A TWB Community blog post by Maria Scheibengraf
Several authors have studied the dynamics of language and gender, highlighting how society has long perceived translation as a “feminine” activity. This idea is rooted in centuries-old stereotypes: Society has long seen translation as a secondary and derivative activity – unlike the “creative” arts such as literature and poetry. So women undertaking such “lesser” tasks in the shadows was nothing more than a common expectation.
In other words, “Originality, creativity and authority, depicted ’masculine,’ had patriarchal authority empowering them to relegate whatever was female to secondary roles.” (Abdelgawad, 2016). The advice “Good translators are like ninjas – if you notice them, they’re no good” is no accident. I think the underlying message that nobody dares to say out loud is that women should not steal the spotlight from the men authors, deemed to be the real creative geniuses.
In this article, I want to talk about how my experience with leading a translation services company has allowed me to defy traditional gender roles and expectations. My business, which is woman-led and staffed by women, offers translation services for traditionally men-dominated fields such as software, marketing, and SEO (search engine optimization). I’ll start with some personal views about translation, inequality, and the need for empowered women in our industry. Learn more at crisoltranslations.com
Structural inequality is at the root of our industry’s gender divide
The unconscious perception of translation as something “inferior” isn’t the only factor standing in the way of a more equitable gender distribution in the industry.
There are also structural and economic aspects to consider, such as translation work being more suitable for independent contractors than other activities – it’s easier for women to juggle their family life and professional commitments by working as translators.
Because, let’s face it: Women often take the lead in family-related matters, while their men counterparts usually focus on their careers. In Argentina, for example, the distribution of unpaid work in a heterosexual couple is still largely unequal, with women spending up to 6.5 hours a day on housework and caregiving vs men’s 3 hours.
Women choosing translation because of its flexible work hours isn’t an intrinsically bad thing – with freelancing and entrepreneurship comes the potential for higher earnings, which means it’s easier to shatter the glass ceiling. The problem lies in the deeper inequalities that prevent women from finding the time, energy, and resources to make their businesses succeed. How can one possibly balance parenting, running a household, and the pursuit of an entrepreneurial venture without falling into an even deeper pit of exhaustion?
The result is that the vast majority of women translators end up stuck in a cycle of low-paying (don’t get me started on bottom-feeding translation agencies), sporadic gigs, and unable to move forward in their careers. And those few men that do choose the translation industry? They are the ones who can access better-paid and more secure positions. You’ll find them in privileged positions such as managerial roles, executive-level collaborations, speaking engagements, and other high-status opportunities.
Something doesn’t add up
I’ve always thought: if translation is indeed a women-dominated field, then why do so many high-prestige opportunities – translating best-selling books, interpreting at televised events, etc. – seem to skew heavily toward men, featuring a disproportionately low number of women translators? Either there’s a genetic prerogative (which is obviously impossible), or there’s a significant amount of discrimination against women.
My theory is that, when it comes to prestige and visibility, the best opportunities are usually reserved for those who already have the most privileges – men, white people, etc. Put differently: Even if there are no (direct) barriers to accessing translation work, the best opportunities are likely to go to those who already enjoy a certain degree of material and social privilege. Once again, I’m talking about structural inequalities.
All-permeating discrimination, gender and otherwise
One would think that the 21st century would be the age of equality. But, sadly, this is far from being true in many parts of the world – and in our industry too.
About six months ago, I was shocked to find that a renowned industry magazine had launched a nomination for a so-called “Sexiest in localization” award. Granted, they took the precaution to speak of “people” and not “women”, but I found it outrageous that 2022 could still be the year of making people’s looks a factor for recognition. In an industry where the majority of them are women. And despite the magazine saying that by “sexy” they meant “skill, confidence, and intellect” (what?!).
I’m focusing on gender in this article because it’s Women’s History Month. But if we’re to talk about gender inequalities in the translation industry, we must recognize that other forms of discrimination – such as racism and xenophobia – are also rampant.
See Sarah’s post below for another example – how did no one realize that an Asian SEO conference with no Asian experts (international SEO and SEO translation are fields within the translation industry) was just wrong?
My experience as the co-founder of a women-led translation company
Back in 2011, when I started freelancing as a translator, I was already aware of the gender disparities in the field. But then again, I’ve always been overly conscious of any kind of inequality.
I’m autistic, you see (apparently we come with superpowers, one of which is sensitivity to injustice). I guess that also places me at the intersection of two discriminated groups, neurodivergent people and women. I could add that I grew up in an underdeveloped economy where translators receive peanuts for their work.
The stubborn feminist I am, and fuelled by my desire to make the translation industry a better place for all of us, I dreamt of founding a business that would thrive while giving ethics and fair pay the priority they deserve. A sort of “if you can’t find the example, be the example” manifesto, if you will.
That’s how I became the co-founder of a women-led translation company in 2016, together with my three best friends from uni. We proudly run a business that’s built on three pillars: fairness, inclusivity, and camaraderie.
I won’t lie and say it was all easy. It wasn’t. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to battle mansplaining, unwanted comments about my looks, a skeptical attitude towards women in business, xenophobic remarks, or the occasional negative comment about my autism.
The fact that we provide marketing translation and SEO translation services for a typically men-dominated field – software – didn’t exactly help pave the way for us either (SEO also features a higher proportion of men than women). Yet here we are, four women entrepreneurs, fighting the fight and striving to make our mark in a world where we often feel like we don’t belong.
The rewards of being part of a revolution
It may have been tough sometimes, but my business has achieved great things too: we operate ethically, we organize regular training sessions and events to promote career development opportunities for freelance translators, and we annoy at least three bigots a week on social media. Add a few public call-outs to exploitative agencies, and I think we can safely say that we’ve made an impact.
The best part, if you ask me, is the community of women entrepreneurs that we’ve been able to build – a wonderful group who support each other, celebrate each other’s successes, and act as a safe haven in an often hostile industry. A great example is that I asked one of them (María Leticia Cazeneuve, from Humane Language Services) to give this article a look and suggest ideas on how to make it better. On a Saturday. And she immediately said yes.
It can be done: we can create an open and inclusive translation industry for everyone. We just need to work together and keep fighting the good fight. This Women’s History Month, and every month, may all of us be inspired to push for change and make a difference.
About TWB and CLEAR Global
Translators without Borders (TWB) is a global community of over 100,000 language volunteer translators and language specialists offering language services to humanitarian and development organizations worldwide.
TWB is part of CLEAR Global, a US-based nonprofit that also comprises CLEAR Tech and CLEAR Insights. CLEAR Global helps people get vital information and be heard, whatever language they speak. We do this through research and scalable language technology solutions that improve two-way communication with communities that speak marginalized languages. Learn more about this important work at clearglobal.org
Follow us on social media:
Read more on women’s rights and equity this International Women’s Day
- Read our TWB Community stories of women’s empowerment and gender equality.
- Read Mariana’s blog, Stop labeling women as vulnerable.
Guest post written by Maria Scheibengraf, English to Spanish translator and TWB Community member.