Translators’ associations – cui bono?

Being the old warhorse that I am in the translation business (at it since 1987), I am often asked about various aspects of this profession. Let us look at the issue of translators’ associations.

For many years, I was a firm believer in proper organization, and I was a member of several associations (Europe, Canada, United States), but then came the point when I started questioning the logic behind such membership.

Association apparatchiks will tell you how wonderful their associations are and about all the great things they can do for you and other freelance translators.

But when you look at the money you hand them with your membership fees, and then do a cost-benefit analysis, you will realize that they, the associations, are the only ones benefiting.

So, what are the alleged benefits to freelancers?

  • You get your name in a directory (nowadays, that’s mostly online).
  • If you have not been to university and earned a degree, passing a certification/accreditation exam offered by an association is often the only way for you get your hands on an official paper.
  • As a member, you can attend lectures and conferences for the purposes of professional development.

Frankly, none of that is reason enough to join.

Listing in a directory of translators? Whether in print or online, once a potential client starts combing through one of these, the chances of him stumbling upon you, and choosing you, are like winning the lottery.

Too often, too, directories are filled with extraneous information that has very little to do with a translator’s professional skills and qualifications – call it bling, if you will – and unfortunately many clients get sidetracked and blinded by such frills.

Take a virtual association,, as an example: in their directory, for example, translators are ranked by the number of translation/terminology questions they have provided to other members (that is their way of describing a system where ‘translators’ accept work for which they are not qualified and then have others do the dirty work for them) . Some ProZ members have amassed hundreds of thousands of points for answering such questions over the years, but to me the only thing this proves is that they have too much free time on their hands, i.e., they are not exactly drowning in work.

In this day and age of social media, there is no need to pay for a directory listing like that. Just build your own (SEO-optimized) website, and use social media like LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter wisely.

The paper thing? University or association, diplomas and such are overrated, particularly in a profession like translation, which is also an art (yes, even the translation of legal contracts).

I have both, university degree and accreditation, but after 28 years in the business, I can tell you that both are for the birds. One is born a translator, but never made.

Looking back in time, yes, the time I spent at university studying translation was fun, but could have been spent more productively on something else. If you have the talent, and know your languages inside out, then no translation program will ever change the kind of translator you are (or are destined to become).

In fact, I was already working as a translator before arriving at university, and while my program was quite practical in nature, unlike today’s courses that focus too much on translation theory, translation science or translatology, nothing in my 28 years in the business has ever been bettered, or worsened, by the things I was taught at university. And translation theory, in particular, is of zero value to any practising professional translator.

As for association-delivered accreditation, that one is a hoax too. I have seen translators with many years of successful practice fail such exams – not because they were bad that day, but simply because many, if not most, markers out there are driven by an urge to eliminate potential competition. At other times, it is the markers who are too incompetent to know a good translation from a bad one.

I, too, acted as a marker for a few years, but I never graded a paper from a kill-the-competition angle. But I am a rare bird, you see?

What is more, even once you have achieved accreditation, it is not really your certificate or paper – oh no. The association expects you keep paying annual fees in order to maintain your status. If you decide to leave an association for one or two years, say, because you feel the money is better spent elsewhere, but then decide to return at some point, they will tell you that resuming your membership is not merely a matter of paying fees again – no, they will also demand that you sit for the exam all over again (and, perhaps, one of their markers will fail you a few times so as to drum up even more cash for the association).

This proves to me that it is all a money-making scheme, nothing more, nothing less. Again, it does not say anything about your actual skills, but it speaks volumes about your credulity.

Interested in professional development? Let us be perfectly candid here: every day you work for your clients is professional development. Every time you keep up-to-date on your working languages and areas of specialization, that is professional development. Or if you decide to learn a new language, that, too, is professional development.

You do not need to pay exorbitant membership fees (exorbitant when measured against the actual benefits to you) just to be granted access to a lecture – with massive online university courses and other material readily available online, you can attend a lecture while in the bathroom.

You know what? I have met too many association officials in my life that were not born translators – or even linguists for that matter. For when a so-called translator who has lived for years, or even decades, in the United States and still cannot speak English without a strong German accent, for example, then I should be forgiven for thinking that such a person has absolutely nothing to teach me. Yet, thinking back to my times with the ATA in the US, this is exactly what I witnessed virtually all the time – and those same people were allowed to mark accreditation exams INTO English!

In a nutshell, this is where the brick-and-mortar and virtual associations of translators become one: they are run by children pretending to be grownups. This is true of (the preschool of the translation world), ATA, or any of the associations we have in Canada or Europe.

Therefore, do not bother with such excess baggage, and simply be the best translator you can possibly be. Deliver top quality and great service to your clients, and if they pay you and, above all, come back for repeat business, it is all the proof (or the only credential) you will ever need.