THAT DOG WON'T HUNT
"Requiring certification by ATA as a prerequisite to active membership would demonstrate the commitment of the Association to those standards of professional competence that figure so prominently in our purposes. Is this a reasonable way to revise this requirement?"(ATA Chronicle December 1981 pp. 7-8)
That was the question posed by Patricia Newman, a member of the ATA Board of Directors with a science background. This was in December, 1981, when the ATA had freelancer two Presidents in a row: Tom Bauman, followed by Ben Teague. There followed two years of open discussion before the bylaws were amended in 1983, ending the reign of cronyism and establishing the ATA as an association of, by and for translators. For the very reasons you and I would rather see a licensed driver take off in a car we had just finished painting and polishing, ATA members had expressed a preference for having people demonstrate some basic translation proficiency before taking the helm of the association and voting in ATA affairs. Test-dodging bigshots accustomed to the crony system began referring to our voluntary credential as "mandatory accreditation."
"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words."--Syme, in George Orwell's 1984
The first effort to do away with the resulting meritocracy came in 1991, when the Board of Directors drafted amendments to the bylaws which abolished our mail-in ballots and replaced them with the proxy system. Proxies come complete with an easy checkoff for transferring your vote to some elector chosen by the Board. At the same time, language was added changing the vote requirement for removal by the members of a Director from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority, and empowering a like majority on the Board of Directors to submit resolutions for purging their fellow Directors -- something never before contemplated. The Board had in March of 1991 already approved election "guidelines" prepared by an agency owner and designed to screen out freelance candidates, censor campaign debate and bring about the "unfragmented" single-candidate agency incumbents' slate we see today. One individual was given total power to eliminate any candidate, regardless of nomination or petitions, and to draft a code of "ethics" endorsing collusion and rate-setting just before the FTC antitrust investigation began. (Chronicle May 1991 pp. 2, 5, 6, 10, 15)
Now the problem with this amendment abolishing our mail-in ballots is that the individual mail-in ballots were first abolished -- without proper prior publication and by fiat -- so that the very amendment abolishing the mail-in ballots could be passed using proxy ballots for which there was not yet any provision of the bylaws. Nor was there any published claim that mail-in ballots in any way violated specific New York legislation regulating nonprofit corporations. Quite the contrary. The official pronouncements in the Chronicle insisted only that switching over to the proxy system was not itself illegal, and would somehow bring us in "full" compliance with some unidentified clause in New York law. Proxy voting by ATA Boardmembers was expressly forbidden by ATA bylaws then effective. The change abolishing our mail-in ballots was presented as an amendment using Roman numerals to identify Article XIV as the one undergoing amendment, when there was no such thing! Here is how it was done:
1. In June 1991, ATA President Deanna Hammond announced that there would be an election on proposed amendments to the bylaws, the proxy for which would be mailed out to active members. (Chronicle p. 3) Among the published proposals was complete replacement of ARTICLE XI--MEETINGS, when Art. 11 really referred to Chapters and Divisions. Nowhere was it even hinted that the bylaws themselves would obliterate the mail-in ballots through the amendment process.
2. This announcement was made while ATA bylaws still guaranteed every member in good standing "shall be entitled to one vote. All voting shall be by individual, secret mail ballot" (Article X, Paragraph 1 -- Voting, item a.) Another problem here was that Meetings were provided for in ARTICLE NINE -- all spelled out in English in the back of the 1990 Membership List -- NOT Article X, which guaranteed our mail-in ballots. Further, it was announced as an amendment to Article XIV, when the highest number Article in existence was spelled out in plain English as "ARTICLE TWELVE - AMENDMENT OF BY-LAWS AND PARLIAMENTARY AUTHORITY" in the bylaws themselves.
3. In other words, the right to a mail-in ballot guaranteed by ATA bylaws was infringed in order to use illegal proxy ballots to approve precisely an amendment abolishing the mail-in ballots and establishing the proxy ballots in their stead. Voters were thus dragooned by surprise and illegally forced to exercise what little suffrage rights they had left in an atmosphere of hubris and social pressure -- to replace a nonexistent Article XIV! In fact they were robbed of ballot rights in Articles Ten and Twelve in violation of provisions requiring prior submission. This could not be understood by anyone reading the May 1991 Chronicle unless they also had the bylaws open next to the newsletter. (Chronicle May 1991 p. 5; 1990 Membership Directory, bylaws)
As antitrust troubles mounted in intensity nobody seemed to notice how ridiculous a situation this was. Certainly no mention of its questionable legality was published. Furthermore, a signed petition was circulated at the time to establish an Independent Translators' Division, which may have provided additional motive for overriding the bylaws. Nothing more was ever heard of that nascent Division.
But perhaps the sneakiest change smuggled in with all the other suspiciously-voted amendments was the camouflaged striking of the word "basic" which described the true nature of the accreditation examinations. The 1990 bylaws defined categories of membership beginning with:
a. (1) Active: Any person who (1) is professionally engaged in translating, interpreting or closely related work, (2) is a citizen or permanent resident of the United States, and (3) has passed a basic level certification examination administered by the Association or has achieved demonstrable professional status as determined by peer evaluation is eligible for active membership.
By removing the word "basic" from the description of the accreditation examinations, the Board effectively destroyed the context within which examinations were offered. New graders and Language Chairs were recruited, myself among them, but nowhere could we look up the intended level of the tests to use as a guide in interpreting the grading rules. This opened the door for pedantic strictness aimed more at excluding newcomers from recognition, as opposed to the basic, drivers-license-level testing the accreditation process was originally designed to implement. Nothing could generate greater confusion among the graders -- confusion reflected in absurd statistical scatter in actual fail rates. Both the confusion and the scatter were recognized by Michael Hamm in his May 2000 report on the accreditation program:
The first issue that ATA should address is the fundamental question of the level of your certification program. Is your certification an entry level or advanced examination? This issue is fundamental in publicizing, preparing and defending any certification program. Also, all language chairs and graders should be aware of this principle or philosophy. Some organizations describe their certification program in terms of the typical years of experience expected to pass the examination. The challenging reputation of your examinations among ATA members that have not sought certification combined with the low pass rates in many language pairs could indicate that your current examination is an advanced level credential, but this issue is not clarified in your written materials.
Obviously, nobody informed Mr. Hamm that the accreditation exams had once been clearly identified in our bylaws as basic, before the ballot-switching amendment procedure deleted that clear language without honest advance publication in the Chronicle. Even today, official ATA circles make no mention of that deletion, and Michael Hamm's acute observations were literally censored out of the so-called Executive Summary of the Hamm Report circulated for consumption by the masses.
The resulting confusion and fail rate scatter in the Accreditation Committee of course led to the desired backlash of discontent among aspiring young newcomers to the ATA. Another layer of staff was interposed between the graders and the public, further eroding volunteerism and isolating from public feedback graders already deprived of their decisionmaking context. As dissatisfaction increased, the very champions of cronyism responsible for abolishing the mail-in ballots and obfuscating the basic nature of the exams sought to refocus it onto the accreditation program itself rather than on the changes brought about in that most irregular election.
By October of 1994, the ATA President was loudly describing freelancers as "unwilling to invest time in ATA. The last President who was a freelance translator held office in 1983." Letters denouncing accreditation handily found their way past the censors and into print, for by now the Chronicle was in the hands of another layer of board-selected Staff. Behind the scenes the Board of Directors was crafting its own secret agenda aimed precisely at destroying the last vestiges of the meritocracy established in 1983. This it planned to accomplish by placing the vote in the hands of any fool with dues money to spend -- rather than persons verified as having basic translation ability. The problem was that such a drastic change in ATA member rights would have to pass the amendment process, and the right to vote was still held by actual translators, not people off the streets. The ballot-switching legerdemain that worked in 1991 could hardly be repeated now without calling attention to the 1991 irregularities now happily ignored. Best to let that sleeping dog lie…
The solution was to dress up the intended change as a progressive reform move. Gushing Chronicle propaganda likened it to the movement for establishing women's suffrage. The President's messages wept copiously over low voter turnout and freelancer "apathy." Yet the ATA's membership renewal rate continued 10 percent higher than the national average for associations. Accreditation program administrator John Ferreira's discovery that this was due to a 95% renewal rate among accredited members, as opposed to a 40% renewal rate among non-accredited members was kept out of print. To circumvent censorship, members turned to the Internet, only to be scolded for their samizdat efforts by Peter Krawutschke. Agency activist Bernard Bierman -- the man who first suggested abolishing our mail-in ballots -- was given a special forum at the Nashville convention from which to attack the accreditation program and push the translator vote dilution amendment the Board was now ready to spring on the membership. ATA President Edith Losa published articles proclaiming the new policy as fact before the election was even held. Sound familiar?
It almost worked. The four freelance candidates who had managed to make it past the nominating committee were of course defeated, but the move to throw quality out the window in favor of "relaxing the vote" in the interests of a "larger membership base" failed to pass. The political machine regrouped, and by February 1997 Peter Krawutschke was again lamenting in print that accreditation was "still one of the services our association needs to provide to the profession and to the public." The propaganda campaign was again put into high gear throughout the summer of 1997. An ad hoc committee appointed to look into accreditation issues issued conclusions which matched the opinions of the Board of Directors before it even began its work. Tricky wording was resorted to to make the ballot as confusing as possible. This blatant disrespect for voter intelligence resulted in the second defeat of the vote dilution effort, this time by a very comfortable margin. The political machine had now been defeated twice by legal means, but had managed once by illegal means to abolish our mail-in ballots and create confusion surrounding the level of the exams. The illegal, irregular approach was clearly the one that got the results. This brings us to our present dilemma.
When the Board of Directors announced in March 2001 that it was going to enact abrupt and radical changes to pertinent member rights without reference to any elections or amendment procedures, it set the stage for a repetition of the irregular process set in motion in March of 1991. Already many members -- apprehensive that the Board of Directors may have fallen into the hands of a political cabal with an international market-related agenda had expressed alarm at the sudden increase in exam offerings abroad. The Board agenda announced in March of this year calls for effectively transforming the accreditation program into an economic weapon -- a weapon to place freelance translators in the United States at a disadvantage through global peddling of pertinent rights intended exclusively for members. Unfortunately the political machine has chosen as its spearhead a person possessed of too much natural honesty to effectively engage in such blatant usurpation.
On page 9 of the August 2001 Chronicle, exiting President Ann Macfarlane tried to justify the Board's plans to act in violation of the bylaws by transmitting the impression that ATA accreditation is somehow unrecognized due to its being submerged in a sea of competing accreditation programs. The newspaper article she cites as an example mentions personal trainers, the fitness industry, nutritionists, aerobics and quacks as offering training, testing and certifications without real standards. Her attempt to transfer this curbside tabloid apocrypha into a basis for the report the Board of Directors paid Michael Hamm 55¢ a word to develop is not convincing. The reason it is not convincing is because in our profession there is no serious alternative credential being offered.
It is true that you can travel to Canada, England or Australia and are perhaps arrange some sort of translation exam sitting. But other than that -- and the completion certificates issued by diploma mills -- there is nothing. The Federal court system and the State Department undertake their own very limited screening for interpreters, as do some of the larger private corporations hiring translators. It is not likely, however, that any responsible corporation would bet its stockholder's assets on a testing program not developed by themselves or -- if outsourced -- tailored to specific company needs. Anyone who believes for a minute that there is a plethora of translator testing organizations making the ATA another suspect in the crowd should look at the ATA Translation Services Directory or the available credentials listed on the NAJIT web site. There simply aren't any out there to speak of. If you doubt this try using an Internet search engine such as Altavista to see how many web pages are returned for +"translator credential"… How many do you expect the search to turn up?
Small wonder then that thinking translators do not for a minute believe that the Board of Directors is seeking to implement these abrupt and radical changes for the sake of increasing the standing, perceived objectivity or value of our credential. Their actions -- and the actions of predecessors on various Boards of Directors since 1991 -- signal instead the agenda of an organized political party bent on destroying the ATA accreditation meritocracy and reverting back to the cronyism which existed before the bylaws amendments of 1983. These concerted efforts began with the irregular destruction of words and are now aiming at the irregular destruction of pertinent member rights.
The dog that didn't bark
Like Syme, the doomed character in Orwell's 1984 whom the party would soon vaporize because "He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly," Ann Macfarlane was perhaps a little too clear when in her declaration that "separating it [accreditation] from membership" was "the bottom-line motivator" for the usurpation of the Board announced back in March. What the political party running the Board has demonstrated time and again is that it wants accreditation -- testing to identify basic translation competence -- separated from voting membership. It seeks to change the purposes of the association but lacks the courage and forthrightness to offer on amendment to strike out Article II, a. 3) "to formulate and maintain standards of professional ethics, practices and competence;" and return instead to agency-control cronyism. Former grader Ann Macfarlane knows good and well that there is no plethora of competing accreditation programs, that ours was designed to be basic and oriented towards an association and its members rather than toward the general public. Like any politician asked to recite the party line when it runs counter to her own convictions, she can feel in her heart that the party line is a misleading story. The dog that didn't bark was actually the dog guarding the ATA henhouse back in 1991 when our bylaws were "amended" using illegal proxy rather than regular mail-in ballots. The story that this usurpation has anything to do with benefiting the membership, or increasing the standard, value or objectivity of our credential is an entirely different dog. That dog won't hunt.--JHP