er long hyphenated name should sound familiar to Translation Journal readers, from her contributions to the TJ and to The ATA Chronicle over the past 10 years. At 5'10" tall, Alexandra Russell-Bitting is not a person who can walk into a room unnoticed. But while she towers above most women, she has an easy smile and a twinkle in her eyes that immediately put people at ease. I spoke with Alex (as she's known to friends) about her background in the profession and her decision to run for the ATA Board.
VA: What languages do you speak and where did you learn them?
AR-B: I learned French in West Equatorial Africa and Spanish and Portuguese in France, of all the crazy things. My step-dad was in the foreign service, so we lived in various French-speaking countries: the Congo and Gabon, then France, where I went to college. By the time my family moved back to the States from Paris, I was in grad school and working so I stuck around for a grand total of 13 years.
VA: How did you end up in Washington?
AR-B: I started freelancing as a translator in Paris in the late 1970s and got on the roster for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I was this close to getting a staff translator position there but in 1984 the United States withdrew from the organization so suddenly I no longer qualified as a national of a member country. And in case that news wasn't bad enough, with the U.S. pullout the organization lost 25% of its budget so there was less money for freelances and my boss told me I should find freelance work elsewhere.
I applied to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washingtonthinking that the U.S. wasn't about to pull out of that organizationand they flew me over on a short-term contract. Once here I took the freelance test for every organization I could find and lined up some work for the Pan American Health Organization.
VA: What was it like moving back to the States after 13 years abroad?
AR-B: Since I had never lived in the U.S. as an adult, I had quite a case of culture shock. There were huge gaps in my cultural references, such as characters on TV shows. For instance, in 1984 when I returned, everyone was talking about HBO and I had no idea what it was. I didn't realize how much I had assimilated French culture: I would do things like look for phone booths in the Post Office. It made me feel like an alien in my own country. Maybe that's what made me especially sensitive to the culture aspect of language and translation. But now that I've been in Washington for 23 years, it's home, especially since I also lived here as a teen.
VA: How did you first get involved with ATA?
AR-B: I first joined in 1985 shortly after relocating to D.C. from France and got certified for French to English translation. In 1988 I was hired as a staff translator at the Inter-American Development Bank. Several years later in 1996 the IDB became an institutional member and my then-boss sent me to the annual conference. Before then, the most translators I had ever seen in one place were maybe 25 at an exam sitting where we weren't allowed to talk.
At the ATA conference there were hundreds of them, all people who understood and appreciated what I did for a living. And there was my old friend Neil Inglis up there giving the keynote address. That was the "poverty cult" speech that has gone down in ATA history, in which he had the audacity to claim that we translators were qualified professionals who deserved to earn a good living, not scrape by while bemoaning our lot. I also particularly enjoyed the Spanish Forum, which inspired me to start giving my own presentations.
I've presented almost every year since then. I had taught translation at the University of Paris and Georgetown University and loved it. Plus preparing the talks helped keep those grey cells working by forcing me to look beyond my routine translation work. For instance, I knew that GDP and GNP were different but didn't know exactly what the difference was or why we cared until I prepared my "Economics for Translators" workshop.
VA: What is your current position at the IDB?
AR-B: I was a staff translator/reviser for the first 16 years I worked there. During that time, I started writing a language column for the staff newsletter, Chasqui (the Inca messenger), on the assumption that language was something that concerned the entire staff. I had plenty of raw material from the research we had to do on our office translations. I found I really enjoyed the chance to write in a more informal style. An ATA friend, Alicia Agnese, suggested I send the articles to Jeff Sanfacon, the Chronicle editor, and every time I did he would publish them.
One day the editor of the IDB's official magazine, IDBAmérica, asked me to cover a lecture on translation organized by the IDB Cultural Center for the magazine (which got reprinted in the ATA Chronicle). Then I began covering other cultural events. Meanwhile, I started writing stories specifically for the Chronicle, reporting on ATA events and Public Relations Committee news. I've been a member of the Committee for several years.
About four years ago, I found out that the IDB Press Section needed English editors and finagled a transfer from the Translation Section. I still do some translating and even buy some translation services, but mostly I do writing and editing for various IDB publications, including the Annual Report.
VA: I see you're running for ATA Director again this year. Last year you lost by just eight votes: do you think the third time will be the charm?
AR-B: I sure hope so! The good news is that having lots of qualified candidates in an election is a very good thing for the Association. Last year's Board elections were overshadowed by an alternative draft resolution submitted to the membership in response to grassroots concerns. In my opinion, whether you were for it or against it, the resolution was a healthy exercise in the democratic process. The issue was aired in an organized way, a vote on it was held and the resolution passed. I was proud that the ATA already had the system in place so that the membership at large could air its views.
The democratic process also means complying with the rules or, if the rules are outdated, changing them democratically so that they are in the best interests of the Association, the membership and the profession.
VA: You have been President of the Washington area chapter of ATA (NCATA) for two years now, after two years as Vice President. What is your leadership style?
AR-B: My approach can be summed up as a basic principle: working for the greater good through a cooperative, inclusive approach. Even though there are many different constituencies in the chapter (like there are in the ATA)freelances, companies, newcomers, to name a fewI believe that we can find common ground and it's the Board's job to build consensus. I approach issues through cooperation, not division, hearing all the views and finding creative solutions that appeal to everyone. My policy is to solicit input and feedback from our entire Board when we organize activities, while still taking initiative and making executive decisions when time pressure builds, but always communicating with the Board.
"The greater good" here means what's best for the membership, the profession and the Association. In the local chapter as well as the ATA, I think everyone agrees that there is a huge need for professional development, client education and recognition of the profession. That's why the certification program is so important, both holding exam sittings and organizing a variety of activities to meet our members' professional and social needs, which often overlap in the form of networking opportunities.
By "inclusiveness," I'm referring to serving all our constituencies, from making events accessible and affordable for students and beginning translators, to reaching out to the broader community by partnering with other institutions. A prime example of that approach is the joint seminar NCATA has organized with American University for three years now. AU provides the space for free, we provide outstanding local speakers who give the students and faculty the chance to meet seasoned professionals, chapter members get the opportunity to learn, network and rack up some Continuing Education points for free and the chapter recruits new members. It's a win-win-win-win situation.
VA: I saw on the Spanish Division list-serve that you wrote an article for the Washington Post on tango-dancing in Washington. Do you dance the tango? How did you get involved in it?
AR-B: I have always loved dance, and since I was a teen have taken classes in everything from folk and jazz dance to swing and salsa. In the 1970s and 1980s when I lived in France, a lot of Latin Americans came to Europe fleeing dictatorships. I learned how to dance salsa at a party organized by Latin American students in Paris. At my office, since three quarters of the staff are from Latin America, dance is a part of every celebration.
A couple of years ago I attended a tango concert and dance at the Argentine Embassy here in Washington and decided I wanted to learn how to do it. I was amazed to discover a whole tango-dancing community in the area. I particularly enjoyed the outdoor dancing during the summer in downtown D.C., which struck me as so unique and unexpected I felt compelled to write about it. I showed the story to an editor friend at the office, who passed it on to an editor at the Post, which decided it was worth publishing.
VA: Have you ever lived in Latin America?
AR-B: No, I've never lived there, but I've traveled there many times, especially to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, and Brazil. Each country has its own fascinating history and culture, and what I learn on these trips has served me well in my work. You can't dissociate language from culture.