Does ATA have Conflicting Loyalties?

August 27, 2015 JAlfonso 11 comments

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I have heard the following statement many times: “ATA has conflicting loyalties! It is a conflict of interest to have an association represent both interpreters/translators and agencies. I cannot warn others or complain about an agency’s bad practices on a forum because it is against the rules since agencies are also members.” This topic definitely has a polarizing effect with some members.

ARTICLE III of the ATA by-laws
Membership section f.
Corporate: Corporate membership is open to any business firm with an interest in the translation or interpreting professions. Membership shall be in the name of the firm, not in the name of an individual. Individuals associated with a Corporate member may qualify as members in other classes in their own right.

ARTICLE II
Purposes (of the association)
a. The Association shall be organized as a not-for-profit entity with the following objectives:
1) to promote the recognition of the translation and interpreting professions;
2) to promote the communication and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of translators and interpreters;
3) to formulate and maintain standards of professional ethics, practices, and competence;

It is a valid argument that allowing corporate members is contrary to ATA’s purpose of maintaining standards of professional ethics and suppresses free and open communication for the benefit of translators and interpreters.

Here is an example: In recent years, the company TransPerfect has been in the news. Here is a link to a recent article. For many years, many people have complained about its bad business practices. The current feeling is to not discuss those issues on the forums resulting in the occasional deleted post. Associations around the world discuss freely these kinds of issues. The result is that some members don’t feel that their needs are represented. Their attempts at communication about a harmful company is suppressed to the detriment of the members instead of their benefit.

The TransPerfect owners themselves have been found in a court of law to have acted unethically. This is common knowledge, all over the media creating a terrible reputation for our professions! Another purpose of the association is to maintain standards of professional ethics. There is no denying the very public problems of TransPerfect; yet its membership continues.

TransPerfect illustrates perfectly the conflicting allegiances that exist when an association represents two different groups that can at times have opposing interest. The association does not keep a list of companies acting badly, therefore such lists have been created outside. The practicing members feel that they can’t openly voice concerns about these important and relevant issues.  There are associations for translation companies that represent their interests. So why shouldn’t ATA change the by-laws and eliminate Corporate membership? It comprises only a small fraction of the membership; we won’t miss the money.

Perception is often more powerful than reality. It is the observation of many ATA members that certain agencies: (1) severely underpay, (2) are slow to send compensation, (3) often neglect quality and (4) don’t even pay. Interpreters and translators deserve to earn a comfortable living and receive compensation commensurate with their worth. This means that there is a battle over fees, a potential conflict of interest between the two groups.

ATA has a process to resolve ethical conflict, but the prevailing attitude is that it doesn’t do enough because of incompatible fidelity. TransPerfect exemplifies this issue again. Ethics disputes are handled when someone files a complaint. Since no one obviously has filed a complaint (my opinion based on inaction) against TransPerfect, its membership continues despite its despicable and unethical reputation all over the world. This is a case where, in accordance with the by-laws, there has been justifiable cause to proactively take disciplinary action. Not all agencies are bad. Some are very good. However, some are just as bad, or worse than TransPerfect; at least in reputation.

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Section 6 – Disciplinary Actions
a. Disciplinary actions, including censure, suspension, or expulsion from membership, may be taken for any of the following causes:
1) Conviction of a felony or other crime of moral turpitude under federal or state law in a matter related to the practice of, or qualifications for, professional activity;
2) Gross negligence or willful misconduct in the performance of professional services, or other unethical or unprofessional conduct (emphasis added) based on demonstrable and serious violations of the ATA Code of Ethics and Professional Practice;

Emily and I are members of other associations. For instance, I am a member of IMIA  because I am a certified healthcare interpreter. Emily is a member of NAJIT because she is a state certified court interpreter. We feel that they represent our specific interests. What I have found is a very large number of members of different associations who were once members of ATA. When I ask why they are no longer members, the typical answer is, “They fail to represent my needs and interest, which is why I joined this other association.” There are a lot of smaller niche associations representing specific aspects of interpreting or translation. ATA is the largest and encompasses all of them. This means that ATA has more notoriety and greater influence than any of the other smaller, more limited associations.

I believe it is time for a change. It is time to remove corporate membership from the by-laws. I am also convinced that a major change like this would open the way for many hundreds or even thousands of past members to return. All they need to know is that the largest and most influential association is taking care of their needs. At its peak a few years ago, ATA had 11,000 members. Statistics show that our professions are growing fast. Therefore, our membership ranks should reflect that. If ATA were to make interpreters and translators really feel represented, I would imagine a much larger and stronger membership.

ARTICLE XV
Amendment of Bylaws
a. These Bylaws may be altered, amended, or repealed only by a two-thirds vote of the voting members of the Association at any regular or special meeting called for that purpose. The complete text of the proposed change shall be submitted to each voting member in writing prior to the meeting.
b. Amendments may be proposed by the Board of Directors or by petition of fifty voting members of the Association. Proposals originating by petition shall be submitted in writing to the Board of Directors for presentation to the membership.

Some believe that if we were to do that, we would lose sponsorship at the annual conference. I don’t think so. Where else in the United States can agencies recruit and market to over 1,500 language professionals? The conference is the most cost effective and efficient way.

I realize this is a hot topic, but it is important to discuss. I would love to know your opinion for or against changing the by-laws. I promise to try and keep an open mind.

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11 Comments on “Does ATA have Conflicting Loyalties?

  1. Jeff, at least I see a more or less balanced logic on your posting, unlike the pseudological arguments presented by at least one lifetime ATA member who will remain nameless (it’s your blog, after all).

    On one hand, I didn’t quite feel troubled by an association that covered professionals and agencies, since many of those professionals OWN said agencies. However, a deeper discussion needs to take place, if for no more reason than to make the association (ATA) more transparent. Case in point: an independent translator or interpreter has an individual membership AND a corporate membership with ATA. That’s fine…until you see how that professional may represent herself: when it’s convenient, she’ll choose to portray herself as one of us independent professionals. But it’s not convenient, then she’ll don her agency hat.

    That’s definitely a conflict of interests.

    I once had a client (an agency) who quit his corporate membership with ATA over ATA’s publishing its T&I directory, but kept his individual membership. I thought that was just an outburst of disagreement.

    Translation agencies do have an association that they can opt to belong to: the ALC or Association of Language Companies (https://www.alcus.org/). So there, ATA-member agencies have had the ALC for some years now. Theoretically, they don’t need ATA’s umbrella protection.

    On a related topic, ATA’s president, Ms. Walsh, recently stated on Twitter that PR is well in ATA’s radar (why do bureaucrats keep using buzzwords and inane expressions is beyond me). Okay then, for the sake of said transparency, and because getting rid of the corporate membership would add to that transparency, let’s open the floor to another big discussion: conference sponsors.

    1. Mario, what sparked me to write this blog was the fact that the reputation of our industry is being run through the gutter. There should have been some kind of proactive action.
      The lack of action supports the remarks of people that believe there is a conflict of interest. I work with some agencies and know others who do also. If the majority of membership were to prefer to keep things as they are, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.
      However when a company is guilty of flagrant ethical misconduct, something needs to be done.

  2. Jeff,

    When I saw your post for the first time, I couldn’t help but think: “Here we go again…” You may be aware of the fact that the idea or restricting ATA to individual translators is not new and has been around since the very foundation of ATA. In fact, the “founding fathers,” one of whom was a personal friend of mine, considered and discussed having separate organizations for the two categories, but the idea was rejected every time it came up, for different reasons.

    First, we are stronger if we’re united and can speak on behalf of all stakeholders in the profession.

    Second, it is not easy to tell apart translators and owners of translation companies. Except for the purely commercial outfits managed by lawyers and businesspeople, the typical translation company is owned and managed by translators, usually successful ones who at one point became unable to handle the work flow and decided to farm out the overflow to trusted colleagues. Many working translators have incorporated for tax reasons. Would they qualify for ATA membership in an “individuals only” association?

    Note that, in order to hold office in ATA as a member of the Board, committee chair, or division administrator, you must be an active member, i.e., a translator, having passed a certification exam or peer review. During my 13 years on the Board, we always had one or two Board members who were also company owners (I was one of those), but the majority has always been “pure” freelancers. Currently there is only one translation company owner on the Board, who is, of course, also a translator. Thus being, any talk that the ATA Board represents the interests of company owners is pure nonsense.

    While in many issues translators and translation companies have diverging or opposing interests, we’re all part of the same industry and have much more interests in common. Being able to talk to the government or the media about language and translation issues with one voice lends more strength to our position. Even when we disagree on certain issues, it is better if we can discuss those within the same organization.

    Another important reason for keeping translation companies within ATA is that, in cases of ethics violations, ATA can do nothing against non-members, but can apply sanctions, up to expulsion, to its members.

    The solution to the real or imaginary “conflict of interests” between freelancers and translation companies is, in my opinion, to strengthen ATA’s Ethics Committee, which should consistently and fairly enforce our Bylaws and Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. We have the tools to resolve those conflicts. Let’s use them.

    1. Gabe, thank you for your well thought-out reply. What motivated me to write the blog was the very public news about TransPerfect damaging our industry reputation. My wish is that ethical misconduct be handled proactively in an appropriate and expedited way. Inaction is not an option.

  3. Posted on an ATA List-serv

    As you well tell us, this is not the first time.
    More than a decade later, the inherent conflict of interest is even greater
    and more public. It is tearing at the fabric of our wonderful ATA.
    Transperfect is not the only company out there hurting our profession. The
    UK Ministry of Justice ALS fiasco comes to mind as well as L-3 Titan or
    Hispanic Voices. I am frankly tired of some companies’ questionable, when
    not outright criminal, business practices. It infuriates me to have
    wonderful language companies lumped with and suffering because of them.
    Fortunately, language companies have created (from the ATA) their own
    Association of Language Companies (ALC) that represents their interests. Now
    that they are well established, it’s time to let them move out of the ATA
    parental home. ALC, not ATA, should police its ranks.

    I am all for timely amicable divorces, emphasis on timely. Even though the
    first couple of years after the separation may be somewhat tense, in due
    time both associations and their members will learn to accept and respect
    each other and collaborate here and there in support of one thing or
    another. This divorce will trickle down to ATA chapters and affiliates,
    which would be greatly beneficial to all concerned.

    In summary, my inclination is to eliminate the Corporate membership category
    since this group of vendors have competing and sometimes diametrically
    opposed interests to the other group of vendors (self-employed translators
    and interpreters) which are the vast majority of ATA members. Be warned that
    ignoring power dynamics and conflicts of interest is dangerous for any
    professional association. This cleaning up house will inevitably lead to a
    more focused and proactive ATA neither hindered nor afraid to defend the
    interests of its constituency. I anticipate some, though not
    unsurmountable, difficulties in redefining the ATA membership categories.
    There might be a need for adding to the current Active Member Category an
    exclusionary clause stating: “Active membership does not mean an owner,
    manager, or employee of a broker or a language services company or
    non-profit corporation.” There may also be a need to have a discussion
    regarding the institutional category. When and if the motion is presented at
    an ATA membership meeting, it should include the definitions for the new
    membership categories.

    Not having language companies and other types of institutions as members in
    ATA does not necessarily preclude them from sponsoring (yes, money),
    presenting or participating in any ATA conference, or other ATA events. In
    fact, we could hold the ATA conference close or in conjunction with the ALC
    conference.

    Finally, when the founding fathers created the United States they were very
    aware that slavery was in conflict with the country and society many of them
    wanted. However, it was allowing slavery or not severing the ties with the
    UK. ATA founding members were aware of the problem of allowing language
    companies in their midst but a flawed professional association is better
    than none. The United States has had many amendments to its constitution. So
    can ATA.

    Milena

  4. Jeff, I’ve been off the radar these past ten days, but in reading your post wonder if a much more practical solution is not simply (simply!) to take advantage of changes in the Ethics Committee to make that group of hard-working volunteers more responsive and proactive (I agree that some of the Transperfect business has been nonsensical).
    Oh, and to ramp up professional PR so that the false claims made by irresponsible agencies (and irresponsible freelance translators, while we’re at it) are countered more aggressively, more quickly and more publicly.
    In any case, surely it would make more sense to get interested parties together to reexamine this issue seriously (including real statistics and real projections) in a task force. The bylaw change suggestion is premature and — again, my opinion — a red herring.
    While we’re at it, what I’d *really* like to see is interest in such issues and willingness to serve on committees and commissions *year-round*, not just in the run-up to an AGM. (You get a pass on that, Jeff, since you did such a stellar job on the Chronicle Task Force earlier this year. :)).
    Revisiting these issues regularly in a sober and clear-sighted way is an excellent option (ATA’s policy on rate discussions being another example). Times change, conditions change, legal environments change — very good, let’s delve into that and pull all the facts together. But I see ATA governance and accountability issues as much more pressing than corporate membership.

    1. Thank you Chris. I’m sure you gave lots of thought to that before writing it. I was a bit impulsive when I wrote my blog. My concern is to fix the problems you mentioned. this requires open discussion followed by action.

  5. Jeff,

    I really liked your post. You obviously put a lot of thought and research into it and, as a reader, I appreciate that very much.

    There is obviously a conflict of interest here and, as Milena pointed out, it “is tearing at the fabric of our wonderful ATA.” I agree with Chris’ comment above in that we need to get the interested parties together to reexamine this issue seriously, but I also think that if that “reexamination” results in divorce then it wouldn’t be the end of the world and ATA might regain some of the legitimacy it has lost over the years among translators and interpreters who feel ATA no longer represents their interests. After all, the T in ATA does stand for Translators. Though many translators own agencies, there is no reason not to keep them as individual members while dissolving corporate membership, the two are not tied by an unbreakable bond. I also agree that this is one of many issues that need to be revised, including the rate discussion. ATA needs to stand for something other than a strong marketing platform.

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