A few days ago, one of my newbies sent me a list of great questions about preparing for the ATA conference. After writing down my answers, I started to wonder if these thoughts and ideas might be helpful to others, too. I remember how hard it is not to know what to expect, especially if you’ve never been to an ATA conference before! So here are my thoughts based on what I’ve learned at three ATA conferences.
Sessions and Goals
What sessions should I go to? What should I be looking for?
I’ve personally found it helpful to go to the conference with one or two main questions or goals in mind. For example, is it about exploring certain aspects of translation, or a certain topic? Is it about meeting new people? At my first conference, I attended sessions on anything and everything because I didn’t yet know where I wanted to specialize or even what was possible in the world of translation. While that sounds random, it actually helped me to very quickly get a feel for which areas I thought were interesting and which areas weren’t, which was what I needed at that stage of my career. At my next conference, I attended a lot of sessions in the “Independent Contractor” specialization, because I wanted to become more professional in certain aspects of running my own business. Last conference, I mainly wanted to find like-minded people and possible collaborators I could work together with on certain projects. But these are just examples. I’m sure you have your own questions and goals in mind!
What about intermediate or advanced sessions if I am a beginner?
If you are interested in an intermediate or advanced session, don’t hold back! You will still gain valuable insights, even in fields entirely new to you. You might also get to know other people who work in that area, which can be very helpful. If you happen to find that a session deals with very detailed questions that are not relevant to you, there’s always the option of quietly leaving the room after a few minutes and attending a different session instead.
What about note-taking?
Computers, tablets, and paper notebooks are ubiquitous throughout the conference, and what you choose is really up to you. I personally think big laptops are heavy and cumbersome to carry around, so if you want to use a computer, I’d recommend using a smaller laptop or a tablet. Paper notebooks are easier to pull out on a whim or to use in crowded auditoriums where you might not have much space, so I would definitely bring one.
Meeting new people
Before the conference
One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard about attending conferences was to select one or two people that you would really like to get to know and to send them an email in advance asking if they would be willing to meet up during the conference. I’ve done this once before, and it was wonderful. My contact was very welcoming and interested in me and my questions. We had an instant connection that lasted well beyond the conference. If you want to do this, be specific: Let the person know why you would like to connect and what you would like to talk about. Suggest a timeframe (maybe twenty minutes), so they know you’re not planning to take up all their time. The list of attendees can be very helpful here. Oh, and if you haven’t downloaded the conference app or haven’t filled out your own attendee profile yet, go and do it now!
At the conference
The nice thing about the conference is that just about everyone is looking to make new connections. People chat literally everywhere—in the lunch line, while waiting for a session to start, and even while looking for the bathrooms. Nametags, which specify hometown and language combination using color-coded dots, make it easy to find other people in your language combination or area, and they also offer a great conversation starter for anyone. If you don’t know what language combination a certain color stands for, just ask! If you are by yourself, it helps to look for other people who are by themselves or who seem to be looking around. Quite likely, they are looking for someone to talk to as well.
What about agencies?
Many translators go to the conference hoping, among other things, to connect with potential agency clients. And many agencies attend the conference to connect with qualified translators. It’s a great way to find new work, but don’t let it stress you out. Remember, agency representatives are people too. Some of my most interesting conversations with agency representatives or tool makers occurred outside of sessions and organized events, when everyone was more relaxed. And always remember that there are many agency owners and representatives among the attendees who don’t have a table in the exhibit hall. Seeking out specialized, boutique agencies can often lead to more interesting and rewarding work, so you should not count them out. Here, too, the attendee list can be a great tool to discover people you would like to meet.
If you go to the resume exchange or the exhibit hall, always keep in mind that this is not just an opportunity for agencies to screen translators. It’s also your chance to screen the agencies in order to find which ones you would like to work with! If finding new agency clients is a goal, following up with any interesting contacts you make is especially important. As I can (very regretfully) attest, that bag full of business cards means nothing if you never sit down and actually write to them afterwards…
A few more thoughts on following up…
For me, follow-up has always been one of the biggest challenges, and I’m still working on it! I’ve learned that I need to set aside a time after the conference where I do nothing but go through my business cards and notes and write a quick personal message to anyone I would like to stay in touch with. Getting started during the conference can make the task less daunting at home. As a minimum, I recommend sitting down each night to look through the business cards you received and make a note of where you met each person and what you talked about (or to make notes on the cards themselves whenever you have the chance). It’s amazing how fast you can forget when you talk to so many people in a day!
For the upcoming conference, I am also planning to keep a separate section in my notes to write down any ideas about things I want to implement, follow up on, or do after the conference, no matter when or where these thoughts occur to me. That way, my ideas and to-do list items will all be waiting for me in one place when I get home, instead of being spread between numerous sets of session notes, where they might never see the light of day again.
…and the unexpected
Every single conference I’ve attended has given me something unexpected. A sudden insight, a meeting with wonderful people, a new idea that resonates with me, and lots of motivation. All the goals and questions we might prepare before the conference are just meant to help us look in the right direction, to open our minds to the unpredictable, to be able to actually see the things that are relevant to us, and to find unexpected answers and new questions that will take us further. If we already knew what we were looking for, we wouldn’t have to go and find out! So my final piece of advice would be to soak it all up, to go with the flow, and most of all, have a LOT of fun!
—See you in Miami! (And if you happen to see me, feel free to grab me and say hi!)
Lea Rennert is an ATA-certified English to German and German to English translator specialized in corporate communications and PR as well as creative translations, primarily in the entertainment and film sectors. Lea grew up bilingually in Vienna, Austria, and moved to the U.S. in 2011. She holds an economics degree from the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Lea is active in the ATA and serves as a grader for the Eng>Ger and Ger>Eng ATA certification exams. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana.