Tearing up the Asphalt—Language Professionals Inside and Outside the Beltway Unite!

Written by Joe Mazza, Administrator ATA Government Division

On the morning of Monday, August 17, 1964—just days after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution expanded the Vietnam War, and only days before the Economic Opportunity Act helped launch LBJ’s War on Poverty—the newly completed Capitol Beltway opened to automobile traffic. It was a busy month in DC that summer. The fanfare over the roadway was minimal—segments of it had been opening for years. Despite the fact that the modest ribbon-cutting ceremony jammed up traffic for hours, most DC-area commuters in that pre-telework age rejoiced briefly, then launched a rich tradition of cursing the highway on a twice-daily basis. More importantly, and perhaps unintentionally, a line was drawn—forevermore, there would be a world “inside the Beltway,” and one “outside the Beltway.” Both worlds would claim to be all knowing. Both worlds would stare over the dented guardrails at the other with a mixture of confusion and suspicion.

Nearly two decades later, I was inducted into the venerable FBI (Fraternity of Beltway Insiders). We still called it a “fraternity” in that less inclusive age. Despite Reagan-era proposals to shrink the Federal Government workforce, the Navy Department had hired me “on a temporary basis” to translate articles from the Soviet press. That temporary gig has lasted 33 years, first at the Navy, then at the State Department. And while there are days when my ancient insider status helps me to navigate the “government language community” within the Beltway, there are far more days when I still wish I had been issued a better road map.

Or, in keeping with my original seafaring focus at the Navy, a better nautical chart. For what was true then remains true now–the language islands in the Federal Archipelago are scattered and they are many. There is a new one, for example, at the Census Bureau in Suitland, MD, where translators help folks to be counted—in dozens of languages. In Bethesda, MD, there is another island at the National Institutes of Health, where translators work with medical literature from all over the world. Other islands—whose exact coordinates are revealed solely “on a need to know basis”—deal with words in over a hundred languages, so others can analyze threats to national security. My current island—the Department of State’s Office of Language Services (LS)—deals with diplomatic translation and interpreting, and has sat proudly in downtown DC since the Federal Capital moved here in 1800, making it the oldest of the islands. Before that, it drifted about the eastern seaboard as the young republic decided where to moor its government—including two stays in New York City. And there are dozens of other language islands, atolls, and cays—each with differing recruitment needs, security policies, career paths, and working procedures. We who dwell on them used to assemble from time to time under the banner of the now defunct Society of Federal Linguists (SFL)—a haven for the scholarly polyglots who streamed to DC during the Cold War era. Some of us gather still at the monthly Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR), where we hobnob with language testers and trainers, sharing technological breakthroughs and heartbreaks. Still, we government language islanders often feel unconnected to each other, and to the world beyond those battered guardrails along the outer loop of the Beltway.

And what of the language professionals who never received that “insider card”—those who happen to work or study in the other 99 percent of the US landmass? We DC-based cardholders meet them all the time at various language forums and at universities around the country. Outside our Beltway perimeter, we feel recharged and refreshed by all that is happening in our industry in the wider world. Perhaps this shows on our faces, and makes us more approachable. Because when government agencies table at language-focused events, the lines are long. And when we send government colleagues to speak on our behalf, they are typically bombarded with questions. At conference after conference, it is clear that “they” want to know as much about “us” as “we” want to know about “them.” Translators, interpreters, and T&I project managers from around the country want to know who we capital language folks are, what we need, and how we work. By far the most frequent of FAQs is simply: “where do I sign up?” Other FAQs include:

I passed an interpreting test with another government agency in 2009. Why do I need to take a test with your agency? Isn’t there just one unified test for the whole government?
– I was told by one government agency that I would need to be a US citizen in order to be a freelance translator. Does that mean all government agencies have that rule? What if I am a dual national?
Don’t all of US Government agencies share the same roster of freelancers?

– Is it true that I have to move to Washington, DC, to be a US Government translator?
For those of us insiders sitting at exhibit hall tables or standing at the speaker’s rostrum, it is no easy task to provide answers that take into account the wide variety of habitats and life forms our federal language archipelago hosts. Complicating the picture is the fact that nowadays, there are government language professionals working all over the country—some as contractors or staff teleworkers who translate or manage projects from home offices; others as interpreters, translators, or project managers reporting to government offices around the country. Think of the many US Government field offices in the New York City area, for example. The truth is, those of us government language professionals who make our lives in the DC area are only a subset of wider government language community. The Beltway barrier has morphed from an asphalt one into a virtual one. Nevertheless, the Beltway barrier persists, and the questions keep coming.

When I started teaching Spanish/English translation at the University of Maryland’s Graduate Studies in Interpreting and Translation (GSIT) program three years ago, these questions assumed a new importance. Now it was my students who were posing them. Would there be government jobs—staff or contract—for the younger translator entering the workforce? What languages or skills should they add to their repertoire to make themselves more employable in the government? What was the future for which I was training these eager students? I always ask my students where they see themselves in our profession in 20 years. My favorite answer is one I have heard more than once: “having your job”!

These were the questions racing through my own mind back in 2015, when Dr. Maria Brau, a colleague from the real FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, called to seek my support for the establishment of a new Government Division within the American Translators Association (ATA). After suffering three decades of varying confusion about what my sisters and brothers in the federal language community do, I was ready for an ATA Division to solve that problem once and for all, and gave my wholehearted support. A year later, I found myself running the thing as Division Administrator! Now I would be have to be the mapmaker. Fortunately, I have help. Monique Roske, a longtime interpreter and instructor of interpretation, is the Assistant Administrator. As we build up our Division, Monique is frequently heard to utter “remember those outside the Beltway!” One of our goals is an online compendium of US Government “language shops” with thumbnail sketches and ample hyperlinks for fuller details. Another is to reach out to government language units at the state and local level.

The ATA Government Division is among the youngest of the 20 ATA Divisions, and in addition to building our institutional infrastructure, much of our activity this year has focused on the upcoming Annual ATA Conference right in our own backyard—at the Washington Hilton in mid-town DC. Given that the nation’s capital is hosting this year’s conference, government language activities are an inevitable focus. The ATA’s last DC-area conference was in 1989, so it is high time to meet again on the Potomac and think about the language career options the Federal Government provides. To that end, the Government Division has worked to offer the following to this year’s ATA Conference attendees:

Presentations: this year’s ATA Conference offers no less than eight carefully chosen sessions focusing on government language activities, including talks by the National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC) and the Census Bureau, a panel discussion on the impact of artificial intelligence, several talks on interpretation, and a presentation on coaching for translators in the government and beyond. See the Preliminary Conference Program at the ATA website for details.

Networking Event: like our fellow ATA Divisions, we will offer a chance to gather after hours at a local eatery to share drinks, food, and conversation. The ATA Government Division networking event will be held at 6 pm on Thursday, October 26, at a DC landmark—Mama Ayesha’s Middle Eastern Restaurant at 1967 Calvert Street, NW, just a few blocks from the Conference hotel. Read more at the Division events page on the ATA website.

Division Meeting: we will meet briefly at 12:30 pm on Friday, October 27, during the Conference, to map out strategies for the coming year. See the Final Conference Program for exact location details. Forging ties with state and local governments is foremost on our agenda.

In addition, a number of government agencies will be hosting tables in the Conference’s Exhibit Hall. Compose your questions and seek us out early, for the lines are sure to be long!

As you get to know us, you will realize that we are not all work and no play. A favorite pastime of the “insiders” is poke fun at bureaucratic speak, in all its guises. We see more of it than most of you, and we tend to view it as a hairdresser contemplates an unruly head of hair: it is something to be teased, trimmed, curled, or colored—even if a full head shaving would seem to be the only remedy. One federal colleague collected what he called “egregious noun pile-ups” in bureaucratic writing. True to form, this year’s DC-based Conference includes a session by my State Department boss in understanding and taming bureaucratic prose. As we say in DC, it promises to be a “robust practice-based language skills enhancement education colloquium.” Try fitting that into a PowerPoint textbox in another language!

Whether you travel to DC for the ATA Conference to meet us in person, or stay connected to the ATA Government Division on line, via our listserv or our soon-to-emerge website, the Division’s goal is to expose you to a benign strain of what some call “Potomac Fever.” I contracted it in 1979, when I chose to study languages in Washington, DC, with a dream to use them someday in a government job. There are thousands of similar case studies. Inevitably, those afflicted will say the same thing: government language work is intellectually fascinating and rewarding. Not just for the work in itself, but also for the sheer number of resources that emanate from the Federal Government. Take the four reading rooms at the Library of Congress that cover geographical regions of the world: the Hispanic; the Asian; the European; and the African/Middle Eastern. Many of their holdings are now available on line, accessible to all throughout the land. Yet when the heads of these reading rooms gave a presentation at a recent Interagency Language Roundtable meeting, I found that many of my “insider” colleagues did not know about those physical spaces on Capitol Hill, let alone about the cyberspaces they had created. The human resources in the government language community are truly its greatest assets—my capital colleagues take pride in being authorities in the languages they use on the job, all the while studying further to keep those languages fresh. Meanwhile, they become subject matter specialists on everything from antisubmarine warfare to international child abduction. I worked with a gentleman at the Justice Department, now retired, who was an expert in Spanish slang from every corner of the Americas—try as I might, I could never stump him. I have worked with a Labor Department colleague who studies Quechua and Aymara in her spare time. Several of my LS colleagues at the State Department have worked comfortably in over a dozen languages at a time—one certified a treaty in Faroese; another invented his own language. With a government language community of this caliber, the republic is eminently well served.

Beyond the intellectual charge it delivers, the work of the government language community delivers an excitement often described as high-stakes and cutting edge. The adrenaline often rises; the knuckles occasionally whiten. Whether our interpreters are helping to bring peace to warring factions, or our translators are helping to cure a disease more virulent than Potomac Fever, our work can impact millions. This is a source of pride for the government language professional, and a source of sleepless nights for us too.

My advice to the language professionals of the New York area: contract Potomac Fever and lose some sleep with us. Bust through the Beltway—or at least bridge it. Let the ATA Government Division be your guide.

One postscript: There is a time-honored tradition of government service from the New York translator and interpreter community. In fact, the State Department’s first three translators—John Peter Tetard, Isaac Pinto, and John Pintard—were New Yorkers hired while the Department was headquartered in New York City for two short stretches in the 1780s. Tetard had to face the capital’s brief move back to Philadelphia, before resigning to become the first professor of a modern language at King’s College (just as it changed its name to Columbia University). Once the capital shifted back to New York again, translators Pinto and Pintard reported to work at a repurposed Fraunces Tavern down on Pearl Street, where you can still see the reconstructed offices of Foreign Affairs Secretary John Jay on the upper floors, including his ledger books recording subscriptions to foreign-language periodicals. Pinto’s knowledge of Arabic—an exceedingly rare skill in those newly United States—surely came in handy after the young nation signed a Treaty of Friendship with Morocco in 1786–the oldest U.S. treaty still in force. A century later, Henry Livingston Thomas (1835-1903) of the Hudson Valley became the first State Department translator to receive a Civil Service appointment.

Somewhere inside the Beltway, or perhaps outside it, there is a government office that needs your talents. Log into the Divisions section of the ATA website and join the Government Division today!