J Henry Phillips
Austin, TX 78753

June, 2000

Ann Macfarlane, Terry Hanlen, Walter "Mooch" Bacack Muriel Jérôme O'Keefe Jeff Sanfaçon

Dear Ann Macfarlane,

Thank you for your letter of May 10. While I am glad you thought my participation in the testing abroad controversy was constructive, Patricia Newman was the main author of the bylaws I cited. All I did was cite them. My regret is that the much-needed term-reforms amendment was eclipsed by that non-issue.

I am writing at the request of Terry Hanlen regarding the Hamm report and "committee" response. The report was generated by a non-linguist educated and oriented toward a highly government-regulated profession, but does remind us of some crucial issues.

Under IV, Key Findings A, par. 4, Mr Hamm cites the "employer" as "translation services companies." In fact they are anything but employers, as expressly spelled out in their contracts. Further, we work directly for international corporations, various levels and nationalities of government, and so forth. This bias to the effect that the ATA is a translation company organization is tendentious and false. The ATA is a translators' association in which companies are not even allowed to vote. Unlike the health care industry, we are independent contractors for the most part, as shown in our various surveys.

Let's keep in mind that since we went to a "city manager" form of government and hired professional staff, we must be alert to the possibility of staff developing agendas of its own at odds with the purposes and functions of the ATA. Our purpose is not to hire consultants or provide jobs for members of management associations. Since we have paid for this report, let us get what we can out of it without losing sight of this context. We should nonetheless take with a pound of salt any recommendations that we add staff to be able to add complexity and then add more staff in a self-reinforcing spiral. Indeed, I was shocked to see a loss reported on p. 5 and would very much appreciate a look at our balance sheets to see where the money went.

Hamm's recommendation that we have some member of the "public" who knows nothing about translation is spurious. Where the political state restricts entry to a profession, thereby creating a shortage of supply, then resorts to fixing market prices, such window-dressing is indeed relevant. The ATA does no such thing and needs no such camouflage. Plus it is difficult enough to get things done without the interference of people who haven't a clue what translators do.

As for the "ongoing financial needs" under Finances p. 5 the expiration of accreditation when a member leaves the association already addresses that. Were it not for the accreditation program, ATA would have a growth and retention rate more like that of NAJIT, the Guild, or any of a host of no-standard associations. Until just recently, the program was a substantial source of direct income for the association. Further, the retention rate of accredited translators is something like 95%; that for the wannabees and dabblers is closer to 50%. I'm sure you can get the exact figures if you ask for them. The point is that the program is what underlies ATA's growth.

Under Certification Exam Issues, par. 3, Mr Hamm correctly identifies the biggest problem the program faces, and highlights it as fundamental to all policy development. I agree we must establish the intended exam level, but we must do it deliberately and consciously, with no evasion or equivocation. Once this is accomplished, appropriate policy will follow readily. The exam level issue itself has been fraught with controversy since the program was first developed. Nonetheless, I believe the problem can be solved by referring to our fundamental documents.

On the inside front cover of the member list our Code of Professional Conduct describes the level of excellence the translator should strive for to satisfy the needs of the end users: mastery of the target language equivalent to that of an educated native speaker. This, however relevant, is not a guide to the purposes of accreditation. The accreditation committee does not even exist in the ATA bylaws as a standing or special committee. How can it be an agency for enforcing a policy for end-user convenience. Further, the ATA has not been at all aggressive in pushing accreditation as a necessary or sufficient condition for excellence in translation. We have circulated a booklet on choosing a translator which did mention accreditation, but when was the last time you saw a copy?

Still in paragraph 3 Mr Hamm refers to the challenging reputation of the examinations among those who have never troubled themselves to even sit for the tests. I submit that because translation is perceived as "glamorous" in that Americans believe that mastery of more than one language somehow bespeaks a higher intelligence, that perception added to the money to be made by practicing a profession is enough to attract surprising numbers of impostors, poseurs, charlatans, knaves and frauds, not to mention persons whose appraisal of their own abilities is not at all realistic however sincere it may be. I realize this is strong language, but I use the terms in their denotative sense. Anyone who has been entrusted with the editing of translated material has had this harsh reality pushed into their faces, and it is this harsh reality that graders have to deal with on a daily basis. In actual practice people fail the tests for making numerous, egregious errors of the sort any high-school composition teacher would penalize.

Again we turn for guidance to what the ATA calls itself: a translators' professional association--not a front organization for poseurs, labor racketeers, political infiltrators, confidence men or unrealistic dreamers. Nor are we committed to the welfare of artificial persons. Our commitment as stated in the bylaws is to the profession and to our flesh-and-blood members. The surest way to secure that commitment is to place legal control over the association's policies in the hands of actual translators. The means developed for securing that end has been to restrict the vote to persons who have demonstrated (to the satisfaction of the ATA) that they are actual translators; that they have genuine ability to do proper work rather than expose clients to embarrassment and liabilities. The reason the ATA wants persons who know the difference between right and wrong in charge of the association is that these are the stakeholders least likely to adopt some ruinous policy. I am by now convinced that restricting suffrage is a sound and reasonable approach to formulating sane and effective policy of, by and for translators.

As an interpreter I spend a lot of time at the conventions of trade and professional associations. Of professions that enjoy freedom, none have any mechanism for protecting their associations from usurpation by interested factions or large corporations. The complaints I hear from members point this up. Yet these are the very "most" associations Mr Hamm is interested in parading before us as examples to emulate. All human progress has been the result of individual persons and organizations finding a different, better way of doing things. I am convinced both in theory and practice that the ATA's policy of requiring evidence of ability as a condition for suffrage is a sound approach--that promiscuously selling the legal power to coerce our voluntary association to anyone with money to spend isn't. Other associations should watch and learn from the ATA. It is the single most brilliant thing about this association, affording us heterogeneity with harmony through built-in, structural hedging against tomfoolery. Again, this is largely the work of Patricia Newman, Ben Teague and many other capable volunteers.

The function of the accreditation program is thus primarily the protection of the association from both incompetents and interests alien to our own. Even the term accreditation fits this purpose admirably. An envoy is issued letters with which to prove to the host government that he is indeed what he claims to be, and given full faith and credence in that capacity. So does the successfully accredited ATA member prove to the association that she does indeed possess some minimum qualifications and can truthfully claim to be a de-facto translator. Therein lies the solution and policy endorsed by many past presidents and conspicuously conscientious members: that the tests are indeed entry-level, not a carte-blanche endorsement by which the ATA assumes liability for work the accredited member does.

Accreditation in no way precludes development of additional, specialized certification programs. There is no inherent conflict between the existing accreditation program and the most ambitious of pie-in-the-sky pipedreams. I have tracked efforts to get somebody else to develop an advanced ATACERT program back to their earliest beginnings, and am willing to bet money no such program will be developed by any deadline you care to specify. I have seen the prospect dangled as a pretext for abolishing our existing accreditation program. If I were an impostor or infiltrator I would seek by fair means or foul to do away with anything likely to expose me as such. The public, too, has its own view of the matter.

Just as I myself as a new ATA member in 1987 never doubted for a minute that a long-standing professional translators' association was capable of developing a means of screening against incompetence, so the general public has also concluded. The accreditation program has the accidental additional effect of reassuring many clients that accredited translators are less risky to deal with. I believe it. I see the difference in striking and vivid colors when I edit the work of several translators on some large project. Think how obvious it must be to translation companies, and it shows! In 13 years I have seen hundreds of translator applications, but fewer than five of this number failed to inquire about ATA accreditation. Even the better interpreter associations, such as NAJIT, recognize ATA accreditation as a relevant credential for linguists. They post it on their website as a criterion the user is welcome to use in seeking interpreters.

Until the purpose of the tests has been thoroughly discussed and the above arguments either confirmed or refuted, there is no point to planning radical changes to the accreditation program. There has meanwhile been no shortage of evolution and improvement. We now have much faster turnaround, review options whereby the candidate can verify that no mistakes or favoritism were involved in grading his or her exam--changes that make graders more accountable. Yet accountability must be required of the Language Chairs or LCs for those combinations for which the pass rate is ALARMINGLY far from the statistical average. I suggest they be asked to EXPLAIN WHY this is the case given the purposes of the testing program as a protective screening mechanism, not a means for restricting competition. It is unrealistic to expect the LCs to adjust to standards without graphic visual feedback in the form of comparative outcome charts. Asking LCs to recompile manuals of style is no substitute for data, and may result in rationalizations for what they've been doing all along. People don't change things unless they see a reason.

Those unwilling to grant that the program should have so simple a function might be happier administering ATACERT while their replacements strive to better standardize accreditation methodology. The suggestion that diplomas or certificates have an expiration date like ground beef has been rejected by every college and university in the world. Current policy of keeping accreditation dependent on continuing membership is, I believe, as good a hedge against erosion of faculties as can be had without a fountain of youth. Why would any accredited translator continually pay dues if not continually engaged in this most educational of all professions?

That's all for now on the Hamm report.


I use quotes because it is not clear to me that the redefinition of the accreditation committee was prudent, necessary or legal. Its haste in rushing to react to Mr Hamm's recommendations is as out of place as Mr Hamm's elaborate recommendations while the purpose of testing remains unsettled.


The proposed name change is spurious and counter to the well-established purposes of the accreditation program. "The committee" may speak for someone in supporting this, but I reject the notion root and branch. If market-oriented certification should be attempted, why not by a separate committee comprised by those committed to the idea?


Instead of more meetings, how about some inducement to attend the ones we already hold? I would suggest airfare or a conference fee break for graders. This might even make recruiting easier or improve grader retention. I guarantee you that more meetings will accomplish the opposite. No grader has ever quit over lack of meetings. Graders have quit because of excessive meddling at meetings by hostile outsiders--another reason to can the consumer/public members and larger governing board ideas.


When shelf-life stickers for tests ceases to be a silly idea, universities will be the first to adopt the practice. I suggest we wait for that to happen, then follow suit. Meanwhile there are diploma mills everywhere, eagerly catering to all and sundry.

In closing, let me reiterate that as long as the, er, grader and LC community is divided on the purpose or level of the exams, no further improvements can be expected and no name changes will suffice to paper over the problem. Far better to get this out in the open and free up talent for more ambitious undertakings than to smoulder in dissent sown by the unreconstructed. Then there is the public--likely to view with alarm any HUGE discrepancies in the pass rates when eventually discovered. If it weren't for the accreditation program I would not be an ATA member, much less volunteer my time and serve as a target. That this is a widespread attitude can be readily inferred by comparing the retention rates for accredited versus unaccredited members.

There is no shortage of knaves in this world, and an association with a budget like ours should be slow to heed their counsel. I have for years listened closely to the most fallacious and dishonest arguments imaginable against any accreditation program per se--most of them masked as "constructive suggestions" or "a better idea." Yet when I look at the other associations which lack such screening I see stagnation, cronyism, backstabbing, power plays and whispering sprees--in ALL associations, not just those organized to get member dues from linguists. What we have in the ATA is absolutely priceless. It would be a shame to disfigure it here, but it would crop up again elsewhere. I am personally striving to interest NAJIT in offering means for competent interpreters to at least differentiate themselves from impostors. Let's face it: impostors are known to exist, and the ATA has indicated it is not an impostors' association. All we really need is clarity of focus on this fundamental issue.

Cordially yours,

J Henry Phillips