Professional Associations: Are they worth it?

Professional Translation Associations

With two translation conferences coming up, this is the perfect time to take a break from writing research-heavy legal articles and discuss professional translation associations. While this may be more relevant for other translators or aspiring translators, it could be interesting for anyone vaguely interested in the translation industry.

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Most industries have professional associations, whether they’re mandatory or elective associations. After all, humans are as a species social creatures and like-minded people enjoy spending time with each other to share similar interests and gain insights from others working in a similar field.

Personally, between finishing my Masters and starting freelancing full-time I joined lots of organizations for both Japanese translators and general translators, partially for this human connection and partially for professional development.

Currently I’m a member of:

  • JAT (Japanese Association of Translators)
  • NLSC (National Language Service Corps)
  • CHICATA (Chicago Area Translators and Interpreters Association
  • MATI (Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters)
  • ATA (American Translators Association)
  • SWET (Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators)
  • TWB (Translators Without Borders)

However, most of these organizations—excluding NLSC and TWB, which are volunteerships— cost money to join as well as to participate in any activities. So particularly as a new translator with limited funds are professional organizations worth it?

Inherent in this question is what are the costs of these associations versus what are the benefits. For the memberships that I’ve joined the only cost is an economic one — ranging from $10 to $200 — as general membership does not require forced participation or engagement. While I do view these memberships as an investment, when looking at the benefits I prefer to define them broadly, bringing value in both tangible and intangible ways, rather than seeing it as a number driven cost-benefit analysis.

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Human Connection

While I’ve touched on the human aspect, it bears repeating. Freelancing is an isolating job, particularly when you work with clients around the world and mostly interact through emails. Most organizations have different meet-ups for their members ranging from conferences and workshops to more casual picnics and social gatherings. For a newer translator, this is an opportunity to learn from veteran translators, to ask about business, translating specific terms, average prices in the industry, scams, and so on, and to speak to others starting out or further in their career about their experiences. It’s important not to feel alone and that human connection is imperative for someone who thrives on conversation and feeling like they’re part of a community. In a more tangible sense, I’ve gotten recommendations of reading materials, useful advice about marketing and places that need Japanese translations, and been referred to a client.

Professional Development

As someone who likes to read textbooks, watch documentaries and essay vlogs, and listen to educational podcasts for fun, the professional development aspect of these memberships is very important to me. These sorts of memberships offer workshops on select topics in the industry, articles, forums, and conferences. There is more material than I could ever possibly consume. JAT and ATA has a free (quarterly and monthly) periodical full of articles on more general business planning, marketing, technology, developments in the translation and interpreting industry as well as more specific pieces about translating specific genres or dealing with difficult forms of speech such as idioms, jokes/puns, metaphors, and culture-specific phrases.

JAT has a useful forum about various topics in Japanese translation, which includes some links to the recording of conferences that I couldn’t attend since I live outside Japan. NLSC has an extensive list of resources to continuously hone and develop your non-native language. ATA has an extensive resource list that shamefully I’ve hardly explored. Likewise SWET has many articles on editing and writing that I’ve read little of, but I have appreciated the threads discussing translation of specific terminology and non-textual (i.e. punctuation and formatting) discussions. TWB has a free online training about translation and interpreting for humanitarian organizations. I’ve attended a few webinars via MATI and CHICATA on legal translation, business development, marketing, and healthcare interpreting. However, this is hardly an exhaustive list of what’s available. I attended one full-day program in the suburbs of Chicago, which discusses Adword and Google for Business as well as literary translation, poetry, and Latin in English legalese.

Conferences

This year, for the first time since IJET-26 in York, I am joining two different conferences: the MATI 15th Annual Conference on September 29 in Indianapolis and the ATA  59th Annual Conference on October 24-27 in New Orleans. These offer sessions on topics in translation —  in the case of ATA there are lots of sessions on legal translation and specifically in my language pairs Japanese/English which I am over the moon about and wish I could time travel to attend multiple sessions simultaneously—  and networking opportunities not just with other translators but companies looking for potential translators such as translation or localization companies and governmental organizations. MATI is sponsored by several translation companies who will attend the conference and ATA has two evening events specifically for networking with new clients.

As someone who likes in-person interaction but is a bit shy, meeting people in conferences is the best of all worlds. Particularly for asking questions to colleagues, I prefer to ask one on one or in a small group rather than public forums, which I may read but almost never post anything, being hesitant to put myself out there. While I feel as comfortable with job hunting digitally as I do in person —  excluding my dreaded cold calling —  it’s useful to make in-person connections with potential clients to foster a connection with them and gain recognition beyond simply being someone able to provide a particular service. When I worked in sales, I read one article that indicated that people often buy things based on emotion rather than just on benefits like quality or price; this is debatable at best, however, having that human connection makes them more likely to tell you about opportunities and connect outside a purely work-oriented arena.

However, conferences are a major expense in and of themselves. They provide ample opportunity to learn, network, and find projects, but even just to attend it’s in the hundreds of dollars. In my case, it’s a gamble that I’m looking forward to.

Access to Prestige

Many of these organizations have a directory, in which you can detail your experience, language pairs, and specializations. While there are also free translation directories such as Proz and TranslatorCafe, professional organizations are just that, professional. Much like the Alans in the Middle Ages using their access to the Byzantine Empire to gain the power that comes with prestige —  if you forgive an obscure reference —  professional bodies bestow a sense of professionalism through association and with that prestige.

Of course, as a translator, one must provide high-quality translations, yet having this access to a reputable organization provides more opportunities for clients searching for translators to stumble across your profile, and reassures new clients that you are a professional. I have been contacted multiple times by people who found my profile via these organizations. Although, at the moment they do no represent a large chunk of my workflow.

ATA has a certification test, which I’ve heard mixed reviews on ranging from it being unnecessary and overpriced to it being very useful for getting high-quality clients. At the conference, I intend to attend one talk on this certification.

To Join or Not to Join

This question is hard to answer in a simple yes or no. Joining is not imperative to be a professional translator, yet there are certainly benefits. While there are quite a few free resources for professional development, even after the initial cost most workshops and conferences are an additional expense so the costs for someone struggling financially is not something to take lightly.

Personally, I feel satisfied with the memberships I have. In fact, one day when I have more cash to burn I’d like to join NAJIT and try to attend another I-JET conference. The interaction I’ve had with other translators is invaluable. It may not directly improve my abilities or find work, but I have learned a lot of information and simply met some wonderful people who are fun to have a drink with. Veteran translators indicate the conference sessions tend to be recycled so after decades of attendance they offer less useful information, but as a new freelancer and translator with less than five years of experience, the opportunity to hone my skills is indispensable. While it is quite the expense and conferences are a big time commitment, as a translator or aspiring translator professional organizations are something to seriously consider.

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