From the President: A Problem with Membership Classes

From the President
Ted R. Wozniak

Our membership structure no longer serves our Association as intended. There are too few Active members and too many Associate members.

In basic terms, Active membership is intended for citizens or permanent residents of the U.S. who are professionally engaged in translation or interpreting. That describes the vast majority of our members. The Corresponding membership class is for persons who are professionally engaged but do not meet the U.S. requirement (i.e., non-U.S. professional translators and interpreters). In contrast, Associate members are supposed to be individuals who are not professionally engaged in translation or interpreting (T&I) but who wish to further ATA’s objectives.

Are you professionally engaged in T&I but still an Associate member? How many Associate members do you know who are not professional practitioners? Probably very few. I don’t know any. However, of the 8,831 total members as of June 20, 2020, less than one-third, 30.4% to be precise, are Active members. Associate members comprise 52.7% of the total membership and Corresponding members another 6.9%. How many Associate members meet the “U.S. person” and professional engagement criteria? I would hazard to guess almost all of them are professionally engaged and that most also meet the U.S. requirement. Yet they are not Active members. They cannot vote, run for elected office, or serve on standing committees. There are far too many individuals who could become Active members, and thus be able to vote and play a greater role in ATA, but who fail, for whatever reason, to become Active members. I, and several past Board directors, think this is a problem.

Or is it? I guess that depends on how one views ATA in terms of what kind of an association one thinks it is (or should be). Is ATA a “professional association” designed to promote the T&I professions as we state in our mission statement? Or is it a “trade association” intended to promote the T&I industry? Is it a “guild” formed to promote and protect its members?

A “Brief” History of Membership Requirements

When ATA was established, its membership requirements1 and procedures were very “guild-like.” In the 1959 draft “constitution,” there were only two membership classes: Members and Associate Members. Members had to be professional translators, defined as “any person who had made their living, or a major part of their living, by translation for at least one year.” “Interested persons” could become Associate Members. Membership was granted by approval of a three-person membership committee elected by the members, and subsequently ratified at the next regular membership meeting. As I do not have a full copy of the original Bylaws, it’s unknown if these provisions were in effect in 1960. But it does show the intent that membership would be controlled much like a medieval guild.

The 1961 Bylaws show a similar structure and process. There were three membership classes: Active, Associate, and Honorary. Any person of “good moral character” who was actively engaged in translating or interpreting was automatically eligible for Active membership. Associate membership was for those not eligible for Active membership (presumably solely because they were not actively engaged in T&I and not because they were immoral) but who were interested in ATA’s objectives. Any non-member deemed worthy could be nominated to be an Honorary member. (By 1981, the non-member requirement had been eliminated so that existing members could become Honorary members.) New members had to be investigated and approved by the Membership Committee (peer review by three to five Active members). By 1965, the requirements for Active membership were changed slightly to include adherence to the Code of Professional Ethics, but still required professional engagement, endorsement by two Active members (or evidence of three years’ professional experience), while Associate membership was still for ethical persons interested in ATA’s objectives.

Peer review (or approval by “Masters” to use guild language) notwithstanding, it’s clear that the intent from the beginning was for professional practitioners to be Active members, while persons who were merely “interested” in T&I were to be (non-voting, non-governing) Associates.

Professional engagement remained the sine quo non for Active membership, and thus the ability to play an “active” role in ATA and its governance, until the early 1980s. As early as 1971 the passing of an examination was discussed as a requirement for Active membership, even though no such examination existed at the time. Prior to 1982, a new member could join as an Active member based on professional engagement and the endorsement of two Active members. That began to change by 1982, when a “basic level certification examination” was included in the Bylaws as an additional third eligibility requirement for Active membership. The requirement for endorsement by two Active members had also been dropped by 1982. In 1988, peer review in lieu of passing the “accreditation” exam was added as a path to Active membership. Somewhere down the line, all new members joined as Associate members, and only after passing the examination (or more rarely, peer review), could they “advance” to Active membership. But far too many never do even though they’re fully qualified.

Thus began the slow but inexorable process of creating a two-tier system of membership, with an increasing disparity in the relative size of the Active and Associate classes. This resulted in the situation described above.

So, What’s the Problem?

It’s neither right nor proper for such a large number of professionals engaged in T&I to not have a voice in ATA’s governance. This was clear at least as far back as 1995, when Peter Krawutschke, then chair of the Bylaws Revision Committee and president-elect, wrote: “Over the past year, it became clear to most members on the Bylaws Review Committee that Associate members should have the right to vote on matters of the Association, and we will present this request to the Board on March 18.” A proposed amendment to the Bylaws that year would have extended voting rights to Associate members. Although a majority favored the amendment 262-232, it failed to meet the two-thirds requirement. A second attempt, offering two options to allow Associate members to vote, failed the following year. Based on a desire to expand the franchise, a proposal to automatically classify Associate members as Active member after three years of membership was proposed, and failed, in 2017. There has obviously been resistance from current Active members to expand the electorate over the years.

One could also legitimately ask if efforts to expand the franchise with an eye toward increasing voter participation are not exercises in frustration and doomed to fail—at least in relative terms. Increasing the number of eligible voters would likely increase the number of ballots cast in absolute but not relative terms. Many members simply don’t care who ATA’s officers and directors are. Many don’t even care about contentious Bylaws amendments, as is evidenced by the still-relatively low turnout on the recent decoupling amendment.

Is it right to deny the vote to the majority of practicing translators and interpreters in ATA simply because they may choose not to exercise that right? Is it right to deny ATA the ability to use the expertise and volunteerism of so many professionals as chairs or members of committees simply because they don’t have a certification exam in their languages or haven’t yet passed a mid-career examination? (On a related note, since when is competence, which is what our exam tests, prima facie evidence of being professionally engaged, which is the primary requirement for Active membership?) I say no, and past ATA Boards have agreed with me.

In addition to the question of “rights and privileges,” recent Boards have discussed whether the current membership structure meets our members’ needs and wants. A majority of individual members don’t attend the Annual Conference and don’t require continuing education credits since they’re not credentialed. Many members, especially those without a certification exam, join and remain in ATA for no other reason than because their clients see it as a sign of professionalism. This last viewpoint has been documented in numerous member surveys. For such members, just being a member is all they want and need. Is it right to charge members who use little or none of ATA’s resources the same dues as members who avail themselves of most of the benefits of membership? Is there a more equitable solution that would not only continue to meet the needs of members who are more engaged, but would also meet the lesser needs of “mailbox” members—and possibly attract additional practitioners who are somewhat skeptical of the benefits of membership? What about newcomers to the profession who have less financial resources and a much smaller client base than established practitioners? Is there a place for part-timers, or even “hobbyists” in a “Supporter” class? Is there a structure that allows us to put most or all of the “professional practitioners” in one place, and all of the “interested parties” in another?

The Governance and Communications Committee began asking these questions and looking for answers back in 2018 when I became chair. That work has continued, on and off, for almost three years now, and a report and proposal will soon be shared with the Board. If approved by the Board, the framework will then be opened for member comment and debate. We hope that there will be sufficient discussion over the next 12 months or so that will allow a final proposal, incorporating member feedback, to be presented to the Board in due time for a member vote in 2022.

  1. There is very limited availability of past Bylaws, especially versions predating computers and the internet. The timeline and dates used above are pieced together from the limited sample of Bylaws, articles, and other material that could be scrapped together by ATA Headquarters on short notice. (If any “senior” members have full and dated copies of past Bylaws, especially from the 1960s through the 1980s, please send me a copy!)
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