The American Translators Association is the largest organization for translators in this part of the world. Despite its name, the ATA is active in the field of interpretation, and welcomes corporate and educational membership, and anyone else involved in the translation or interpretation industries. The ATA provides various types of memberships, including student membership, associate membership, and active/corresponding membership. All memberships include a subscription to the monthly publication ATA Chronicle.

Student membership is available if you are a full-time undergraduate or graduate student in any field, or part-time in a translation or interpretation program, or foreign-language study program. The membership is less costly ($65 annually as of 2005), but does not give include a listing in the Directory of Translation and Interpretation Services, and is limited to four years.

Associate membership is available to anyone who wishes to join the ATA. It costs $120 per year, and gives you an entry in the ATA Directory. The difference between an Associate Member and an Active Member is that the latter has passed the ATA Certification Exam, which involves not only meeting eligibility requirements but also successfully completing the exam itself.

Within the ATA there are Divisions which provide specialized services through newsletters, seminars, and conferences. The Divisions currently include the Chinese Language Division, French Language Division, German Language Division, Interpreters Division, Italian Language Division, Japanese Language Division, Literary Division, Medical Division, Nordic Division, Portuguese Language Division, Slavic Languages Division, Spanish Language Division, and the Translation Company Division. The only requirements for participating in a Division are ATA membership and an annual fee.

Member benefits include a listing in the ATA Directory (except for student members). This listing is valuable, particularly for freelance translators. Potential clients have to be able to find you, and the ATA Directory is one place they look when they need a new translator. Make certain you keep your listing current, and that all information is accurate. Since joining the ATA I have gotten enough business from my listing to cover the cost of membership many times over.

Additional benefits include access to insurance services, collection/receivables management, credit card services, overnight delivery services, retirement programs, and website design, along with a discount on the Annual Conference registration fees and ATA publications, including the International Certification Study , 2003 Translation and Interpreting Compensation Survey, Park’s Guide to Translating and Interpreting Programs in North America, Medical Translating and Interpreting: A Resource Guide, Programs in Translation Studies: An ATA Handbook, Getting Started: A Newcomer’s Guide to Translation and Interpretation, Translating and Interpreting in the Federal Government, and A Consumer’s Guide to Professional Translation. All that said, the conference and the exam are the two services that most people know the ATA for.

The Conference

The Annual Conference is the largest conference in the translation industry in the United States. It includes keynote speeches, presentations, seminars, workshops, business networking sessions, and a jobs fair. The various sessions are generally geared toward newcomers to the profession, and are typically specific to a language pair or a subject area. Last year’s conference in Toronto, Canada, offered several general sessions for all members, introductory sessions for new members, sessions on marketing and business practices for freelance translators and on project management for in-house translators, and specific sessions on financial, legal, literary, medical, scientific and technical translation, as well as sessions on computers and translation, translation pedagogy, and a variety of meetings for specific language pairs.

What holds back some people form attending the ATA Conference is the cost. Travel expenses can be very high if the site is on the opposite side of the country, and there are also lodging expenses to consider, though the ATA provides a group rate in the hotel where the conference is held. Opinions on the value of the ATA Conference vary. It is a great opportunity to meet face to face with project managers and translation managers, to hear what senior people in business see happening in the industry, and to network with other translators working in the same languages or on the same kinds of material that you work on. It is also at times frustrating, say some, because the focus of the sessions is too general and basic, and opportunities to develop business contacts limited.

ATA Certification

The ATA exam has become more involved recently. Previously known as an accreditation exam with no eligibility requirements and only a short general passage to translate, it has become the ATA Certification Exam. To take it you first must be an ATA member and have 1) current membership in the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs; or 2) an advanced degree of approved degree or certificate; 3) an undergraduate degree and at least two years’ work experience as a translator or interpreter; or 4) no undergraduate degree and at least five years’ work experience as a translator or interpreter.

The test itself is currently available into English from Arabic, Croatian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish, and from English into Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. It is a three-hour exam in one of the above pairs. You can use whatever reference materials you want to translate a mandatory general passage roughly 250 words long, and then a second passage of equal length you select from among two choices: one in the field of science, technology, or medicine, or the other in the field of law, business, or finance. You must pass both to become certified.

To maintain certification you must accumulate 20 hours of continuing education credits over a three-year period, with a maximum of 10 hours in any given year. Also, all newly-certified members will have to complete one hour of ethics training by either attending a workshop at the annual conference or one that is available online.

Because the ATA Certification is new, it is unclear how industry will react. Previously, the ATA accreditation exam was not given much attention except among Spanish/English translators. The exam was considered to short and simple to represent a reliable evaluation of a translator's ability. The new certification exam obviously reflects an effort to improve reliability. But because it does not test the ability of a translator to use MAT software, exploit search engines for research, or manipulate documents and databases, it is still limited in evaluating a translator’s ability to function in the industry. Furthermore, the grading of the ATA test has been for many years controversial, with highly trained, competent professionals failing, and with some languages failing more people than others. So whether or not the exam actually improves reliability, and how the translation industry will treat ATA-certified translators, remains to be seen.


The most common complaint about the ATA these days is “too little, too late.” Just as the translation industry in the United States is being overwhelmed by MAT software and MT technology and drained by offshoring, outsourcing, and Web-based translation auction services, the ATA steps forward to improve translators’ credibility and professional status. With salaries for in-house translators soft and rates for freelancers flat or falling, and good job openings hard to come by, the ATA’s offering a new, more expensive path to certification and requiring either years of experience or a costly education may represent an ill-conceived step.

In addition, there is still a legacy of scandal and incompetence surrounding the ATA from the early and mid 1990s. The organization has moved itself away from that time and the people involved, and has undertaken many worthwhile projects since, including a vast improvement to the ATA Chronicle, greater content in the annual ATA Conference, more business services, and it is even lobbying Congress so members can receive health insurance through the ATA. All laudable, and hopeful for the future.

Mostly though, the ATA lacks cohesion. This is not entirely its fault, however. Few people last even five years in the translation profession, and hardly anyone makes it past ten. So the ATA's membership is often quite green, lacking any sense of history or perspective on the profession and any ability to see or motivation to deal with long-term trends. The ATA itself does occasionally offer workshops on overall situation and trends in the translation profession, but the schools that train translators usually don’t, and the ATA Chronicle does not contain a news section in which current events and long-term trends are made public, discussed, and analyzed. 

Whether or not you decide to join the ATA, translators should strive to become active productive members of the profession. Much more information about the ATA can be had from its website.

Chapter Associations

There are across the United States ATA chapters that offer newsletters, annual conferences, workshops, and seminars to members. They function as miniature versions of the ATA itself, each offering a slightly different set of benefits at a different cost. ATA membership does defray this cost in most cases.

The associations are: Atlanta Association of Interpreters and Translators (AAIT), Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters (CATI), Delaware Valley Translators Association (DVTA), Florida Chapter of ATA (FLATA), Michigan Translators/Interpreters Network (MiTiN), Mid-America Chapter of ATA (MICATA), Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters (MATI), National Capital Area Chapter, New York Circle of Translators (NYCT), Northeast Ohio Translators Association (NOTA), Northern California Translators Association (NCTA), Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society (NOTIS), Southern California Area Translators and Interpreters Association (SCATIA), and Upper Midwest Translators and Interpreters Association (UMTIA).

There are also two ATA-affiliated groups: Iowa Interpreters and Translators Association (IITA) and the Utah Translators and Interpreters Association (UTIA).

Other Groups

Every language and many subject areas have professional organizations of their own. Given the large number of such organizations, I cannot list them here. Instead, they can be found through the ATA, general Web searches, or colleagues. Their value and importance varies depending on which languages you work with and what areas you specialize in. If the successful members of the section of the translation profession you are in belong, you should strongly consider joining.

In Sum

Translators have a variety of organizations to consider joining. Though none represents the perfect combination of all the features a professional organization ought to have, the ATA does a respectable job in many areas. Furthermore, it is at present the only option for a national organization.

Although membership is not required for success in the translation profession, it is a way to show clients or employers that you are dedicated to your craft, committed to being an informed professional, and willing to participate in the translation industry. Membership is, in other words, one way a translator, particularly a newcomer, can prepare for or further a career in the translation profession.

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