Marian Greenfield: endings and beginnings

By Alison Dent

At our General Meeting back in February, NCTA was privileged to have as a guest Marian Greenfield, president of ATA. Marian has led the national organization for the past two years, and her tenure comes to an end at the ATA Conference in San Francisco in November. Marian kindly agreed to share with us some of her experiences, and the rewards that can be reaped by serving our community.

TRANSLORIAL: Describe your background as a translator. Did you grow up bilingually or biculturally? What was your interest in languages? 

MARIAN GREENFIELD: I grew up in a house where we spoke English at home, but my mother and my grandmother would speak Yiddish together, so I learned to understand a little bit of Yiddish although never really to speak it. Although I grew up in a monolingual household, my grandmother—without having ever attended school—spoke five languages fluently, and so I think I inherited a talent for languages from her, as well as a curiosity about languages.

How and when did you initially become involved with ATA? What was your path to becoming president?

I joined ATA in 1980 when I got my first job in translation at the in-house translation department of a bank, and I sat for what was then called ATA’s accreditation exam. Later, when I was running the translation department at JP Morgan in 1988, I got involved with both ATA and my local chapter, the New York Circle of Translators (NYCT). First I became treasurer, then president-elect, and finally president of my local chapter, and I also ran for the Board of ATA. I spent six years on the ATA Board, after which I became president-elect and now president.

Describe the typical duties of an ATA president.

The typical duties of an ATA president revolve around balancing the day-to-day “nuts and bolts” of overseeing a 10,000-member organization with looking at the big picture. The day-to-day activities include answering a lot of email! That’s really what takes up the bulk of my time: responding to all the issues that come up, responding to emails from members, and basically being an arbiter of policy. As for the big picture, the president works with the Board of Directors to set policy and establish programs and services. Finally, another really important and time-consuming duty of an ATA president is to represent ATA in the press and at various functions.

Has it been difficult juggling a busy translation career with your responsibilities as ATA president?

Juggling responsibilities has definitely cut into my sleep and leisure time! It is difficult to be a fully booked translator, a Professor of Translation, and an industry consultant, as well as ATA president. Sometimes there can be months when I am travelling every single week, either for teaching duties, giving seminars, or representing ATA at conferences.

What does ATA do well, and what are areas in which it can be improved? Which of your achievements as ATA president are you most proud of? What were your most difficult challenges?

I think there are many things that ATA does really well, such as member benefits, and professional development in all senses of the word, including seminars, our magazine, our website, and our annual conference. We also do client education and public relations very well.

We are constantly looking at new ways of delivering opportunities for professional development, improving member benefits, and enhancing the certification program. I think these things will continue to be our focus probably forever.

The things that I’m most proud of are the success of the annual conferences and professional development events during my tenure. Also, the ATA Chronicle and the website redesign have given our face to the outside world a new look that I’m extremely proud of. I think we’ve really improved our communications with members … that’s something that we’re constantly working on, especially as the organization grows. I think we’ve done really well with public relations and with outreach to clients, to schools, and to the market in general.

When it comes to the challenges, I think that transparency and communications with members need constant attention. It’s always a challenge to make sure that everything we do is transparent and that we keep members up to date with everything that’s going on. ATA has nearly 10,000 members, making it a very diverse and interesting organization, but it also makes it impossible to please everyone. You have to constantly focus on what’s best for our members overall and that’s a real challenge.

What are the most notable changes you’ve seen in ATA over your years with the association?

I think the biggest change has been the phenomenal growth. We’ve more than doubled our membership over the last ten years, and that necessarily affects everything about the organization. An organization of four or five thousand members is entirely different to one of ten thousand members; you have to become more structured, more businesslike. There has also been more interest in professional development. Not only have we provided more professional development opportunities, but the market in general has shown a greater interest in it, from both the client and the provider side. Along with the exponential growth in the market, the visibility of translators and interpreters has also grown, and I would like to think that we had a good hand in that.

What did you think of the NCTA meeting you attended back in February, and what is your impression of NCTA as an ATA chapter? What is the state of health of ATA chapters around the country?

I very much enjoyed attending the NCTA meeting, because I was able to meet up with people whom I’ve known for a long time, and also because it’s a real pleasure to see a chapter being successful and to hear about all the things that are happening. NCTA is a phenomenal chapter. It’s very active and has wonderful programs, so it has attracted members to our association. ATA seems to have always had board members and/or very active volunteers from NCTA, so it has been a great asset to us.

The state of ATA chapters around the country is an interesting question. There are several chapters like NCTA that are very active and successful, yet at the same time I was extremely sad when FLATA (Florida Chapter of ATA) folded this year because it couldn’t find enough people willing to serve as officers. This was very sad because just a couple of years ago it was a very active chapter. A lot of the ATA chapters have a problem with finding leadership, people willing to serve, and that’s unfortunate.

In my president’s columns I often write about enlightened self-interest. I think that serving as a local chapter officer is a great example of enlightened self-interest, because you’re doing good by serving your chapter and its members, and you do well by doing good because it has a lot of benefits in the way of exposure, name recognition, and also networking opportunities. We need to get the word out that it’s important to give back, and actually it’s also really good for your business in the end. Take me, for instance: we talked about me juggling my ATA responsibilities with my business responsibilities; well, I’ve always said that I’ve built my career on my service to the New York Circle and ATA. A good part of the reason for my thriving freelance business is because of the contacts I’ve made through NYCT and ATA. Being a chapter official really does boost your business, so it’s worth making the time, both because of what you give and what you get back.

Your term as ATA president will come to an end at the ATA conference in San Francisco in November. What are your expectations for the event? Personally, will you still stay active within ATA? What will you be doing with your newfound free time?

I am really looking forward to San Francisco, not because my term sadly comes to an end, but because I think it’s going to be a fabulous event. I certainly expect it to be our biggest conference ever and there’ll be some exciting changes; we have done several format changes this year, which I think will be big improvements and hopefully our members will like them. We have some wonderful speakers lined up. As always we will be expecting great support from NCTA because they’ve always done a really good job of on-the-ground support and I’m sure that will continue. Overall it will be a really great conference and a great venue in the backyard of a great chapter.

I will certainly stay active with ATA. The president-elect Jiri Stejskal has indicated that he intends to have me continue as chair of Professional Development, which involves several events a year, and I will probably keep my hand in a few other things. ATA has been very much a part of my life for more than ten years now, and I intend to keep it that way.

As for my newfound free time, my goal is to take more leisure time, to take more time off when I travel and also perhaps to get more involved on an international front, but we’ll see about that.

Do you have any advice for me, just starting out as an NCTA Board member?

My advice to you is to be a good listener and to always respond to any member communications, even if it’s just a short, quick response. I think it’s important that members be responded to promptly, even if you don’t always have an answer. Listening is probably the biggest asset for a Board member, because even if you can’t resolve an issue, members feel happy to have at least been heard. Finally, you need to remember that no matter how difficult issues may be, we are all working to better “our” organization.

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