Roula Salam, ATIA President

Interviewed by Angela Fairbank, CTTIC board member-at-large, January 17, 2023.

(c) Roula Salam

Translator, Terminologist, Interpreter – which of these three professions do you identify with?

First of all, thank you, Angela and CTTIC, for the honour of interviewing me and asking me these questions, and thank you for your patience. Life often gets in the way, and I don’t often get the time to step back and contemplate what I have been doing.

To answer your first question, I see myself first and foremost as a translator. I always used to feel that the brain of a translator and that of an interpreter are wired differently. I love being more immersed in the particularities the translation process entails, in the unpacking of meaning of the source text, the unravelling of the semantic, lexical, and mechanical structures of the text before reconstructing the message in the target language with the same measure of creativity and effort the unpacking process involved. The dexterity in working with words this way and the creativity involved in producing the target text are what I am most passionate about. That said, I continue to stand in awe of conference interpreters and the enormous mental effort involved in their work! I don’t think I am quite cut out for that.

Please provide a brief synopsis of your education–including language education–and background related to how you came to be a Translator/Interpreter/Terminologist. For example, immersion in foreign countries and culture, university education, mentorship/menteeship, internship, etc.

I came to Canada from Beirut, Lebanon, as a single mom in 2005 to pursue my PhD degree at Queen’s University with the intention of returning to Beirut after I was done. In Lebanon, I had been teaching full time for over six years and dabbling in translation before I came here. Coming from a country that had been under French mandate, and having studied at an American university, I was fluent in English and Arabic while my French was passable. I was thus exposed to three different cultures before coming to Canada. I was also exposed to something that greatly shaped my outlook on life and culture. Having been born at the beginning of the Israeli invasion and the subsequent Civil War in Lebanon, growing up, I was very much influenced by three main factors: the war, my family, and my education. The first granted me resilience and strength, the second-, unconditional love and support, and the third a hunger for discovering more about how different cultures interconnect and impact each another from multiple perspectives. During my studies at Queen’s University, my area of expertise was postcolonial studies, and as I became more immersed in the study of Arabic texts and their translations in the context of post-colonialism, I became more fascinated with translation. When I remarried and moved to Edmonton, I began teaching at the University of Alberta and embarked in earnest upon my translation journey, where I used my different skills to help teach, mentor, work, and reach out to as many as I could. I continue to wear multiple hats to this day, as each one fulfills me in a different way.

How long have you been working in your chosen profession? Do you tend to specialize and, if so, in which domains?

I would say that my career in translation began actively in 2007 when I was working as a translator for the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. At the time, I was involved in a cultural studies project that opened my eyes to the experiences of women from various Arab cultures who had immigrated to Canada. I was also quite involved in my own research and writing, which centered on representation and identity. I have always had a passion for literary translation, having a literary background myself, and began translating poetry, non-fiction, and film while here in Canada. So this is where I feel I am at my most creative when it comes to translation.

Are you currently working in-house or as a freelancer? If you have had experience in both types of employment, which do you prefer?

I started off as a freelancer and it was a long and difficult journey. Now, I am a managing partner for a translation company, and feel very happy to have made it this far. I did not receive a lot of support at the beginning as there is always that element of competition in the translation arena, as with most professions. However, along the way, I encountered many kind and helpful mentors and supportive friends, and my journey has also taught me to help others in return. At this stage, I love being a translator, an educator and mentor, and a business woman.

Where do you currently exercise your profession?

Sometimes at home in my comfiest pjs and robe, and sometimes in my office in formal attire. The lovely thing about translation is you can work anywhere and at any time. Of course, because I also teach language courses part time at the U of A and do immigration consultation, I do sometimes need to face people in the real world (which I also love!). I enjoy traveling and I love the fact that when I am not teaching in person, translation allows you that flexibility to work as you enjoy the warmth of the sea and sun in January.

Are you certified in your profession? If so, by which certification organization(s) and for how long have you been certified now? If you are certified, once you became certified, did you notice your income increase slightly, moderately or substantially?

Yes, I became a certified member of the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Alberta in 2018, but have been involved with ATIA since 2012. I am happy to share the news that my income increased for two reasons: First, the journey to certification teaches you and builds your experience; second, you are also afforded the opportunity to network, build a solid clientele, and grow your potential. Your reputation and career in translation will always start with completing a very good translation for a client, loving your profession, and being willing to invest the effort it takes to develop your skills. People see this and respond positively to it.

Have there been any particular challenges in your profession that you would like to share with our readers?

What profession does not have its ups and downs, trials and tribulations? The good thing is there was also a positive outcome with every challenge I faced. Obtaining my certification was one major challenge, of course, but it also helped me look at my work more sceptically. My interest was piqued by the procedures involved in the certification process, so I began thinking proactively of how to improve and build upon the existing certification system, not only provincially but also nationally. The second challenge I would say was in finding little support when I first embarked upon my career. I would, for example, go to an agency or company and ask if I could do some voluntary translation so I could learn. However, my offer would often be met with the reply, “We have our own translators and don’t need anyone.” Of course, it was later that I learned how many of those “translators” were not even professional, let alone certified. This did not stop me from doing the opposite as a company manager; today, my partner and I do our best to employ local talent and support our translators here.

What advice do you have for colleagues who are just starting–or thinking of starting–in the profession today?

My advice would be don’t give up, and volunteer as much as you can. Love what you are doing with a passion, learn from your mistakes, and be humble and supportive. Most importantly, however, I would tell them to look at the profession of translation as a valued and respected one with standards we must all work in unison to raise and implement. Think of it as a profession before you think of it as a business, and apply the same ethical standards of your profession to your business.

You became ATIA’s President two years ago and are now in your second year. Congratulations! What made you decide to join the board of ATIA? Also please tell us a little bit more about this association, when it was created and why, how many members (certified and associate) it has, and what challenges it has as a smaller sister society under the CTTIC umbrella. What perks do you offer your members?

Thank you! Actually, this is my third year as ATIA President because at the last AGM, nobody volunteered to step into those shoes. I decided to join the board back in 2012 when my work in translation in Canada that had commenced at the U of A began picking up. I wanted to be part of a community, of a professional group, that took pride in their profession, and where the standards of the profession were set and maintained. I began as a member at large, helping in many ways, learning about the association and how it was part of a larger affiliation as a CTTIC member. And I loved working with like-minded professionals who were just wonderful, mentoring me, supporting me, and teaching me so much.

ATIA was founded in 1979, and currently has close to 300 members. We continue to grow, and offer our members professional development opportunities, volunteering opportunities, and the chance to grow and develop in their profession with the support of ATIA’s Board and its membership. Furthermore, as ATIA is a member of FIT and as I am on the FIT Council, this has also afforded our members the opportunity to be involved in developing and supporting the profession at multiple levels, provincially, federally, and internationally. It is wonderful to connect with our counterparts in different provinces and countries, to exchange ideas and collaborate to help grow and develop our profession. I invite those interested in becoming translators and interpreters in Alberta to find out how to become members and join ATIA.

I have read that ATIA recently welcomed two new certified members from among Canada’s Indigenous Groups, which is quite an achievement! How did this come about? How do you see it progressing?

This is an accomplishment ATIA is incredibly proud of. I had been connecting with language professionals from our Indigenous communities over the past three years or so, and had been forging friendships and opening lines of communication. From a professional perspective, I also helped provide translation opportunities to some individuals who were already translating into their indigenous languages. I established an ATIA indigenous languages committee, and began collaborating with wonderful individuals on developing assessment tools and procedures to enable indigenous translators to become associate members and then certified members of ATIA. This process involved a lot of work, hours of sharing and studying the exams we normally use, and considering how to adapt them so they would be meaningful for someone, say, wanting to write their exam into Nehiyawewin. Now, we are happy to share that we have new members for at least three other indigenous languages and will be working on helping them get set up in their own language combinations. Ultimately, we are sharing the certification procedures and working with these groups so they can create exams of their own, and then mark and assess them according to the same standards we use for other languages but somehow differently in terms of the weight given to different language components. Similarly, texts used for the translation exams would need to be selected according to certain criteria so as to ensure fairness and compatibility without lowering the standards of the exam. It is a fascinating, rewarding, and humbling experience for me to be working with these indigenous language groups. We see it continuing to progress until we have managed to include at least the most commonly spoken indigenous languages in the province.

I also understand that ATIA became a member of FIT (the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs/International Federation of Translators) recently and that you personally attended their conference in Varadero, Cuba, this summer. I also understand you were voted into a position on their council. (Yet another personal achievement. You seem to go from strength to strength!) So please tell us a little bit about FIT and how/why ATIA decided to become a member. What are ATIA’s future plans with regard to FIT and why do you consider being a member of FIT advantageous? Are there any plans to hold a FIT conference in Canada soon?

Becoming a FIT member has been a wonderfully rewarding experience for ATIA. My first direct contact with FIT was at the Congress in Varadero (unfortunately, I came back with Covid but also brought many ideas and great news). While there, I had the opportunity to introduce ATIA to the FIT membership, and I connected with many members from associations all over the world. I learned a lot, and the scintillating conversations we had led to the sharing of many common goals and interests. During the elections in Varadero, I was nominated as a Council member. Upon my return, I began learning so much about how FIT functions, its goals and aspirations, and the benefits of being a FIT member. I am also currently involved in three FIT Standing Committees: The Association Development Committee as a co-chair, the Indigenous Languages Committee as a co-chair, and the Crisis Settings Committee as a member. This involvement has also allowed me to help provide a platform to our ATIA members, particularly the indigenous languages members. It has opened so many opportunities for ATIA to work and collaborate with associations from all over the world, and is providing us with new ideas and exciting possibilities. I will begin reaching out to our sister associations shortly to invite them to become members of FIT, allowing Canada to have more visibility not only as part of the FIT membership but also as part of FIT’s North America Regional Centre.

ATIA has been offering its members and sister association members a number of webinars and has been providing interesting “International Translation Day” events. Can you comment on these and plans for future webinars in the works?

We always strive to make the most of ITD and Orange Shirt Day annual events. We strive to create opportunities for learning, sharing ideas, collaboration, and fun! Over the last two years, our International Translation Days have been really special. We brought in speakers from the Canadian Armed Forces, indigenous language educators and language professionals, graduate students from the U of A, the chair of the Ukrainian association, and many other speakers. The creation of these events takes a lot of work and collaboration, and I am super proud of our ATIA team who put so much work and effort into helping with these events. I think of the Council as my second family, and thanks to this team work, we have made it possible for ATIA to have two very successful ITD events. As for future ITD and PD events, these are still in the works, but please keep track of our newsletter and our website calendar to stay tuned!

Is there anything I missed that you would like to add?

Honestly, I would just like to conclude by saying thank you so much for letting me share with you what I have been doing. It makes me immensely proud and at the same time I feel very humbled. I would love to share more of what I have been doing, and will be reaching out to CTTIC and our sister associations soon in the coming weeks. I am constantly thinking of ways we can collaborate to uplift our profession, serve our membership, and protect our community. Hopefully, we will continue working together to make this possible.