Member Opinions: Discussion on Opening ATA’s Exam to Nonmembers

The November/December issue included an announcement that the Board had voted to postpone a decision to open ATA’s certification exam to nonmembers. This was followed by the answers to some frequently asked questions concerning the issues involved ( Here is another response we received after members were encouraged to submit their feedback.

But don’t let the conversation stop here! As an ATA member, your voice is important, so please send us your comments.

Why ATA Should Open the Certification Exam to All Professional Translators

By Matt Baird, CT
ATA-certified (German>English)
Niederkassel, Germany

I’ve been attending ATA Board meetings at ATA’s Annual Conference for years. Why? Well, it began with simple curiosity. I wanted to understand how our Association works. As a volunteer, I was a small cog in ATA’s “engine room,” but I wanted to see who was steering the ship.

Why am I telling you this? Because it was at one of those meetings when I first heard the Board discuss the issue of opening ATA’s certification exam to nonmembers and how to keep the membership informed about it. Since then I’ve followed the issue fairly closely, including reading related articles in this very publication and discussing it with Board members. ATA also presented a free webinar on the subject in October.1

Why am I so interested in “decoupling”? Because I’m excited to see our Association take steps aimed at expanding our reach beyond the current membership. Decoupling is about ATA’s vision for the future—a future in which ATA becomes the recognized credentialing body for the entire translation profession—and I applaud the Board for having the courage to pursue this initiative.

It’s More than Credibility—It’s Best Practice

Obviously, we don’t have a crystal ball to peer into the future, but there’s plenty of proof to suggest that decoupling is the right way forward.

The biggest argument against decoupling appears to be the notion that there is no evidence that other credentials have increased credibility after a membership requirement was removed. Here’s the thing: in the association world, best practice is (and has been) to separate credentialing from membership. A membership requirement is the exception rather than the rule. What’s more, requiring membership has not been shown to add value to a credential. It’s clear that the vast majority of professional associations see greater value in a “decoupled” credential.

It’s More than Logical—It’s the Right Step Forward

Organizations constantly have to weigh the pros and cons of the status quo versus moving in a new direction. Although it may feel safer to leave things the way they are, associations that fail to adapt become stagnant and irrelevant. Our profession is changing rapidly. Decoupling is not only the logical step forward, it’s the right one. By removing the membership requirement, ATA greatly expands the pool of translators eligible to take the exam. We’re creating conditions to enable more participation. The only way we’ll ever know if nonmembers will choose to do so is by actually allowing them to make that choice.

What’s more, by separating membership from the credential, ATA makes it clear that we are the recognized certifying body for the entire profession, not just for people who choose to be members. This will inevitably increase our Association’s stature.

It’s More than OpeningUp the Exam—It’s about Removing Barriers

The logic behind decoupling actually doesn’t stop there. We know that people are interested in becoming ATA-certified and that the hurdle of membership is real.

Case in point: ATA’s Government Division has confirmed something ATA already knew, though until recently only anecdotally. Many government employees, including military members, can gain approval and receive funding to attain civilian certifications relevant to their principal occupations. The Department of Defense Credentialing Opportunities On-Line (COOL) program is one example.2 ATA’s certification exam is not eligible to participate because the program stipulates that the credentialing body may not require membership.

That program is only the tip of the iceberg. Although ATA can’t precisely predict demand for the certification exam, we know it is there and it is real.

Speaking of Demand…

One of the opinion pieces published in the January/February 2020 issue of The ATA Chronicle3 cited a ProZ poll4 from December 2019, but very relevant results were ignored. Take a closer look: 38% of those who participated said they would want to take ATA’s certification exam if it was open to nonmembers. Another 20% said “maybe.” That’s nearly 60%! Obviously, we can’t judge the accuracy of this poll, but ProZ is an international community of translators so we can’t deny that it indicates considerable interest in our credential around the world.

It’s More than Reports and Bylaws—It’s about Due Diligence

The Hamm Report5 has been named repeatedly in this debate. That’s because it started our Association down this path. But this report is not—and never has been—the decoupling bible. Whether or not the Board chose to follow all of the report’s recommendations is beside the point. The finding that an independent credential will be a more credible credential hasn’t changed.

ATA’s Bylaws have also been hijacked, first by the claim that the Board wasn’t authorized to make this move. Indeed, there was concern about this issue, which is why the Board consulted with ATA’s legal counsel, received a favorable legal response, and decided to move ahead. Now that decoupling has been postponed and the Board has proposed an amendment to make it clear in the Bylaws that taking the certification exam is not an exclusive member right, the Bylaws are once again being used to spread misinformation. Let’s be clear: the amendment will not remove any ATA member’s right to take the certification exam and become ATA-certified as stated in the opinion pieces published in the January/February 2020 issue of this publication. It extends the right to all translators in our profession to sit for the exam, and if they pass, become ATA-certified. To say otherwise is falseand misleading.

The fact is that the Board has done its due diligence. Our Association’s finances have been reviewed, structures are in place, and the Certification Committee is ready to go. It’s time to do this, and I urge every voting member to vote “yes” on the amendment.

Obviously we can’t see beyond the horizon, but I’ve watched our ship’s officers carefully plot this course and I believe it’s the right one. Considering that some 75% of ATA’s current members are not certified, it seems that most of us—including me, a member since 2000 and only certified since 2017—understand that the value of ATA membership goes way beyond certification. If we open ATA’s certification exam to all professional translators, we will set sail on a journey that could take our credential—and our Association—to the next level.

We want to hear from you!

Members are encouraged to submit their opinions, both pro and con, regarding opening ATA’s certification exam to nonmembers (also referred to as decoupling) for publication in The ATA Chronicle. While it may not be possible to print all submissions, equal space will be provided for members to present views on both sides of the issue. Please send to

Note: In keeping with standard ATA editorial policy, submissions must include the author’s name, which will be published. Anonymous submission swill not be accepted for publication.

  1. “Opening the ATA Certification Exam to Nonmembers,” ATA Webinar Series (October 1, 2019),
  2. “All about COOL,”
  3. “Discussion on Opening ATA’s Exam to Nonmembers: Robert Sette and Jessica Hartstein,” The ATA Chronicle (January/February 2020), 12,
  4. See
  5. ATA Accreditation Program Report (Michael Hamm & Associates, 2000),

1 Responses to "Member Opinions: Discussion on Opening ATA’s Exam to Nonmembers"

  1. Liam Gallagher says:

    I am in favour of decoupling. I work in Brazil and I know of many very good translators who are not ATA members, but who want to be because they simply cannot afford it – I myself had to jump through hoops to be able to pay this year’s fee. I support the argument that membership and certification can be mutually exclusive, but I would only support the proposal fully, if and when approved if it allows current members who are certified to retain their certification without having to continue paying membership dues.

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