Language Lobbyist for a Day, Translation Advocate for a Lifetime!

By Matt Baird

(The following was originally published in the Winter 2018 of interaktiv, the newsletter of ATA’s German Language Division.)

If you ask me, lobbyists get a bad rap. Maybe it’s the movies, or the scandals that have made the headlines over the years. But when I hear the word “lobbyist,” it immediately conjures up visions of men in expensive suits making backroom deals. Fact is, for every lobbyist more interested in lining his own pockets than educating Congress, there are probably a thousand walking the historic hallways of the U.S. Capitol, raising awareness among our country’s lawmakers, showing them solutions to problems, and persuading them to take action.

After being one myself—even if just for a day—I’m now more convinced than ever of how important advocacy work truly is.

My opportunity came at ATA’s 58th Annual Conference in Washington, DC, when the Association sponsored a Translation and Interpreting Advocacy Day in conjunction with the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS). ATA essentially took advantage of a perfect opportunity. Some 1,700 translators and interpreters were going to be flooding the nation’s capital, so why not send a small army of them to lobby Congress on language issues? It was a smart move: the event “sold out” in no time and has already produced results.

As someone who used to live and work inside the infamous Washington, DC, Beltway, I jumped at the chance to harness my former-life passion for policy and potentially experience the thrill of making a difference.

The all-day advocacy event was held the day before ATA’s Annual Conference began. Registration was open to the first 50 ATA members who signed up. The day began with a morning training session acquaint participants with a number of federal issues that impact language service professionals. We also learned “how” to be lobbyists and what to expect when meeting with congressional staffers. We were given well-written policy statements, complete with solutions and action items for Congress, which we discussed in working groups to prepare for our meetings. And we learned tips and tricks for talking to congressional staffers—basically the do’s and don’ts of lobbying. For example, we were told not to expect the meeting to run more than 20 minutes, and not to be surprised—or offended—if it took place in the hallway.

Then, in the afternoon, the group headed to Capitol Hill for pre-scheduled advocacy meetings with our congressional delegations—both in the House and the Senate—to present the issues and urge our representatives to take action.

Both “nervous” and “excited” don’t accurately describe my emotions as we stepped off the bus right below the Capitol Building. I was reliving my youth in a way. Though in college my dreams involved foreign policy and diplomacy (only to be shattered by the divisive reality of life in the swamp), the desire to engage and make a difference in U.S. politics has never left me. As we made our way up to the Russell Senate Office Building for our first meetings, I was struck with a sense of satisfaction knowing that I finally had the chance to help make a difference.

Sound naïve? Maybe. But I’d venture to guess that many of the 50 colleagues climbing the hill with me that day felt the same way. And guess what? We made a difference. The U.S. General Services Administration (USGSA) updated their definitions of translation and interpreting, essentially explaining the different types of translation and interpreting services in greater detail. Although there are many different definitions of our profession used by different government agencies, the USGSA’s is a big one since many agencies refer to their definitions. And until now, those definitions did not adequately explain what we do, which is crucial if you consider the fact that the government’s overall lack of understanding of and respect for our professions can influence the rates the government is willing to pay for these services.

Knowing that our efforts have already paid off is about the best gift any (honest) lobbyist can wish for, and it’s a great motivator to do more. Be sure to check out the article on ATA’s first-ever Advocacy Day in the January/February issue of The ATA Chronicle. There, you’ll not only learn more from other ATA members who participated, you’ll also find tips for advocating at the local level yourself! Or listen to Episode 19 of the ATA Podcast, which is all about ATA Advocacy Day. And don’t hesitate to contact the JNCL-NCLIS for more information or advice. They are more than happy to help.

Advocacy really only works if we work together to raise awareness at all levels of government. Having now been a language lobbyist myself, I can assure you it’s also extremely gratifying. I hope you’ll join us.

About the Author

Matt Baird is an ATA-certified German>English translator, editor, and copywriter specializing in marketing and corporate communications. In addition to his duties as editor-in- chief of interaktiv, the newsletter of ATA’s German Language Division, he also serves as a writer and speaker on ATA’s Public Relations Committee, which aims to educate clients through public relations.


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