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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (July 2009)


Professional Associations: They Are Not Just for Professionals
By Michael Collins

Whenever I speak to groups of translators, I often ask how many in the room started out planning to work in translation or interpreting. Very few hands go up. Most respond that they were guided into the field by an admired mentor, or that they stumbled upon it as part of some other training, schooling, or work. Still others say they “fell into it” on the road to something else, and enjoyed it so much that they just stayed. In short, they were influenced or inspired as students or beginners by more experienced individuals.

Thanks to the efforts of associations like ATA and its divisions, chapters, and affiliates, more and more school- and college-age students are being exposed to translation and interpreting as potential careers. The incredible shrinking planet we live on has also increased awareness of our professions. Professional associations offer an excellent platform from which to share knowledge about the field with potential future colleagues.

New energy in any organization flows mostly from the bottom up, but a helping hand reaching down is important as well. For students, professional associations can be that helping hand.

My local ATA chapter—the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters (CATI)—has been working to increase student membership. As part of this drive, CATI has implemented a number of initiatives, including student membership scholarships, an informal mentoring program, and reduced fees to CATI events. CATI also held a series of panel discussions for student and new members to help them better understand what a professional association can do for them—and what they can do for it.

Belonging to any professional association offers benefits to student members. These benefits can be broken down into tangibles and intangibles. Some are quite obvious, others less so. Let us look at the tangible benefits first.

Tangible Benefits

Face-to-Face Networking with Active Professionals: Just as it is important for professionals to network with prospective clients and fellow professionals, students must have an opportunity to engage with active translators and interpreters so they can learn more about the field. While there may be some occasions for this in academic settings (particularly in some of the university-level translation programs that are springing up), students in traditional language-learning curricula may have few options for meeting people active in translation and interpreting.

Professional associations, particularly local chapters, offer opportunities for this type of networking. Workshops and conferences are usually offered at reduced rates for student members, and most chapters will have free social events as well.

Current Information on Work and Training Events: The operative word here is “information.” Student members should not be competing with professionals for work assignments, and most are aware that they lack the qualifications to accept such assignments. However, there is valuable knowledge to be gained from the broadcast information that most associations send out to their members, including job listings, volunteer and shadowing opportunities, and entry-level training workshops.

Publishing: Most associations have newsletters or other publications. These publications are always seeking locally produced content, and students can provide a unique perspective to readers who have been engaged day-to-day on the professional side for a long time. Moreover, getting those first publication credits can be a valuable addition to a résumé, and can help newcomers start honing their communication skills. Another possibility is for student members to propose that their association add a “student’s corner” to the newsletter dedicated exclusively to student member contributions.

Volunteering: Volunteering is an excellent way for student members to contribute to their association. Most professional associations are hungry for volunteers, and extra hands and minds are invaluable when organizing events and activities. In return, helping out with the association can raise a student member’s profile above the crowd. An association board member is likely to find it far easier to write a letter of recommendation for a student member who frequently volunteers than for someone who does not otherwise stand out. CATI offers student membership discounts for student volunteers.
Other associations may offer similar options.

Other Association-based Programs and Initiatives: CATI has initiated an informal mentoring program called “Learning the Ropes,” in which experienced members make themselves available to student and new members who may have general questions about the profession and related topics. Other associations may have their own initiatives.

Such programs offer an excellent opportunity for students to pick the brains of veterans, and for veterans to give something back in the form of knowledge and advice.

Intangible Benefits
In addition to the benefits above, there is a host of intangible ways membership in a professional association can benefit student members.

Résumé-building: When it comes to considering whether to make the dues investment, it is tempting to think only in terms of whether it will pay off in additional work. In other words, if I pay dues of X, will it be returned to me in X dollars of profit as a direct result of my listing in the association’s directory? While this is something that can be measured directly, it is important to remember that there are related benefits that are often indirect and intangible.

As an employer of translation and interpreting professionals, I see many résumés in the course of a week. One of the things I look for is whether a job seeker is serious enough about his or her profession to belong to one or more professional associations. Someone who is giving back to the profession and interacting with other professionals is more likely to be up to date on the latest trends and tools in use. From the student member’s perspective, membership can be a great icebreaker with a prospective employer and a positive addition to a résumé during those first post-college job interviews.

Connectedness: Translation and interpreting are skill-based professions that are dominated by individual freelancers and small businesses. Most of us do our work in relative isolation, communicating with colleagues via e-mail and during the occasional workshop or conference. Contact between students and professionals in work settings is even rarer. Association socials and other events can help students forge connections with other members.

The demand for internships in the translation and interpreting field far outstrips availability. The number of translation agencies that have the resources and time to devote to an intern is limited. Association events can be a good place to seek out possible internship opportunities and create that face-to-face impression that can make all the difference.

Learning What You Don’t Know
As the famous quote goes: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Many inexperienced language learners are unaware of the level of skill required to translate or interpret properly. I speak to and correspond with many students in their first or second year of language study who start out convinced that they will be qualified to interpret at a high level within a year or so.

At events and activities, student members have a chance to see and hear professionals talk about what their work entails. They learn about ethical dilemmas, client engagement, work habits, professional behavior, specializations, skill sets, and much more. All of this acts to dispel the all-too-prevalent notion that “anyone with two languages can do it,” and impresses upon newcomers to the field that translation and interpreting are skills and an art that take time and effort to develop and refine.

In addition, networking with other members can result in valuable information on career opportunities that had perhaps not occurred to a student previously. The range of experience in any group of language professionals is likely to be great, and student members can quiz veterans about how their language skills may help them with a potential career in health care, international business, negotiation, foreign service, or law, for example. I often ask students to imagine a scenario where they are competing for, say, a nursing position. Their qualifications are the same as those of their competitors, except that they are fluent in both Spanish and English and their competitors are monolingual. Who is most likely to be hired?

Students Have Much to Offer
While students can certainly benefit in many ways from membership in a professional association, the arrangement is a win for the association as well. As mentioned above, student members can add a unique perspective to discussions within an association, and the organization benefits from the energy and volunteerism they bring to the table. While there is much to be gained from belonging, there is also a lot to give.
And give and take is what associations are all about.

Student members can take what they learn back to their classmates and instructors. They can also bring professionals up to date on what is happening in schools, and what approaches instructors are using. The exchange of ideas brings a refreshing dynamism to professional interactions within an association. This is not to be underestimated, particularly in today’s economic climate where we are all being forced to confront a changing business landscape.

Most professional associations offer reduced rates to attract student members. This is because they understand the values and benefits of having student members. It is up to student members to take advantage of all that these associations have to offer.

Belonging to a professional association is a bit like the old saying that happiness is like a butterfly: chase it and it eludes you, go about your business and it will sit on your shoulder. The benefits I have described here are real, but individuals who join an association expecting good fortune to start flowing their way instantly are missing the point. As with any organization, you get back what you put in. Simply joining and expecting the benefits to fall from the sky is asking for disappointment. If you join, roll up your sleeves, jump in, and get involved. I guarantee that before long that butterfly will be there on your shoulder.

About the Author
Michael Collins is an ATA-certified German>English translator, the president of Global Translation Systems, Inc., and the president of the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters. He has been active in translation for 25 years. He has a master’s degree in Slavic linguistics. Contact: