FROM APATHY TO FEAR -- How the ATA Has Changed

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the ATA was more of a family affair with a regular organization newsletter packed with letters to the editor, the idea that anyone had anything to fear was inconceivable. There was, it is true, some censorship of the Chronicle, but probably less by comparison than the newsletters of your basic professional associations. In addition there was the samizdat press, with Ted Crump's Capital Translator and Bernard Bierman's Translation News carrying, respectively, the Beltway and agency hardliner points of view. Newcomers like myself were bewildered by the issues, but still we all had fun reading the overblown rhetoric and betting on the outcomes of elections. Many were apathetic. Among these we had the sharpsters out for a fast buck, and the clueless, who took about a year to discover that one semester of high school French was inadequate preparation, and another year to decide what association to join next. Nobody felt any fear.

Microsoft Windows, with its foreign language character sets, suddenly made it possible for people who translated from English into various foreign languages to work as translators in the United States. Membership in the ATA increased swiftly with this technological advance, but a different political character also come along with that change. When the association was overwhelmingly dominated by Americans who had never experienced pogroms, purges, mass disappearances or various other political phenomena -- the memories of which are still vivid in some parts of the world -- our association culture was more carefree. Now we have to contend with people who of course realize intellectually that such things are against the law here, but who have not yet internalized emotionally the absence of any need to be afraid.

Now it appears as though the ATA -- as it is slowly transformed back into a sort of holding company for large translation corporations rather than individual translators -- is filling that need of something to fear. In a sense this is easy to understand. Ten years ago we voted directly by mail, our accreditation tests were admittedly basic in nature, and everything -- down to editing the newsletters and gluing on the mailing labels -- was done by volunteers beholden and answerable to their fellow translators. Today our proxy forms come preprinted with handy checkoff boxes to make it easy for somebody else -- chosen by the Board of Directors -- to cast your vote. The press is controlled not by a translator with opinions but a salaried staffer whose orders and paychecks come from the Board of Directors. I'd be surprised if 100 freelance members today could recite the name of the ATA's attorney. But that person today (August 2001) is busy assuring the board that it in need not risk a fourth defeat at the hands of the voters, and can meddle in our rights without regard for democracy or the limitations and restraints of the bylaws. I cannot presume to speak for my colleagues from Europe and Asia, but this was precisely the sort of thing I witnessed back when the shadow of military dictatorship darkened all of Central and South America.

But this is North America, where most people usually have freedom of speech. It is extremely rare for storm troopers to murder our citizens, and when it does happen there is such public outcry that the perpetrators are made to apologize and sometimes lose their retirement pensions. Nobody disappears en masse, and lynch mobs are a thing of the past. If it is true, as some of our boardmember/agency owners have declared, that freelancers are too apathetic and lazy for the nominating committee to take notice of as volunteer candidates, then of course the board will continue to be made up of corporate Chairmen, former professors, corporate staffers and useful idiots. These people have nothing to fear and everything to gain from your apathy, which they are good at depicting as the consent of the governed. They can use your money to dictate conclusions of expert reports, throw it away as legal fees to antitrust lawyers, hire other lawyers to rob you of your vote by pointing to nonexistent laws or even lobby for regulations or licensing that will bring you additional hardship. What they cannot do, however, is stop you from speaking your mind or casting your vote in the manner your conscience directs. Nor can they retaliate against you if you do not vote the way they tell you to. We have roundly defeated them three times already and they fear us not one bit. They simply pretend it never happened, censor all mention of it out of the newsletter and make plans for the next election. If someday we are defeated we will not be persecuted with the Terror either. We will simply make plans for the next election, that's the American way. -- JHP