Saturday, August 1, 2015

Estimated data about (U.S. Spanish) translators and ATA certification, along with a few concluding remarks, advice, and words of warning for aspiring or beginning translators

First the disclaimer. I have no actual knowledge that any of the following data are true.

O.K. Now that that is over with, today I was more curious than usual about what percent of Spanish translators in the United States are ATA Certified Translators in both directions, as I am (English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English). Fortunately, I am pretty good at math (780 out of 800 on my math GRE), and I did have access to some data (the ATA membership directories), but there are also some key things I do not know. I do not know how many Spanish translators there are in the United States. And I do not know what percentage of those U.S. Spanish translators are members of the American Translators Association. Also, the number of members listed in the membership directories appears to be a little less than the number often reported. (I am sure there are reasons for that, and probably even very valid ones, but I just don't happen to know what they are.)

So, other than lacking three key pieces of information that would be necessary to arrive at accurate numbers, I think we're ready! (Also, I don't know to what extent ATA membership directory data is meant for non-member consumption, so I am going to be deliberately vague on some points, just to be on the safe side. Be assured, however, that I have been as accurate as I could be with the data I had.)

Not knowing the previously mentioned key pieces of data (number of U.S. Spanish translators, percentage of same who are members of the ATA, and overall precise number of ATA members), I started with some assumptions, applied what I do know to those assumptions, did the corresponding calculations, compared the results with the actual data, calculated the degree to which the computed results differed from the real data, modified my original assumptions so that recalculating would yield computed data as close as possible to the real numbers, and I was able to come to within about +/- 3% of the real numbers. If my assumptions are off, though, I could actually be quite a ways off on certain parts of this, so don't quote me (looking at you; yes, you). : )

My modified assumptions (again, see all caveats above): 1) That there might be approximately 5,486 Spanish translators in the U.S. 2) That perhaps one third of them (33.3%) are current members of the American Translators Association ($190 per year to be a member), and 3) That, therefore, there might be about 1,829 U.S. Spanish translators who are members of the ATA. Any of these assumptions could be off. The third number is knowable, but would require either direct access to the ATA member database or, for example, clicking on each Spanish-to-English translator's name to see the full profile and determine whether s/he also claims to be an English-to-Spanish translator. I just don't have the time.

Just going off the membership directory data (with no need for any assumptions), about one eighth (13%) of ATA Spanish-to-English translators are ATA Certified Translators (CT) for that direction, and about one fourth (26%) of current ATA English-to-Spanish translators are ATA CTs for English-to-Spanish translations. (So 87% and 74%, respectively, are not yet certified in the direction(s) they translate.)

Relying on the assumptions listed above (5,846 U.S. Spanish translators, one third of whom are ATA members), we could calculate that about 5% of all U.S. Spanish translators are ATA CTs for Spanish-to-English and 8% are ATA CTs for English-to-Spanish. Further, the percentage of U.S. Spanish translators who are ATA Certified Translators in both language directions would pencil out to be about 1.3%.

If, however, it turns out that only one fifth (20%) (not one third (33%)) of U.S. Spanish translators are ATA members, then there would be about 9,145 U.S. Spanish translators (5 * 1,829) and the percentages of U.S. Spanish translators who are ATA CTs (Sp-En) would be about 3% (not 5%); En-Sp, 5% (not 8%). The percentage who are ATA CTs in both directions would then calculate to be about 0.75% (1 out of every 133 U.S. Spanish translators, rather than 1 out of every 77). [And should more than one third of U.S. Spanish translators happen to be current members of the ATA, then the numbers would swing the opposite way.]

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics does estimate (2014) that there are 49,460 translators and interpreters in the United States. In addition to Spanish translators, that number would include translators of other languages, interpreters (any language) who are not also translators (not everyone is both) and, I would assume, American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters or other sign interpreters as well. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf claims 16,000 members (not all of them interpreters, but all of them paying members [$15 to $160, for individuals]). About 24% of ATA translators are Spanish translators, so if there were 5,486 Spanish translators in the U.S., there might be 22,941 U.S. translators total (all spoken languages). Adding 16,000 RID members (I know, I know, but no idea how many are interpreters or how many ASL interpreters are not members, so it works as a guesstimate), we are at 38,941, leaving 10,519 U.S. interpreters (all spoken languages) who are not also translators. (There would actually be more interpreters than this, because so many translators are also interpreters.)

So there you have it. Clear as mud, and about as precise, too. But still interesting.

Again, please don't quote any of these as factual. If you do have factual data for the three assumptions in the "My modified assumptions…" paragraph, I would be interested.

The "takeaways" (English business-speak for lessons or conclusions):

  • Many translators are not even members of the American Translators Association, probably the majority ($190 is not cheap, but it is a good investment; it at least signals to clients that you take your profession seriously, which is a benefit for you [greater client confidence] even before you achieve certification).
  • Roughly 5% of U.S. Spanish translators are ATA certified in just one direction, for a total of about 10% when you add the translators in each direction together.
  • Roughly 1% of U.S. Spanish translators are ATA certified in both directions.

The certification exams are said to have a less than 20% pass rate (even after restricting admission to the exams to experienced translators only). The current (August 2015) cost each time you take one of the exams is $300 (if that doesn't signal commitment to the profession!). As you can see, if the passing rate were an odds (probability) proposition, you would be out over $1500 before you could get certified. Thankfully, that is not at all how it works. In my experience (and that of other translators I know), people tend to take the exam for the first time full of confidence, only to fail it and to think long and hard before daring to attempt it again, by which time those years of translation experience will have increased your chances of passing considerably!

The best way to prepare, in my opinion, would be to practice translating short (250 word) published articles on various topics, and then find a way to get an ATA certified translator to offer you feedback—without getting furious at them, by the way—but instead taking the attitude that you might actually still have something to learn! (I still have things to learn!) Getting to the point where you can abandon the beginner's tendency to do word-for-word translations, and can instead achieve meaning-for-meaning translations that sound natural in your native language (and not like a native-language imitation of the original article's sentence structure and word order) does take practice! Letting go of false cognates (e.g., embarrassed/embarazada [which really means "pregnant," not embarrassed], crime/crímen [="murder"], involve/envolver [="to wrap or surround"]) also is a struggle, and most people do cling to them, tightly. And you have no idea, none, of the amount of research that is involved to translate a term in one language with the proper term having that same meaning in the other language (e.g., "propiedad horizontal" is not "horizontal property" [no such thing in English!], it is "condominium"). Too many people see a two-word term in one language and think it is enough to just translate each of the words in the term separately to make a translated equivalent (see previous example). But I digress.

In short, to be a good translator requires knowing everything there is to know in one language (and culture), knowing everything there is to know in the other, and also knowing how to move meanings (not words!!) smoothly from one universe to the next. Good luck learning how to do that. (It is possible, to a point, but it is not, at all, easy.)