Jan 17, 2012

Are professional organizations worth the bother?

There are two broad categories of professional organizations potentially of interest to language professionals such as interpreters and translators: those which are intended specifically for providers of language services, such as freelance translator and interpreters, and those which are not. The latter, which would include chambers of commerce, business clubs, technical societies such as the American Chemical Society and so on are clearly of great value. They are a means to stay abreast of new developments in areas of interest (perhaps an earlier profession) and perhaps to meet potential direct clients.

What about the other kind, professional associations for editors, translators, interpreters, terminologists and other language-slinging rabble? Well, as one reader from Putinland commented on my post about finding good translators, she saw no single benefit to her membership in that country's largest translators' association. She was aghast at the idea that someone might cancel a ProZ membership, because she assumed that corporate clients would not look for professionals but instead would only work with agencies, and these agencies in turn would cast their nets at The Translators Workhouse. (I looked up Cravy's profile at The Workhouse and when I saw the wealth of information there, it was hard to imagine how agencies would not be dueling each other for the opportunity to offer her work. But that is not the right profile - see the comments. That is an ongoing problem with ProZ and other portals - anyone can set up a profile under nearly any name or pseudonym, with no verification that the person behind the registered e-mail address is real. This is why the portals are often playgrounds for scamsters.)

Fortunately, the real world isn't quite as Dickensian as that, though perhaps a bit darker and more Satanic at the wordface in some parts of the world. But King Henry's sockpuppet is partly right: all organizations are not created equal. They exist in a particular social context of the countries in which their members live or do business, and they are very much dependent on the efforts of their members.

The professional translators' organization of which I am a member, the German BDÜ, can be a real mixed bag at times; one fellow I know who places enormous value on professional conduct quit his local chapter in disgust a few years ago, referring to it as the Hessian Housewives' Association. Since then, however, he has come back and contributed to the serious business focus of his state chapter, and across Germany the organization offers first-rate continuing education seminars, free legal counseling, affordable liability insurance, an excellent private forum for members to exchange information and job requests, a superb online search tool for translators and their specialties and more. To say that I get my money's worth out of membership would be a huge understatement. I don't have to like everything the BDÜ does, but I applaud a great deal of it.

As I was compiling the list of professional organizations for freelance translators and interpreters which provide online search tools for potential clients to find a service provider, I was a little shocked at how parochial and unprofessional some of these venerable organizations appear on the Internet sites. In a discussion of that list on a private site, one colleague commented that it is a shame there isn't some sort of meta search engine to serve up the data from a great number of professional sites around the globe. I'm not really sure that would be a good thing if it were possible, and a quick look at the search tools for a few of the association sites quickly makes it clear that a programmer attempting such a task would soon turn to the bottle. There is no consistency at all in the lists of specialties used; some organizations simply list members in a given region with no statement of the types of text they feel they are fit to translate. Appalling.

I think that attracting an international clientele is important to many translators in this age; for those living in countries with developing economies, this is one of the keys to the best rates. But in order to do that, it is necessary to offer the site in languages which are probably understood by potential international clients. The Germans do it. So do the French. The Swiss and Italian associations I looked at failed this test. If you are a member of a professional association for language service providers, has your association given due attention to this point? If not, get out the thumbscrews or find and organization that does. (That's called "voting with your feet", an option familiar enough to some who live in parts of the world where that is the only effective vote.)

Linking online search engines for the associations would require using the same list of specialties or at least subsets thereof to be effective. But what chance of that is there with an organization that feels it is important to list beekeeping but nothing to do with chemistry or chemical technology? Quite a lot, I'm sure. Unifying and merging search tools might be a good project for groups like the Canadian umbrella organization I listed. I was not happy to see that I would have to go to each individual state organization to do my search. Really!

This is the 21st century, but some organizations for language specialists seem to be stuck in the 19th. The disorganization one can see in some areas, even in developed countries where one might expect better, make it obvious why even a highly flawed commercial portal that many serious professionals avoid like herpes can be a "success". But fortunately, there are some organizations, big ones, that get it and offer a hunting ground that is generally happier than the portalZ with their spotty or non-existent identity verifications for members and silly aliases. Mind you, I eventually adopted an alias myself on ProZ, but that was to avoid having information I wanted to present about myself or my business get buried in spammy pages repeating my commentary for Tamil, Swahili, Tagalog, Urdu and other languages at the center of the world stage.

So are these professional organizations for language service providers such as freelance translators, interpreters and editors worthwhile? Definitely. If you choose the right one.


  1. And of course, most of these translators associations are run to a large part by volunteers, by professional translators who give their time to shape them. So we can all help here, we can all help make our professional organizations into the bodies that we want them to be.

    Nick Rosenthal

  2. AIPTI/IAPTI (International association of professional translators and interpreters) seems to be the right choice.
    After nearly 30 years of hesitations, observation and doubts, it's the one I have elected.
    Some will say it's a young (too young?) organization!. Yes, it is young but it was born to life by independant translators who certainly did not find elsewhere what they felt necessary for professional translators.

    Furthermore, I agree with Nick's comment. Nothing will improve if we keep on doing nothing.


  3. Of course, another problem with any of these lists and of the commercial portal directories such as ProZ is that there is no real evaluation of those listed. The ProZ WWA ratings aren't worth much, because negative feedback is not allowed. This is why some private, rated networks were created for agencies and corporate translation buyers.

  4. Thank you for being so personal regarding my previous comment.

    Just to clear the things out, here is the link to my real ProZ profile - http://www.proz.com/translator/1232107

    Has nothing to do with the link you have posted, right?

  5. Thank you for the clarification, Oksana :-) I see your profile on ProZ lists you as a native speaker of English....

  6. This sometimes happens in bilingual families...
    Now, when everything is clear with profiles, could you, please, change the link or do something with it.
    It is sometimes good to be sarcastic, but in this case it is quite unfair.

  7. > This sometimes happens in bilingual families

    I'm familiar with that; we had three languages in the house at one point. The use of language in the original comment left quite a different impression, however. But everyone can have a bad day, I suppose.

    Looking at your combinations together with the (quite plausible) frustrations you experience with your national association, I suggest it might also be worth your while to consider examined membership status in the ATA or ITI. The directories of these organizations are, I am told by active members, good referral sources, and both offer excellent programs for their domestic and international members. I have had many interesting discussions with ITI members in recent years that have given me such a good impression of the group that I am considering joining someday despite the fact that I see English in a very different light than most of its members.


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