FIGHTING WORDS

By Alison Dent

You’d think that handling the press would be easy for an industry that deals with words. But maybe not.

I think everyone who attended the 48th Annual ATA Conference here in San Francisco last October would agree that it was a great success. Hard work and many hours of volunteer time went into the conference, the pro bono project work, and the effort to get local publicity. On the first day of the conference, in fact, reporter Steve Rubenstein of the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed ATA President Marian Greenfield and ATA Public Relations Committee Co-chair Kevin Hendzel. The resulting article, “Translation business booming—terrorists’ languages most lucrative,” was published the next day.

War means business

Although the article successfully captured some of the buzz of the conference, it was impossible to ignore the one point that stood out above all others, and which ultimately served as the basis for the blaring headline: the message that war is good for business. While this statement may be a truism, was this really what ATA had intended to convey? Or, had the words of Ms. Greenfield and Mr. Hendzel been twisted in undue emphasis?

It didn’t take long for the NCTA members’ Yahoo! group to light up with animated discussions among members over this article and its intended message. One member felt strongly that the misrepresentation began within the leadership of ATA, and wrote a lengthy letter to the NCTA Board expressing his concerns. NCTA then contacted the ATA Board to solicit its reaction to the Chronicle article and request clarification of the intended message.

In Mr. Hendzel’s reply to NCTA, he confirmed that the reporter, Mr. Rubenstein, intended to focus on the business side of the T&I industry. However, nothing was published about this subject: neither about the international commercial market associated with globalization, for example, nor about the U.S. domestic market, an area that is growing rapidly as hospitals, courts, and other public venues are beginning to provide translation and interpreting services in response to Presidential Executive Order 13166—topics which were talked about at length in the interview. Instead, Mr. Rubenstein—or his editors—stuck like a dog with a bone to the deliberately controversial notion of war being great for business, despite repeated efforts by Mr. Hendzel to steer him away from this.

Selling out; selling more

“How much can you earn?” “What are the ‘hottest’ languages?” These are the questions that reporters are trained to ask, believing that this is what most people really want to hear about. In the world of journalism, the answers to these questions, after all, create the headlines that sell newspapers. And yes, it was an eye-catching headline; yes, it made us read the article; and yes, we did talk about it at length afterwards. But does that mean that the article accurately portrayed the event and circumstances it was meant to cover? No, far from it. While the article did remind the public that translation is not all done by software on the Internet, it offered very little useful or interesting information about our profession. As with the lack of mention of business issues cited above, there was also no mention of the human side of translating—of any positive contributions made by translators and interpreters in war zones, for example, such as providing assistance in reconstruction and rebuilding efforts. Or of the lowering of civilian and religious conflict by allowing the various parties to communicate.

Somehow the old adage of there being “no such thing as bad publicity” just didn’t hold true in this case. Instead, with its emphasis on the sensational aspects of war-mongering, the article portrayed our profession in a negative, ambulance-chasing light. Because in the world of journalism, after all, sensationalism is what sells.

A different fight

In 2008, with ATA boasting over 10,000 members, and NCTA over 600 in this, our 30th anniversary year, we can look back and see that as a profession we have made great strides. But this episode has clearly demonstrated that we are not beyond having our words twisted. Jiri Stejskal, who took over as ATA President after the conference, agreed that the reporter’s slant was disturbing, and reflected poorly on ATA and the profession. Although a letter from ATA to the San Francisco Chronicle was reportedly being drafted, there is no information on any progress on the issue since then.

There is much, however, that we can still do. Specifically, we need to continue our efforts to get positive publicity for our profession; we need to educate our clients; and we need to get smarter about dealing with the press.

It’s time to use the tools of our trade—words—to fight for our cause

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