Not Just a Conference: Reflections by a First-Time ATA Attendee

-By Emily Safrin

I had been to my fair share of translation and interpreting conferences. But I hadn’t seen anything quite like ATA.

The 57th Annual American Translators Association Conference, which took place in San Francisco last month, attracted nearly 2,000 attendees this year—the event’s third largest draw since its inception.

The hubbub of opening day began with the popular Buddies Welcome Newbies program, which pairs veteran ATA conference-goers with first-timers to show them the ropes by sharing a meal and attending one session together. The crowd at the popular event overflowed into the hallway as organizers shared helpful tips, including one from former OSTI President Helen Eby, whose simple advice to clip a pen to one’s conference badge I found especially helpful over the coming days of fast-paced networking and note-taking.

From there, I ventured into the hotel’s ample neo-futuristic atrium (which another attendee later informed me is the largest hotel atrium in the world) for the welcome reception. Fellow OSTI member Sarah Karten and I joined the long lines of hungry conference-goers eager to partake in the Asian-inspired buffet. The crowd was buzzing and it didn’t take long before I was overwhelmed by the noise and the limited space (even in the world’s largest hotel atrium!). We decided to weave our way out of the crowd and ride the pill-shaped elevators up to the 14th floor to catch a glimpse of the bay. That night I could hardly fall asleep over the sound of my nervous and excited heartbeat.

The next three days were sprinkled with one-hour session slots broken up by several half-hour coffee breaks in the exhibit hall and intermittent general events. The biggest draw for me was the sessions: the diverse offering of 170 in total ranged from topics as specific as the CRISPR system of genome editing to those as general as how to price one’s work. Even participants working in niche markets were likely to find something relevant to them: for example, translation in culinary arts and interpreting for psychiatric interviews.

Those with language pairs other than the ubiquitous Spanish-English were especially pleased by the opportunity to sit in on language-specific presentations. Fellow OSTI member John Wan, an Oregon-certified court interpreter (Mandarin-English), told me that even though his language combination is far from uncommon, it’s still challenging to come across programs dedicated to his working languages (even online), and he relished the opportunity to attend a Chinese-specific session.

With so much to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin. ATA veterans often recommend attending one “wild card” session—a topic that you may normally gloss over. I wasted no time in sitting in on one such session, on the topic of Japanese-English literary translation. I have no experience with literary translation (other than consuming its fruits as a reader), nor do I know a word of Japanese. In fact, I can’t even recall having read any Japanese literature in translation. None of this mattered; I was absolutely rapt listening to Haruki Murakami’s long-time translator Jay Rubin reflect on his career as the translator of authors both living and dead.

Rubin delighted in his recollections of being able to consult with the prolific Murakami after spending so long trying to channel the spirit of the long-deceased Soseki (quite literally, on one occasion, when Rubin spent an entire evening sitting in an office filled with Soseki’s work in a sort of intellectual séance). Rubin shared the hilarious story of his first encounter with Murakami: he had been diligently translating the author’s 600-page Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and proudly saved his questions—all 30 pages of them—until that day. The two saw day turn to night as they tirelessly reviewed Rubin’s every doubt: was the “water drop pattern” of a tie actually a water drop pattern, given the recurring water theme in the novel, or was it just polka dots? Murakami’s reaction to Rubin’s 30 pages was: “What the hell, it’s just a novel.”

Besides that one wild card session, for the most part I indulged in what are for me the usual suspects, mostly in the “Independent Contractor” category: ensuring payment (Ted Wozniak), translator “blind spots” (Chris Durban), referral selling (Maryam Abdi), and breaking into niche markets (Christelle Maignan). Maryam Abdi convinced a roomful of attendees of the power of employing tactful strategies to land referrals from existing clients. The best time to ask for a referral, she said, is when a client compliments your work. Chris Durban encouraged us to treat our work very seriously and to be ever aware of our own faults, which we so easily overlook.

My experience was so rich, and yet I was only able to participate in a tiny fraction of all the conference had to offer. One morning I opted to skip out on the sessions altogether to enjoy several hours of engaging conversation with a colleague I had known only online up until then. The choice was easy after the realization I had that first night at the overcrowded welcome reception: there is no “right way” to do the ATA conference. There is such a vast offering that there is simply no way you could do it all.

Beyond the educational sessions, there were plenty of opportunities to network. The job fair, with tables hosted by nearly 30 agencies, offered a great opportunity to connect with new clients. Lines were long and piles of resumes high as attendees waited their turn to deliver their elevator pitches to agency representatives. The exhibit hall, filled with agencies eager to meet new collaborators, was another likely place to make a connection. There was also the Brainstorm Networking event, an activity best compared to a speed dating game for freelance language professionals, where attendees rotated from table to table to discuss common dilemmas.

In a small space filled with nearly 2,000 people who share the same interests, it’s easy to strike up a conversation no matter where you find yourself: near the coffee pots, on your way to the next session, even in line for the bathroom! It’s exhilarating to know that anyone you cross paths with will understand what you do, no explanation needed.

As a result of networking during the conference, I have already collaborated on a project with a colleague I spent time with there, completed a project for a client I met at the job fair, and referred a project outside my scope to someone I was introduced to over a coffee break.

Time flew, and before I knew it I was watching Wilhelm Weber deliver his keynote address on the final day. Weber, who served as chief interpreter at 13 Olympic Games, was so modest and familiar in his speech that I almost felt as though we were his grandchildren sitting around the dining table listening to Granddad wax nostalgic about his long career. His unexpected final words left us with a collective sense of pride, not to mention a good laugh: the conference happened to be scheduled just prior to this year’s divisive election, and Weber confessed that though he had promised not to get political, he couldn’t help letting one reference slip: “Let’s make our profession great—not ‘again.’”

With that I departed from San Francisco with a notebook full of brilliant ideas and a lot of thinking to do. Not only did I meet new colleagues, make new friends, and gain invaluable knowledge about our profession over those few days; I also learned something about the conference itself—something I’m sure anyone who has attended would agree with: the ATA conference is no more “just a conference” than any translator would purport to argue that Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is “just a novel.”