Translation Success (An Interview with ATIA Member Hellen Martinez)

In the coming months, the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Alberta (ATIA) will be profiling some of our prominent members and those who have served (or continue to serve!) ATIA in a volunteer capacity. This month, we talked to Hellen Martinez, certified translator and interpreter, and former ATIA President.

How long have you been part of ATIA?

I became a member in 2003.

Tell me a bit about your personal history and what brought you to the organization.

I have a bachelor’s degree in translation and interpreting from my native Peru.  My dissertation thesis was about translation techniques for technical translation.  I was working as a full-time translator for engineering companies in Peru.  I was also a translator for the Ministry of Energy and Mines in Peru.  When I moved to Canada, I intended to keep working in my career path.  I learned about ATIA through Luisa Izzo, who was my Grammar teacher at the University of Calgary.

In which positions have you served the organization?

When I joined ATIA, I volunteered in events and fairs.  From 2007 until 2011, I served as VP for Calgary, and from 2011 until 2016, I served as president of our organization.


Can you tell me about some of your most enjoyable moments as a translator? What are some of the most memorable projects you have worked on so far? Do you have a favourite?

I feel in the clouds when a client tells me that they loved my work.  There’s nothing more uplifting than an appreciative client.  I have two memorable translation projects and two memorable interpreting assignments: the translation of Antamina Mine’s Environmental Impact Assessment, the translation of Minera Panamá’s Environmental Impact Study, interpreting for Hon. Ed Stelmach, and interpreting in a casual rendez-vous where the interpreting was so incredibly dynamic that the Ecuadorian and Canadian engineers weren’t even looking at me, but at each other when they were talking.  They didn’t feel my presence—and that’s exactly what you want as an interpreter!

What struggles have you had?

Lack of recognition.  With Alberta being a very multicultural place, there are unfortunately a lot of people out there who claim to be translators and interpreters just because they can speak two languages.  Because they lack language-transfer skills, they don’t know the industry, and accept low rates for a work that should be done by a professional translator or interpreter.  These people are incredible at marketing, and, unfortunately, clients are not aware of the consequences of a bad translation or interpretation, and accept the service of these people, who are actually disserving our industry.  Some traditional agencies bid their projects to the lowest offer, and most of the time low offers come from other countries or even other provinces.  The paradox is that really high rates are then charged to their clients in Alberta, and very low pay is offered to the translator, enriching the middleman.  I struggle to make stakeholders understand that Alberta has great interpreters, but if they keep using unqualified people, they will scare good linguists away, losing them other already hogged industries.

How did you know you were cut out for translation work?

Funnily enough, right after I finished university.  I was doing my practicum at a soil mechanics laboratory, and realized how clueless engineers could be without the intervention of a translator.  I am a born helper, and I realized that my calling was to help people by serving as a bridge of the language gap (as cheesy as it sounds—but it’s true!).

What type of work do you primarily do? Is there another type you wish you did more of?

I translate and interpret, but I mainly translate.  I translate technical and legal documents, but technical are my favorite.  I love them.  As we speak, I’m translating an environmental report.  I love the research, and the fact that I can’t stop until I find the right and precise word for what the text is saying.  Once, I spent five hours looking for the local name of an insect only found in Central America.  I went through a lot of articles and reports, until I finally found the equivalent word in Spanish.  That time—that “I got it!!” moment cannot be described.  The sense of accomplishment is just amazing.  I wish I could do more legal interpreting—it’s an area that I really enjoy.

ATIA has been around since 1979! In your opinion, what makes the organization successful and gives it such longevity? What sets ATIA apart?

We’re close to being around for 40 years! Isn’t that amazing?  What makes ATIA successful is its members, hands down.  We are lucky to have very committed members who are always helping advocate for the industry, quality and good standards.  What sets ATIA apart is its members and its standards.  Our standards are high and because of that, our members are the most qualified translators and interpreters in the industry.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Depends on the weather!  In cold days, I enjoy reading, cooking and scrapbooking.  In sunny days, still reading, but also biking and walking.

What is a quirky fact someone may not know about you?

I’m a grammar nerd.  I correct my daughters’ and hubby’s grammar all the time, mainly when we’re texting.  And as much as I’d like to do that with some of my Facebook friends, I love them too much to lose them over missing punctuation!

Hellen Martínez CTr, AComI is an English-Spanish Certified Translator and an Associate Community Interpreter member of the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Alberta (ATIA).  She holds a bachelor’s degree in Translation and Interpreting in Spanish, English and French, a Certificate in Marketing Management and is currently working toward her Certificate in Professional Editing. Hellen has more than 25 years of experience working in the translation industry. Hellen lives in Calgary with her husband and her two children.

Why Become a Translator?

As soon as you begin to pursue a dream, your life wakes up and everything has meaning. 

— Barbara Sher

Some people know what-they-want-to-be-when-they-grow-up shortly after they come out of the womb.  For others, it’s a slow realization, and by the time they leave high school, they are on their way to realizing their dream career.  Some, unsure, ponder the options and might change careers and jobs until they find their true calling.  And then, there is me who thought I never really had a “calling,” until now that is.

After working thirty years as an accountant in the Oil and Gas industry in Calgary, I found myself without a job.  The company I was working for was going through tremendous financial difficulties due to the recessive economy and—like many other companies—laid off many of its employees including myself.  I loved my job, and it was great while it lasted, but I knew it was not my true calling

I was envious of people who had a dream and followed it!  I never had a vision for myself.  But I always loved languages, reading, and writing.  After losing my job, I decided to start a blog, something I wanted to do for a long time.  My first articles were in English; later on, to reach a broader audience, I decided to start translating them into Spanish—my mother tongue.  One day, as I was happily pounding my keyboard while working on my translations, the idea of becoming a Translator hit me on the head like an awakening brick!  At that moment I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up!  I knew what my calling was!

I had no idea how to go about, but I was entrepreneurial and put an add on Kijiji advertising my services.  Shortly, I received a call from a potential customer, after a few interactions she asked me if I was “Certified.”  I did not get the business since I wasn’t a Certified Translator, but it opened the door to the exciting world of Translators and Interpreters.  I started looking into it, and I found ATIA (Association of Translators and Interpreters of Alberta).

Since finding ATIA, I’ve been right on track with their program.  I’ve attended every workshop ATIA has put on so far, and I’m preparing for the first two exams you must pass—Code of Ethics and English Comprehension.  ATIA has welcomed me with open arms, and every member I have met so far has been warm, friendly, and talented!

The Translation and Interpreters industry is booming with the prediction that demand for their services will increase fifty percent by the year 2020; this is excellent news for people starting like me as well as for established translators and interpreters.

Can just anyone who speaks more than one language become a Translator?  Not necessarily.  To become a translator, you need to be familiar with the culture behind the languages you will be working on.  You need to be extremely motivated and have the ability to work independently since most translators and interpreters are freelancers.  You need to have excellent writing and reading skills.  You also need to be very proactive in promoting your services and finding clients.

Strangely and whimsically, I realize now that I have been preparing for this my whole life.  I’ve made a point throughout the years to be fluent in Spanish and English by speaking, reading and writing in both languages.  Being at a “certain age,” while some people are thinking of planning on retiring, I’m excited and feel renewed at the opportunity of a new career!


Paulina Ponsford was born in Chile and has lived most of her adult life in Canada.  She worked as an Accountant for thirty years in the Oil and Gas industry in Calgary.  At the same time, she always wanted to connect with people at a different level and for this reason, she became a volunteer Fitness Instructor and later on a Certified Facilitator in the area of human interaction.  Paulina is now preparing to become a Translator and Interpreter in the languages of English and Spanish.  Paulina also loves to travel and embraces what different cultures have to offer.  She is also an avid reader and some of her favorite authors are Paulo Coelho, Khaled Hosseini, Mark Mustian, and Isabel Allende.  If you would like to know more about Paulina, check out her blog at where she shares some of her thoughts, insights, and experiences.