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Speaking the language of International Women’s Day

By Lara Bushell, director & MC member, Conference Interpreters UK (CIUK)

As we mark International Women’s Day, there is at least one branch of industry where everything is hunky-dory on the equality side. This remarkable exception is called ‘conference interpreting’. Indeed, to paraphrase George Orwell, in our farmyard women are more equal than others. We are in overwhelming majority here.

It certainly did not begin that way. “If any man speak in an unknown tongue let it be by two, or at most by three … and let one interpret”, St Paul ordered in his first Letter to the Corinthians (14:27). It would take the wildest of imaginations to see a woman involved in that scenario. You can find many other fascinating facts on the subject in Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation.

Simultaneous interpretation was first used in Moscow, at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern. No information on the gender mix among the first simultaneous interpreters is publicly available but the organiser and chef d’équipe was a Finnish man who could, allegedly, speak more than half a dozen languages.

If you study the pictures, Nuremberg Trials appear to have started the trend that snowballed into the current situation. One of them shows five women, wearing headphones, stand up in the interpreters’ enclosure alongside seven men.

And here we are. The ratio of female to male interpreters worldwide today is about 3 to 1. In the UK, among the 129 active members of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), men can comfortably be counted on the fingers of two hands, i.e. account for less than 8%. While at Conference Interpreters UK (CIUK), the male contingent is down to 3%!

Do we see a cause for celebration herein, you may wonder, surely there are quite a few other female-dominated professions? Absolutely. Three, and more, heartfelt cheers to all of them!

However, according to the data published in Business Insider UK, interpretation is not one of the 20 “pink-coloured jobs”, as economists have nicknamed occupations where women constitute a majority and which men shun unable to face the social stigma associated with ‘women’s work’.

An article published by Mosaic and reproduced on the BBC website opens with: “The world’s most powerful computers can’t perform accurate real-time interpreting of one language to another. Yet human interpreters do it with ease. Geoff Watts meets the neuroscientists who are starting to explain this remarkable ability.” The journalist sat with interpreters in their booths at a UN session where he “watched something both absolutely remarkable and utterly routine”, then talked to some of our colleagues. “Executing it required versatility and nuance beyond the reach of most powerful computers. It is a wonder that her brain, indeed any human brain, can do it at all,” he gushed.

The three interpreters who inspired the journalist’s article are AIIC, naturally, since the UN demands the best and there is a long-standing UN/AIIC Agreement. Two of the three are also members of Conference Interpreters UK.

Connoisseurs compare the degree of concentration required from conference interpreters, as well as the adrenaline level reached by them while performing in the booth, to those of neurosurgeons during operations and fighter jet pilots in the air.

The German Auswaertiges Amt, Foreign Office, apparently, carried out physiological stress testing on all its employees. The results showed their interpreters had stress levels similar to air force pilots in the air. The interpreters’ insurance was subsequently upped.

According to rough estimates, 19 of 20 neurosurgeons are men and the military jet cockpit is likely – no relevant data yet - to be at least as male dominated.

Why then does conference interpretation, a métier no less demanding psychologically and sociologically (factor in the jetting round the world and all too frequent absences from home of an AIIC interpreter), so blatantly favour us women?

Loath to bore you with my own homegrown theories, I would like to refer you, once again, to Geoff Watts’s insights. Talking about what distinguishes professional simultaneous interpreters from the average mortal, he notes that “they are good at ignoring themselves, for example”.

Wouldn’t you say that women are generally better at that, for example?..

Anyway, it is hardly worth splitting hairs over why today. Women have, spectacularly, prevailed on the conference interpretation patch. And that’s that.

To all my amazing colleagues,

Happy Women’s Day!

Felice Giorno delle Donne!

Alles Gute zum Tag der Frauen!

Bonne Journée de la Femme!

С Международным женским днём вас!

szczęśliwy Dzień Kobiet!

Feliz Dia Da Mulher!

وم المرأة العالمي!

Glad kvinnors dag!

mahila divas kee shubhakaamanae!

yeoseong-ui nal-eul chugha haeyo!

Feliz Día de la Mujer!

Поздравляю с восьмым марта!

vanitā dinattinṟe santēāṣaṁ!

Mahileyara Dinada Shubhashayagalu!

Mahiḷa dinōtsava śubhākāṅkṣalu!

Khuśa mahilā divasa!

Śubha nārī dibasa!

یوم خواتین مبارک!


روز زن مبارک!

Kadınlar günün kutlu olsun!

Ευτυχισμένη η ημέρα της γυναίκας!

Kokusai josei day!