Stuck in the middle

Working as an interpreter means being the gateway between two worlds of languages, the unifier of communication, the one who makes communication happen smoothly. But sometimes the two worlds are masculine, and the person stuck in the middle is female, which in the case of my company happens quite frequently.

I’ve specialized in the nuclear power industry for almost 20 years, both as an interpreter and also as the CEO of my interpreting and translation company. The nuclear power industry is just as male dominated now as it was when I began, and for some reason, typical for our business, most of my translators and interpreters are female. In fact, recent industry numbers suggest that as many as 85% of translators and interpreters are women. Although this number is hard to verify for all language and interpreting companies, it is reflected in our company. 

Being able to interpret accurately at speed can create a stressful job no matter what the circumstance. In some cases, that stress can be heightened by gender imbalances, but this imbalance is not something that should stop female interpreters from going into the job. Rather, they should be aware of the extra demands, and they should know how best to deal with them.

Most typically male-dominated industries are on-site manual jobs (welders, carpenters, construction workers), where communication rarely requires anything other than pointing out that this blunt poundy thing is called “a hammer.” Jokes aside, the power industry combines technical subject matter with high-level decision making, both more traditionally masculine callings, particularly in certain countries. There is a lot at stake in the nuclear power industry; political decisions at the highest level have been made; the projects of expanding or building a new plant are decade-long in planning; the amount of money and power involved is phenomenal. The majority of these decisions have been made by men.

 And then there’s a “lady” joining the group. At this point, the men present may be expecting a secretary, waitress or someone’s personal assistant, not a professional interpreter with years of experience and in-depth knowledge of the industry in which she is working. The first thing that happens in a situation like this is initial shock or at least surprise. Not so much for the interpreter. She’s done her research, she knows who will be there, and she is fully aware of being outnumbered. If it were just a matter of surprise, there would be nothing to talk about. The problem is that the surprise or expectation that the woman is not bringing coffee is followed by the idea that she should be bringing coffee, and the unspoken question: “Can she do the job?” A female interpreter has to let the clients know that although they might be experts in their own field, she has the skills to communicate that expertise into several other languages.

If I have an interpreter in a medical or legal situation where the gender distribution is more even and an interpreter slips up, the mistake is one of professionalism. The interpreter made a slight mistake, no problem. Should the same slip happen in a male-dominated situation, the focus on the mistake can quickly become the gender of the interpreter, not the mistake itself. Knowing this before an interpreting job can create a certain amount of extra stress, but it’s important that the interpreter knows what to expect. Take control; show that you are there to make it possible for them to be professionals together. Show them that you are a professional as well and that you deserve the same level of respect.

Once I was interpreting in a discussion with around 20 men, representing the whole chain of investors, suppliers and sub-contractors of various nationalities. This was the final phase of a nuclear power plant completion with plenty at stake, debating critical issues, technical solutions and cost recovery.

The profanities were flying, and as interpreting is done in the “I” form, it was important to convey the same sentiment. In these situations it’s important not to be tempted to soften a discussion. Although the saying “it’s a man’s world” is a well-worn cliché, there is something to the idea: If they wish to behave like little boys, it’s not your job as an interpreter to make them any better than they are. Add into this the technical environment — the level of detail can be excruciating for a nontechnical person.

Hence, perhaps the most important piece of advice here is to be patient.