I was extremely pleased to find out that my impressions of the IAPTI Second International Conference virtually coincide with those of Kevin Lossner (“Surprises from the IAPTI 2014 conference in Athens”). The same goes for my understanding of IAPTI, its role and place among professional organizations and, generally, in the language services industry nowadays. In contrast to my friend Kevin, I wouldn't call it a surprise. Today, IAPTI is probably the only global and most vocal representative of hopes and concerns shared by translators and interpreters worldwide – that has been my conviction ever since I became an IAPTI member and long before the Athens conference.
The element of surprise that I had in mind when titling this blog post refers to another organization. “In the past when some friends asked my advice about joining professional organizations, I consistently advised them to focus on the large, established groups such as the ATA, ITI, IoL, SFT, BDÜ, AdÜ Nord, etc.“, wrote Kevin. Whereas my knowledge of the first four in this list is only from hearsay, my experience with the other two is first-hand. In fact, I have been member of BDÜ and ADÜ Nord in Germany for many years. The organization that gave me a surprise, just a few days ago, is ADÜ Nord.
Here are some basic facts for reference, before I start my account.
ADÜ Nord was set up as a spin-off from BDÜ, Germany’s largest association of language professionals, some twenty-plus years ago. The spin-off was caused by internal strife with BDÜ, a David’s fight against Goliath, and resulted in then Goliath’s, that is BDÜ’s, complete withdrawal from Hamburg, the rebellious city-state. The relationship between both associations has been loaded with tension ever since. In particular, BDÜ’s recent plans to re-establish its regional subsidiary in Hamburg were sharply criticized by ADÜ’s board and even branded as “expansionist ambitions” of André Lindemann, BDÜ’s president. At the moment, ADÜ Nord is clearly positioned as a regional association of translators and interpreters in Hamburg and North Germany and has a membership of about 350. The current chairperson, Georgia Mais, was elected at the 2013 general assembly where 41 members (round 10%) were present for the vote. The annual membership fee is €190.
I have been an ADÜ Nord member for more than 10 years, but the story I am writing about started last summer, when I went to a meet-up of fellow translators in downtown Hamburg. There and then, I had a lengthy talk with Georgia Mais, ADÜ’s chairperson.
My growing concern about ADÜ Nord was the organization’s inability to make its presence felt, even on its home ground. If you google up Übersetzer und Dolmetscher in Norddeutschland, what the association's name in German actually stands for, the websites that show up in the first search results will be those of Across (!), BDÜ, etc. Respectable municipal and University websites like “hamburg.de” or “uni-hamburg.de” will be followed by rather dodgy, but obviously SEO-savvy translation agencies. It is highly unlikely, though, that you find ADÜ Nord, the association of translators and interpreters based in North Germany, on top of the list of Google searches.
Although ADÜ has an online directory of translators and interpreters on its website (only in German), you won’t easily come across it when looking for a professional translator or interpreter, even if limiting your search to Hamburg. As an individual professional, you have far better chances to be found by prospects if you are listed in an online directory of BDÜ, but ADÜ… To tell the truth, with quite a decent double digit number of new enquiries monthly, I have yet to meet a direct client who ever heard of ADÜ.
Unfortunately, the issue of visibility – resulting in the marketing opportunities lost – never seemed to be a concern for ADÜ. I remember contacting the association’s board about the database project that we were so thrilled about in late 2012 (“Something A-Changin’?”). At that time, there was no response. All my ruminations about ADÜ’s zero visibility were met with sheer incomprehension of why it matters to be found in Google searches!
Another concern that I tried to address when talking with Georgia Mais a year ago was lack of communication channels for ADÜ members. In fact, ADÜ’s zero visibility to external parties went hand in hand with its inability to communicate within the organization and provide an open communication platform or have a presence in social media. Again, the subject of internal communication is usually brushed off with arguments that indicate a failure to understand the significance or, at worst, sheer ignorance of what today’s networks mean, both for the organization and its individual members. In their email dated October 3, the association’s board plainly states: “We cannot understand that ADÜ lacks communication channels”. Well, “you cannot not communicate”, as Paul Watzlawik once said. But it looks like ADÜ’s leading members with their bold “yes, we can” have set out to refute this statement.
Since our first meeting in summer 2013, I had several telephone conversations with Georgia Mais. I had to explain the difference between an online discussion forum and a Yahoo mail list. I felt compelled to press the case of Facebook users who, contrary to Georgia’s belief, were not necessarily a bunch of teenagers gossiping or being nasty about each other. I felt like I had to dispel fears (that I never suspected to exist) and point out benefits (that would seem too obvious for most fellow translators and interpreters who I am personally familiar with). I even sent Ms Mais an email with a link to my blog post with a record of the discussion of CAT tools that took place in one of the popular Facebook groups.
Again, there was no response. In fact, the conversations that I had with Georgia Mais (and several other ADÜ members) made me increasingly feel like an O’Henry-esque character promoting the railroad as a revolutionary means of transportation. “Well, you can board a train in Chicago in the evening and arrive in Cincinnati at 5 a.m. next morning, what d'you say to that?”, argues the preacher of the steam-powered age. The reply leaves no room for further argumentation: “But what the hell are you supposed to do in Cincinnati at 5 a.m.?!” It would have been funny if it were not so sad. I am no preacher nor a motivational speaker. I simply have no answers to such questions. The conversation ends.
An overnight trip might be not a good simile when talking about an organization with a history of twenty-plus years. Nevertheless, ADÜ’s history is also a journey of some kind. Whereas the point of departure still remains a memorable event, the further route becomes fuzzier and slower, the destination unclear. The days when the journey started are bygone, but the move into a new age is never made. More and more travellers get off the train.
There is something charming about the stubborn refusal to move with the times, but this charm is better suited to fiction, not the reality of a globalized industry and the challenges that a professional association has to tackle today. Yet, being stuck in the glorious past of a David’s fight against a Goliath and confining itself to the narrow, provincial and rather irrelevant, scope of a “regional identity” seem to be the two only noticeable core assets of ADÜ. You cannot add zero visibility and the lack of a discussion culture (or opportunities for an open discussion) to the list of benefits to the association’s members nowadays, can you?
Having failed to make my points clear in our first conversation more than a year ago, I promised Georgia Mais – if I make up my mind to resign from ADÜ – to write an article about my experience and reasons for Infoblatt, ADÜ’s bimonthly magazine. And so I did. That is to say, I both resigned and wrote my article explaining the reasons for my resignation. On September 1, I submitted my article to the editorial board of Infoblatt, which, as it turned out, is now headed also by Georgia Mais as editor-in-chief.
Well, any editor is free to accept or decline a publication offer. ADÜ’s board didn’t care to inform me of their decision to publish (or not) my article, titled “Why I Resign – Open Letter to ADÜ Nord”, in Infoblatt. Instead, they used it as a PDF attachment to their mass email with the invitation to a “strategy workshop” and the board’s official reply to my “open letter”.
I am not going to fret over the fact that this mass emailing of my article was done without my consent, though this may be quite shocking for any author and journalist, especially in Germany, a country with an obsession about proper handling, use and dissemination of digital data and intellectual property. I probably spend 90 percent of my working time as a German to Russian translator, but when I write a magazine article, I do feel as an author and journalist. Considering the thinning out of meaningful content in Infoblatt, anyone who volunteers deserves to be treated as such, in the very least.
Imagine someone submitting an article for publication in a magazine that the magazine’s editor decides to email to everyone on her email list.
Imagine a magazine editor who refuses to see the difference between a publication in her magazine and mass emailing of the submitted content.
My apologies for my lack of imagination. In my case, that turned out to be a surprise!
But enough of that…
I am seriously convinced that the future our profession lies in effective communication. As translators and interpreters, we don’t merely replace words and idioms of one language with those of another. We help our clients communicate with their audience, get the message across and achieve the desired results. An organization that fails to embrace the value of communication or the organization’s board who openly admit to have “no time” for that (as they did in their reply to my article) cannot lay claim to represent their members, professionals in language communication.
Luckily, ADÜ seems to be an exception among professional organizations that I have first-hand experience with. I started this post with a reference to IAPTI, but BDÜ in Germany, too, made decent headway toward more openness and professionalization. Like Kevin, if asked about professional associations, I would recommend “to focus on the large, established groups”. I just think Kevin’s list needs a bit of an adjustment. And I think this list would become shorter over time.