ATA, Perspective


In this first part of a two-part series we look at how certification fits into the language provider’s business plan. BY NINA BOGDAN
Quote to ATA exam.
In the eight years since 9/11, analysis of events, policy debates, and proposals for change have steadily continued in one venue or another. The one conclusion that seems irrefutable is that we, as a nation, were woefully unprepared when it comes to the application of translation and interpreting skills. There were many references to a purported backlog of Arabic language material left untranslated at such a critical time. This led to revelations of our lack of qualified linguists in other “critical” languages such as Urdu, Punjabi and Farsi. As this topic was discussed on Capitol Hill, issues such as lack of coordination amongst federal government agencies and inadequate training were raised. It is quite interesting then to note a statement in the Congressional Record published in 1978 which was included in our very own Translorial that year and again in 2008 as an insert in our 30th anniversary issue: “…the translation community within the federal government suffers from a number of problems due to a lack of coordination between various government departments and agencies involved in translation work. Among these problems is a lack of standard meanings for many foreign terms, discrepancies in grade assignments and contract funding among translators employed in the federal government, duplication of work and inadequate training of personnel.”

The groundbreaking idea then was to establish the “Federal Translation Coordinating Council,” which, as far as this writer can tell, no longer exists. The groundbreaking solution this time appeared to be: let’s ignore all those other complicated questions and just contract the work out. So, in 2009, thirty years after this discussion first began, the American Translators Association (ATA), remains the only centralized (although non-governmental) body in the U.S. to have a standardized system of testing, which, though expanding, is limited in terms of languages tested and examination scope.
Getting government contracts is great for business. The problem is that, as always, the freelance linguist is on the losing end of the equation. In other words, if Federal Agency X decides on a certain price per word and then awards a contract to a translation agency, by the time the independent contractor gets the job offer, the price is less than half that original amount. So, in a sense, the U.S. government is still not only doing nothing to promote the business of translation but actually has a hand in driving qualified linguists out of the profession.

Another issue is that the surfeit of agencies means more competition for work and the basic rule of supply and demand means that agencies must drive costs down to compete for work while also paying salaries and benefits to permanent staff—agency owners, project managers, assistant project managers. The translator? Who needs a translator for translation? We have CAT tools. And Google.
Nevertheless, increasing globalization is the order of the day and the ever more linguistically intertwined world should mean that the translation business is booming. And indeed it is. By all accounts, from 2006 to 2007, the largest agencies saw their revenues skyrocket. According to Common Sense Advisory, the average year-over-year growth rate of companies in their 2007 Top 20 list was 26.68 percent and this is in reference to gross revenues of amounts topping $400 million dollars (for top ranked Lionbridge). As I read the words “million dollars” I fondly recall mornings spent negotiating over a difference of .02 cents per word with project managers who are trying to get a my “best” rate (as opposed to, I suppose, that dratted “mediocre” rate) while I am trying to pay my “skyrocketing” bills.
According to an ATA survey published in February 2008, the annual average gross income of U.S. based full-time independent contractors (with income from translation and interpreting only) is $60,423 and, if one works out of one’s house and is willing to give up the fripperies of life (like street clothes), overhead can be fairly low. So joining a professional organization such as the ATA, even for a fee of $145, should not be out of the question. But translators continue to have increasing costs: CAT tools are becoming de rigueur and though such tools are useful, there are fixed costs related to having them—freelancers now have to pay for licenses, training, and updating software; promoting oneself on the web is also not free—membership in ProZ, a popular site for posting profiles and bidding for jobs, costs over $100 a year. In addition, since freelancers are, by definition, self-employed, their workday is never 8 hours with 1 hour for lunch. The self-employed (in whatever industry) generally work 10 to 14 hours a day, often at least 6 days a week in order to have a successful business, so that annual income figure may be a tad misleading.
On the plus side, the freelancer now has tools not available twenty years ago—direct marketing via the Internet including web sites, email, and search engines but is, again, faced with the agency juggernaut that has the money and resources to lure private clients with promises of fast, cheap (even volume discounted!) translation. So how does the freelancer distinguish him/herself? Voilá. ATA certification.

The certification process involves the payment of membership fees to the ATA, the presentation of credentials that qualify a translator to actually take the exam, and then paying a fee to take the exam itself in a specific language pair (one direction only) at an ATA-set time and location.
Veteran freelancers who have successfully carved out their niche scoff at the ATA certification process and the idea itself that being certified will in any way help their business or increase their income. Patent translators working from, as an example, an Asian language into English, may well be able to name their own price. But what about those linguists who work in the “over-saturated” language pairs: Spanish-English, French-English or Russian-English? The “CT” (Certified Translator) after their name may indeed make a difference. Agencies or clients who are searching the ATA website for a translator are bound to say to themselves, “Certification? What is that?” They, of course, will immediately go to Webster’s dictionary and will peruse the definitions of “certify,” passing 1d—“to attest officially to a person’s insanity”—and settling on 4a: “to designate as having met the requirements for pursuing a certain kind of study or work.”
In point of fact, however, the actual word “certification,” has a different meaning in different contexts. Many institutions request translations that are “certified” or “official.” However, a “certified translation” simply means that the translator provides a statement certifying that he or she has completed a true and accurate translation to the best of his or her abilities—it does not mean “ATA certified” translation. In a random sampling of websites of institutions requiring translation of academic credentials into English, the California Board of Registered Nursing was the only organization that explicitly named ATA “accredited” (the term that was used in the past—currently ATA “certifies” translators) translators as those qualified to translate academic credentials. The University of California recommends the ATA and the NCTA as a source for qualified translators but does not specifically state that they must be ATA certified while other universities simply require “certified” translations, meaning that the translator is to provide a document as noted above. Each institution also has additional requirements which have nothing to do with ATA certification: some require that the translation be sent in a sealed envelope; others also require that the translation be notarized.
The value of ATA certification in bringing in income varies among linguists. A listing on the ATA website may well bring in clients, thus paying for membership fees. But for those who, again, specialize in “oversaturated” language pairs, certification may not provide any real work as their names are lost among the large group of other ATA certified linguists. On the other hand, there is no doubt that certification is a tool that does demonstrate one’s qualifications in a country that has no standard testing system, and where few universities offer translation degrees, so it certainly doesn’t hurt to have it.

A common complaint about the entire ATA membership/certification process is that the costs to join, take the exam, and maintain certification through continuing education do not necessarily bring in enough business to justify all of these expenses. The point has been made that for all the financial resources that individual translators sink into the ATA, the organization should do more for the freelancers and perhaps be less geared towards its corporate membership. There is also the issue that corporate membership and individual freelance translator/interpreter membership are inevitably at odds. A primary goal of an agency, as for any business, is to keep costs down and the main way to do that is to push down cost per word translation rates. It has also been noted that the prestige and importance of having certification should be better marketed by the ATA—not to linguists, but to the general public—and that the ATA should assist freelancers in more ways, such as submitting lists of translators who work in specific language pairs and/or specialized fields to search engines. In part two, we look at the certification exam itself and why it has aroused such controversy. NB