Why I Will Vote Against ATA’s Bylaws Amendments

Briefly put, I believe that the changes will not achieve the intended results, and that they will actually work against the stated goals by eliminating existing pathways to voting membership. As well, I think that if the amendments are approved, they will change a fundamental feature of the association, namely, governance exclusively by members who are “professionally engaged in translating, interpreting, or clearly related work” (in other words, working translators, interpreters, T&I educators, terminologists, and lexicographers).

The “overall intent of the proposed amendments” stated within the document of proposed changes itself (in the first explanatory comment on page 1) is “to expand the franchise in the hopes of increasing participation in elections, and possibly, active participation in ATA overall by giving more members a sense of involvement.”

Unstated, but apparently as important, is a goal to decouple ATA Certification from ATA member voting rights. (Currently, passing ATA’s Certification exam advances Associate members to Active or Corresponding members, referred to collectively as Voting members — see ATA’s membership page for more information.) This decoupling would get us one step closer to carrying out the recommendations of the Hamm Report, which advised that the Certification credential would be stronger if eligibility to take the exam were not contingent upon ATA membership.[1] For many years now, ATA has been working toward the goal of opening up Certification to non-members.

For the record, I support the goals of increasing the number voting members, encouraging greater member participation, and opening Certification to non-members. But I don’t think that the proposed amendments are a good way to get there.

My opposition is both practical and on principle.

On a practical level, giving more members voting rights without an accompanying association-wide campaign to boost participation is not a complete plan of action. Current voting participation peaks at around 20%.[2] It seems to me that we should first try to increase the participation rate among current voting members. A first step would be to survey voting membership to try to find out why so many of them are not voting and ask what can be done to get their votes.

Regarding increasing the franchise, the current procedure for qualified Associate members to become voting members is quite simple: they just have to ask. (Criteria here: http://atanet.org/membership/memb_review_online.php.) We have more than 5,800 Associate members, but only 378 used Active Membership Review to advance to voting member status in 2015 (the latest number I could find). Would someone who is not interested in ATA affairs enough to fill out a simple form to claim the right to vote be inclined to vote if that right were granted by default?

I wonder how effective we have been at communicating how simple it is to become a voting member, that it does not trigger a dues rate increase, and that the board and officers of the association actually care. We have not done enough to motivate our current voting and voting-eligible members, and it is premature to change the existing membership structure before we make more of an effort in that regard.

* * *

On the level of principle, the amendments appear to reduce the concept of “professionally engaged” — currently a prerequisite to becoming a voting member — to “dues-paying member of ATA for three consecutive years.” I reject that notion.

The current membership regime makes clear that ATA recognizes there is life before ATA; that many new members have been working professionally for many years, perhaps for an entire career. For example, some translators and interpreters have full-time jobs with job-related support services and don’t feel a need to join a professional association. But upon leaving full-time employment, they join ATA for the breadth of resources and networking opportunities offered.

Currently there are two paths to voting membership: Certification and Active Membership Review. Associate members can either demonstrate that they possess “professional translation skills” by passing the Certification Exam or they can assert that they are “professionally engaged in translating, interpreting, or closely related fields” through Active Membership Review. By inference, the explanation of the Active Membership Review process serves as a checklist for what ATA considers adequate and necessary for meeting the requirement of being “professionally engaged.” (The bylaws do not define the term.)

Both of these paths are available to any individual member of the association after four weeks of membership. So if I, as a translator with at least three years of professional translation experience, join ATA on January 1, 2018, I can take a Certification exam on February 1. If I pass the exam, then I am a voting member by the end of June (let’s say). Or if there is no exam sitting in February and I am impatient, or if I am an interpreter, I can fill out the Active Membership Review form on February 1, certify that I have the qualifying credentials or experience, without having to submit any documentation, and I am a voting member within a few days. After a little over a month as an ATA member.

The proposed bylaws amendments would change that. Under the proposed changes, if I join ATA on January 1, 2018, the soonest I can become a voting member is on January 1, 2021. With the elimination of Active Membership Review, there is no way for me to demonstrate my “professional engagement” aside from being a dues-paying member. With the elimination of Active Membership Review, the definition of “professionally engaged” itself will disappear from association literature. Certification will also no longer be a direct path to voting membership, but this path is anyway bound for eventual elimination (in another post I will outline my idea for decoupling Certification from voting membership while also acknowledging the credential as evidence of professional engagement).

The bylaws amendments hit Student members particularly hard. Currently, Student members may take the Certification exam without having to pay the full member rate (the four-week waiting period still applies). If they do not pass, they remain Student members at the reduced rate. If they pass, and if they agree to pay full dues, then they immediately become voting members. Under the proposed bylaws, the Student member category is still available, but it does not count toward the three-year membership period required to become a voting member. Student members would have to wait out the three-year period of full-price dues regardless of how long they had been Student members and regardless of Certification status.

My experience in the organization these past 15 years has been that new members are some of the most enthusiastic volunteers. I think we risk discouraging those most likely to get involved in and eventually serve the association by not allowing them to apply for voting rights in the first year or two of their membership.

* * *

In the September/October issue of The ATA Chronicle (issue 46, no. 5, p. 7), ATA’s executive director, Walter Bacak, says, “The Board approved presenting proposed bylaws changes to the membership for their approval. The changes are intended to expand voting rights to associate members who are professionally engaged in language services and have been members for three consecutive years.” These same two sentences appear in a sidebar on page 16. I think this is a mischaracterization of the changes, and that a more accurate characterization would be, The changes expand voting rights to associate members who have been members for three consecutive years.”

Following on this change from a voting body composed solely of working translators and interpreters, educators in the field of T&I, and terminologists and lexicographers to a voting body of anyone who has ever been a member of ATA for three consecutive years, we have to recognize that the sole criterion for serving on ATA’s board of directors or becoming an officer of the association is being an Active member of the association (that is, being a voting member and a U.S. citizen or permanent resident).

Current bylaws exclude agency owners, recruiters, sales reps, and software and app developers (among others) who are not themselves working as translators or interpreters or in a closely related field from becoming voting members of the association. The proposed amendments, however, would automatically convert these individual industry members to voting members. Therefore, unless I am misunderstanding something, under the proposed amendments, ATA will no longer be able to claim that its direction and mission are answerable solely to working translators and interpreters and other engaged practitioners.

I don’t know what the practical implications of this change would be, if any, but we already have a segment of members who think that ATA’s “mixed” membership of individual freelancers, industry representatives, and corporate members is detrimental to the ability of ATA to advocate unequivocally for the interests of freelance translators and interpreters when they come into conflict with the interests of corporate members. And even though I do not share their concerns, my reasoning is based on the current exclusion of industry representatives from ATA governance. At the very least, glossing over this particular consequence of the amendments shows a curious indifference to one of the most vocal — and active — segments of association membership.

* * *

I have other concerns about the amendments, such as a few technical inconsistencies caused by the edits, but the ones discussed here are the most substantive. The more closely I read the proposed amendments, the more unintended consequences I find.

So I will be voting against these proposed amendments.

On the other hand, I support the underlying goals of the changes, and I think these goals can be achieved without degrading the definition of “professionally engaged” and without working translators and interpreters having to relinquish governance of the association.

See you in D.C.!

[1] See, for instance, Stejskal, J., “International Certification Study: ATA’s Credential,” ATA Chronicle 32, no. 7 (July 2003), p. 14, available at http://www.atanet.org/chronicle-online/wp-content/uploads/2003-July.pdf.

“Michael Hamm, former executive director of the National Organization for Competency Assurance and the principal of Michael Hamm & Associates, reviewed and evaluated ATA’s accreditation program and provided the association’s leadership and members at large with a number of valuable insights. The purpose of what came to be known as the “Hamm Report” was to point the way toward strengthening the program and improving the benefits of accreditation.

[. . . ]

“Michael Hamm observes that while most credentialing efforts are initially developed to meet the needs of the members, the most effective ones are not tied to any membership criteria for participation, since competence and quality have nothing to do with the payment of dues to an association. The credibility of the credentialing effort is enhanced if it is viewed as a service to the wider public rather than a service to members. The move from a membership-based to a freestanding credential is a significant one in the evolution of any voluntary certification program.”

See also Hamm, M.S., “An Executive Summary: Review of the ATA Certification Program,” available at http://www.atanet.org/bin/view.pl/24113.html.

[2] In the ATA Board Meeting Summary, of November 7-8, 2015, one entry reads, “More than 500 votes were cast for candidates this year, which is one of the highest ever.” (Document at http://www.atanet.org/governance/bm_summary_november2015.php, ATA-member log-in required.) This was out of a voting membership of around 2,500 (I’m guessing based on various board meeting minutes — I cannot find a total for that precise period).


  1. dbaplanb

    Two years later: This October 19, 2017, post has been referenced by a few people in relation to a decision by the ATA board to move forward on decoupling ATA Certification from ATA membership (see pingback below to Jill Sommer’s post “Decoupling and the ATA” on her blog Musings from an Overworked Translator). I am pasting my reply to that blog post here, too, to make it clear that my opposition to the bylaws changes discussed in my post above in no way implies I am opposed to decoupling Certification from membership. Here’s how I responded to Jill’s post:
    Hi, Jill, thank you for posting about the Hamm Report’s recommendation to decouple eligibility to take ATA’s Certification exam from ATA membership. I think it is an important discussion to have and I agree with you that we should have been having it over the past 20 years, certainly with more effort put into keeping the topic top of mind. I’d like to clarify my stance on decoupling: I am for it, for all the reasons stated in the Hamm Report, and a few others, and I did make that clear in the October 2017 post you have linked to in your post (thanks for that as well). I said at the time: “For the record, I support the goals of increasing the number voting members, encouraging greater member participation, and opening Certification to non-members. But I don’t think that the proposed amendments are a good way to get there.”
    My support of decoupling does not mean I support crashing through association bylaws, however. I do not know what the solution is to our current situation (differing opinions on whether the rights enumerated for active members are meant to be exclusive, requiring an amendment to this clause). I think the bylaws are unclear on this issue, probably a byproduct of piecemeal amendments over the years.
    In any case, the annual meeting will be interesting…
    All the best,

  2. Pingback: Decoupling and the ATA | Musings from an overworked translator
  3. dbaplanb

    UPDATE — Dateline Washington, D.C., 27 October 2017: The proposed bylaws failed by a vote of 374 against to 147 for. There were many impassioned comments at the meeting of voting members yesterday, and I Iearned a lot about the concerns of other ATA members, especially interpreters. It was heartening to see that no one (no one who spoke at the meeting or whom I spoke with privately) was opposed to the overall goal of increasing the number of voting members and participation of members generally. We have some work to do to, though, in figuring out how to get there.
    I do want to clarify a point that I misunderstood. Although it is not stated in the bylaws revision, the intention was not to discard the Active Member Review criteria as a defiition of “professionally engaged” and to grant voting rights to all Associate members after three years of membership regardless of profession. The plan was that upon completion of three years of membership, the membership renewal form would have a section defining “professionally engaged” (as I understand it, similar in content to the Active Member Review form) and a box to check indicating that the member asserts that he or she meets the criteria. I apologize to readers and the board for mischaracterizing this aspect of the amendments. On the other hand, had this been explained to members (and I looked for an explanation and asked for an explanation in an appropriate association forum, and clearly demonstrated my misunderstanding), then instead of vocally opposing the bylaws amendments, I might actually have supported at least some aspect of them, and I certainly would not have spread my own misconceptions of the nature of the changes.
    I think there is a way to achieve the goals stated in the comments to the proposed bylaws. The board got us all talking about it, and now we need to find the common areas of agreement and implement what we can while working out our differences.
    In the meantime, a message to all Associate members of ATA who are working translators and interpreters with three years of professional experience or credentials from other reputable certifying bodies: Go to http://atanet.org/membership/memb_review_online.php, fill out the form, and become a voting member! Be a part of this conversation!

  4. mercedesguhl

    Very interesting post, Paula. There seems to be another reason behind these ammendments, that I haven’t read in the forum discussion: the lack of ATA certification exam for interpreters. Until very recently, interpreters were certainly misrepresented in the association board and highest offices. Certification was not a path for interpreters to get to the voting status.
    I share your concerns with the proposed ammendments, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to vote for them just as a first step towards further and more precise ammendments. And I would like to hear somebody else (not just the two people that have pointed me to the situation of interpreters and their voice and weight in the association) addressing this.

    • dbaplanb

      Thanks, Mercedes. It’s true that ATA does not offer certification for interpreters, but recently it began recognizing certification from other credentialing bodies and allowing interpreters to display those credentials on their profiles. They are accepted as part of the Active Member Review as proof of professional engagement. Also, through that process, you can show business receipts as proof that you are working — ATA does not require that members show linguistic excellence (written or oral) to be a voting member, and even the Certification program covers a relatively small number of language pairs. It is so easy now for working interpreters and translators to become voting members through the review process that I think the lack of credentialling through ATA is irrelevant on this specific question.
      Representation in the association is another matter, but we know how hard it is to find people willing to take positions of responsibility, I think that any interpreter willing to step up to division leader, committee chair, etc., right up to board member and officer would be welcomed. At least I hope so. I wonder if there is something inherent in the job and lifestyle that makes it more difficult to commit to a volunteer position. It seems like a grueling profession to me, but I’m most happy sitting alone at my desk.

  5. dbaplanb

    Also to be clear — ATA has many individual members who are translators or interpreters AND owners of translation companies, and they can and do vote and serve as directors and officers of the association. To name just a few who have served as president of the association: Jiri Stejskal (CETRA) in 2007–2009, Tom West III (Intermark Language Services) in 2001–2003, and Muriel Jérôme-O’Keeffe (JTG) in 1997–1999. There are members who don’t like this arrangement, as I alluded to in the post, but that is not the topic of my current beef with the bylaws amendments.

  6. pweill

    I am a little shaken that the ATA would include as voting members the said industry reps, translation companies etc. Question: are we only voting for or against this entire proposal as a yes or no? I mean, we will not be voting on the proposed changes individually. Thank you for letting us know about this important topic! Pat Weill

    • dbaplanb

      Pat, thanks for your comment. The vote is to approve the “package” of amendments. I should also mention that there may not even be very many individual industry members who are not working translators and interpreters themselves — I haven’t found a way to separate out individual members in a search of the directory. That’s why I consider that argument under principle and not under practical concerns. Also, to be clear, these changes do not apply to the representatives of corporate or institutional members at all (corporate and institutional members and their designated representatives cannot vote or hold office, nor is that envisioned by the amendments). This applies only to individual members.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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