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.

Decoupling: A Solution in Search of a Problem

By Mike Magee, CT
ATA-certified (German>English)
Austin, Texas

ATA voting members will face an important decision on the October 2020 ballot: should members retain the right to take certification exams, or should this right be downgraded to a membership benefit? The amendment proposed by ATA’s Board would permanently change the nature of the certified translator (CT) credential and the requirements for sitting for the certification exam, opening both to nonmembers (“decoupling”). I believe this proposed amendment is not in the best interests of ATA or its members, and I urge a “No” vote.

The relevant portion of the proposed Bylaws amendment of Article III, Section 3 reads:

a. Active members have the right to attend any of the Association’s membership meetings, use all of its membership facilities, and receive all of its regular publications free or at special membership rates. They also have the right to take certification examinations, to vote, to hold Association office, and to serve on the Board of Directors and all committees of the Association. They also have the privilege of free or reduced rates for use of the Association’s membership resources, including professional development events, certification examinations, and all of its regular publications.1

Passage of this amendment would clear the way for decoupling ATA certification from membership in the future, provided that the established financial and logistical preconditions are met.2

ATA Certification: A Longstanding Member Right

The first ATA certification exams (known as “ATA accreditation” until January 1, 2004) were given in the early 1970s. From that time onward, the right to earn ATA’s credential has figured prominently in the Bylaws, in the same sentence as the right to vote and serve as an elected officeholder. For decades, the credential was so central that it was the primary route to earning ATA voting rights.

The CT credential is a primary contributor to the ongoing health and vitality of ATA, as evidenced by a certified member retention rate of 95%, while the retention rate for noncertified members is approximately 75%.3 Professional standards are inextricably linked to a continuing commitment to professional education and development, and a membership requirement affirms this commitment beyond meeting the minimum continuing education requirements.

ATA Is a Membership Association, Not a Certifying Body

Per Article II, a. of ATA’s Bylaws4, the Association’s purpose is to promote recognition of the translation and interpreting professions and provide professional and educational opportunities and cooperation. Some professionals, including interpreters in a number of states, hold certifications issued by independent credentialing entities. Although certification consultant Michael Hamm, in his May 2000 report, recommended such a structure for ATA certification5, this option has not been under consideration. ATA is not primarily a certifying body, but rather a professional educational membership organization, and that is what it should remain.

Stature of ATA’s Certification Credential

ATA has repeatedly stated that opening certification to nonmembers would “enhance the stature” of the CT credential. Decoupling is in no way a proven path to greater recognition.

These changes would actually decrease the stature of the CT credential in the eyes of many clients and members. A certification consultant may propose various routes to “enhanced stature,” but what matters to clients and vested stakeholders is that certified individuals are committed to high standards of professional practice as evidenced by the rigors of the exam, continuing education requirements, and adherence to a professional code of ethics.

Current ethics enforcement efforts are problematic at best, and they would only become more difficult if nonmembers took the exam. Current sanctions include suspension of ATA membership, which obviously could not apply to nonmembers who misrepresent their certified status, making any enforcement effectively impossible among offending translators in the U.S. or any other country. This would result in disparate imposition of sanctions and enforcement, and would clearly contribute to a decoupled ATA credential being viewed as less prestigious.

Lastly, comparisons between American Medical Association or American Bar Association licensing and ATA certification are invalid. Physicians and attorneys in the U.S. are licensed by governing bodies in each state, while ATA certification is a voluntary credential offered to translators worldwide. The establishment of a license-type credential governed by a separate credentialing entity is a massive undertaking that would require changes to laws nationwide and is far beyond the current reach of ATA.

Does ATA Control the Supply of Certified Translators?

ATA leadership has asserted that nonmember access to certification would dispel any perception that “a certifying association may be controlling the supply of certified individuals.”6 In fact, the potential for such a perception is practically nil. With approximately 2,100 ATA-certified individuals, holders of the CT credential represent about 3.8% of the estimated 55,000 practicing translators in the United States. Among hundreds of thousands of translators worldwide, this percentage is even more negligible in the global context.

ATA’s membership requirement does not stand alone—the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) has a number of certified individuals similar to the number holding ATA certification, and they are required to maintain membership and complete continuing education credits to maintain the credential, which is referred to as being a “Qualified Member” of ITI.


ATA certification and membership together represent a significant commitment on the part of certified translators to uphold high professional standards. Attaining ATA certification was a significant factor in my joining 28 years ago, and continues to be an important reason for maintaining my membership. Its exclusivity to membership represents the gold standard for our profession, not a shortcoming that needs to be remedied. While I wholeheartedly support ATA’s goals that concretely enhance the quality and stature of the existing Certification Program, I believe that the current proposal to decouple the certification credential from ATA membership is ill-advised and unlikely to achieve those goals.

Therefore, I will vote “No” on the proposed Bylaws amendment, and I encourage other voting members to do the same.

  1. “Proposed Amendment to the Bylaws to be Presented to the Membership for Voting in October 2020,”
  2. Minutes of April 18-19, 2015 Board Meeting,
  3. Communication from ATA Headquarters and calculation based on those figures.
  4. Article II, a. of ATA’s Bylaws,
  5. ATA Accreditation Program Report (Michael Hamm & Associates, 2000), 4,
  6. “Proposed Amendment to the Bylaws to be Presented to the Membership for Voting in October 2020,”
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 or Chronicle-Online website. 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 submissions will not be accepted for publication.

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