The progressive translator

The purpose of this blog is to provide a forum, a clearinghouse, where progressive translators and other interested persons may discuss issues of concern, including, but not limited to, political aspects of translation, translation theory, the policies and structure of the ATA, and activism at the local group level.


Ken Kronenberg is a German translator specializing in medicine, patents, and 19th- and 20th-century diaries and letters. The views and positions taken by guest bloggers are not necessarily those of Ken Kronenberg or the Progressive Translator.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The American Translators Association and the“Quality Crusade”

By guest blogger
Bernie Bierman

Last November, Marian Greenfield, the current president of the American Translators Association, announced that the Association would embark on a “Quality Crusade.”

I was somewhat jarred by that slogan, given the fact that the word “crusade” has taken on – rightly or wrongly – a most negative connotation in the past decade or so, not just in the Islamic world, but also in the non-Islamic world. Indeed, I wrote to several colleagues acerbically asking why the ATA didn’t select a slogan like “A pogrom to achieve quality in translation” or “The final solution to quality in translation” or “An inquisition to attain quality” or “Achieving quality through cleansing.”

Seeking to give them the benefit of the doubt (and driven by my general lack of interest in ATA doings), I attributed the ATA’s and/or Ms. Greenfield’s choice of wording to naiveté and/or to 100% immersion in matters translational, so much so that they both were unaware of the furor caused when President George W. Bush used the term “crusade” at the outset of the Iraq war (Mr. Bush has not used it since, at least not publicly) and the general disfavor that the term has fallen into.

Obviously, I was mistaken in my attribution of naiveté as the reason for the use of the word “crusade,” for in the February 2007 issue of The ATA Chronicle, Ms. Greenfield once again announced “ATA’s Quality Crusade”: “Much is planned for 2007 to continue ATA’s ‘quality crusade’ and I hope that you will not only find it exciting, but that you will also contribute.”

It certainly appears that with this latest reiteration of “Quality Crusade,” Ms. Greenfield and/or her colleagues in official ATA circles deliberately selected a word around which swirls all sorts and manner of controversy, say nothing of its extreme offensiveness to hundreds of millions of people, particularly to those who practice Islam.

I cannot help but ask, why would a president of an international organization like the American Translators Association, which is home to hundreds of Middle Eastern-language translators and interpreters (some of whom may be practicing Muslims and others secular Muslims), select a word that has become so offensive and so riddled with negative connotations? Clearly, our very rich English language provides a veritable trove of words that would convey the same idea, e.g., “Quest for Quality.”

The more I look at the unfortunate use of the word “crusade” and the more I review the events in the ATA of the past 5 or so years with particular respect to the involvement of translators and interpreters in the so-called “War on Terror,” the more I see signs that the slogan “Quality Crusade” as used by Ms. Greenfield in November of 2006 and February of 2007 was not a mere manifestation of naiveté. There is more than sufficient evidence to indicate that it was deliberate and planned, If the two-time use of the word “crusade” is a manifestation of anything, it is a manifestation of the Association’s political sympathies, notwithstanding its protestations that it is a non-political organization and that its members in the exercise of their professional duties must always demonstrate neutral objectivity. And that manifestation of political sympathies is evidenced by the following events:

1. The ATA’s closing the door (in 2004 and subsequent years) on an open discussion of the Mohammed Yousry case. While the ATA made and disseminated several statements after 2004 condemning the actions of Mr. Yousry (an Arabic-English interpreter for Lynne Stewart, defense counsel for persons involved in political terrorism acts), it steadfastly refused to allow publication of views defending Mr. Yousry actions and conduct as an interpreter.[1]

2. The ATA’s immediate condemnation of the so-called “Anti-torture resolution” offered in October 2006 by Aaron Ruby, an ATA-member-translator from Texas. Indeed, when forced by legal statute to accept Mr. Ruby’s resolution for a vote by the membership, the ATA reacted under the leadership of Ms. Greenfield by telling the membership that it should vote against Mr. Ruby’s anti-torture resolution. It was only at the eleventh hour under pressure from less dogmatic and doctrinaire heads that the ATA relented and offered its own watered-down anti-torture resolution, notwithstanding the fact that this counter-resolution smacked of all sorts of illegalities in terms of procedure.[2]

3. The ATA’s cold refusal to come to the assistance of its chapter, the New York Circle of Translators, when the Circle received an implied threat of legal action from the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters & Translators (NAJIT) over the Circle’s publication of an article by Mr. Ruby describing the resistance he received within NAJIT over his efforts to enact an anti-torture resolution in that organization. It remains noteworthy that both the ATA and NAJIT were strongly allied in their condemnation of Mohammed Yousry’s work as an interpreter in the Lynne Stewart case. Although the New York Circle of Translators is an official ATA chapter and therefore an integral member of the ATA family, ATA officials were more than willing to allow the Circle “to twist in the legal wind”; evidently, the “mother” did not particular care for the views of its “rebellious child,” and appeared more than willing to have its “child” duly spanked by an outsider.

No, “crusade” as in “quality crusade” wasn’t a slip of the tongue or a manifestation of political naiveté on the part of Ms. Greenfield and her ATA colleague-officers. This was a word deliberately chosen to reinforce previous messages (see above) about where the organization and its leaders stand politically.

[1] The first and also last article published in the ATA Chronicle offering an explanation of Mr. Yousry’s problems was a piece by Maya Hess written in September 2003, to which the ATA added a disclaimer. Two subsequent articles by Marguerite Shore and Alison Dundy, respectively, defending Mr. Yousry’s conduct as an interpreter were not picked up for publication in the ATA Chronicle, but were published in “The Gotham Translator”, the newsletter of the New York Circle of Translators, which also published the official views of the ATA about Mr. Yousry’s work as an interpreter.

[2] No official notification, i.e., by United States mail, was given by the Association to its voting members, as clearly prescribed by the New York Not-for-Profit Corporation Law, the law which governs organizations like the ATA. But even if the ATA had followed proper procedure as called for by law, and not merely inform members in a random manner by e-mail that a counter-resolution could be viewed on the Association’s website, it had clearly missed the prescribed deadline for submitting its counter-resolution. The vote at the November 2006 annual conference should have been either in favor of the Ruby resolution or against it. Instead, the Association had its illegal counter-resolution on the ballot, and that illegal counter-resolution won by a few votes over the legal Ruby resolution.

About the author: Bernie Bierman has been a member of the American Translators Association since 1961 and served it in various capacities between 1961 and 1995. He was managing editor of “Translation News” (1989-1995). a privately-published newsletter. He is also the author of the only published book about the early history of the ATA, entitled “A Translator-Warrior Speaks: A Personal History of the American Translators Association, 1959-1970.”

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Blogger Ken Kronenberg said...

What the three examples adduced by Bernie Bierman have in common is that they give evidence of policy or concerted effort to squelch or undermine real member involvement and initiative in the life of the ATA and its chapters.

Seen in this light, "quality crusade" looks even worse. While none of the forms of involvement suggested by Marian Greenfield in her February 2007 "From the President" are terrible on the face of it, they do nothing to address the widespread discontent within the ATA, nor to foster member initiative and activism. The role of the members is to be soldiers lock-step in the service of the ATA's public relations schemes.

March 22, 2007 5:54 AM  

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