is beating his wife (which I am using here as an example equivalent to the undemocratic system in IAPTI, combined with extreme censorship), why would it not be possible for such a husband to do that while still protecting and advancing the interests of his wife?

        After all, he loves her, is much smarter than she is and knows better than she does what’s really good for her, just like the IAPTI board is much smarter than its members are and knows better what is really good for IAPTI members and non-members alike, which is why it is perfectly OK for the IAPTI board to use extreme censorship among other harsh and very questionable methods.

        I could be wrong, but personally, I think that the best thing for the wife to do in such a case would be to leave her loving husband.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Just to point out that the Universitat Rovira i Virgili that you mention is not based in Portugal but Catalonia (Spain).


  7. So sorry, I will fix it.


    • Thanks! Then feel free to delete my previous comment.


  8. […] I am just guessing, but I think that what prompted the Unsub (UNknow SUBject, an abbreviation familiar to viewers of crime shows, frequently used by detectives who are trying to identify a shadowy criminal who despite their efforts remains at large), to nominate me at the ATA Conference that was taking place in Washington, D.C., was the shared memory of a post that I wrote a year ago, called What Do Translators Associations Want from Us and What Do We Want from Them. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: