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Women and the Language Industry

A 35-year oral history

By Inger Larsen, Silvia Benassi, and Nancy Pollini

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o one knows history like the people who experienced it, and that applies to localization, too. Industry veterans Inger Larsen, Silvia Benassi, and Nancy Pollini all witnessed the massive expansion of language work alongside globalization and advancements in computer technology. Despite walking professional journeys as unique as themselves, they experienced similar challenges and triumphs along the way, many directly tied to their gender. These are their stories, told in their own words.

Inger: When I told my parents that I wanted to study technical translations at the University of Agder in Kristiansand in Norway, they thought I was crazy. Besides maybe working in the oil industry, what sort of future would I have? Translating books and other texts?

Well, in my third year of studying, I did exactly that. My client was a large publishing house and sent me books about programming languages to translate. It was tough, as Norwegians had no established computer or software terminology. I went around the few computing shops in Kristiansand and asked the staff what they called things and how computers worked. I soon realized that I needed to get myself a computer, as well. It was an Osborne Junior with a small screen and floppy disks, and I was the first in my class to use a computer for translations.

I got other clients too, and with a couple of my classmates, we translated software strings and computer manuals. We worked for IBM in Oslo full-time, translating strings and manuals for massive mainframe computers. We learned a coding system for document formatting, which could best be described as an early version of HTML. It wasn’t all plain sailing. When I arrived at the IBM lab in Dallas to test the compiled software, I discovered that the Norwegian characters æ, ø, and å had been interpreted as end-of-line characters. This was not unusual back then across many non-English languages. However, this was really well-paid work; we got the same rate as other IBM consultants.

Fast forward to early 1991, when I got a project/program manager job at Microsoft’s localization department in Dublin. This was the first time I had ever heard the term localization. These were exciting times when we took the products into Russia and Eastern Europe for the first time. In Russia, our vendor had built their own personal computers. Specialist localization vendors were hard to come by, and to reach one in the Czech Republic, our engineer traveled for hours by plane, train, and taxi up a snowy mountain to reach them in a remote village.

One of the greatest things about Microsoft was that innovation was expected and valued. We got time off to work in groups on initiatives like computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools, semi-automated project management tools, and process improvement.

Nancy: After graduating with a master’s degree in linguistics in 1989, I was teaching English as a foreign language and doing some freelance translation before I got my first full-time position at a translation company: ALPNET, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

I had flirted with the idea of a career in graphic design in my early days at university before finally settling on languages and linguistics. Interestingly, this served as an unexpected asset. ALPNET needed someone who had both a basic knowledge of layout and enough linguistic awareness to cope with issues like text expansion, truncation, and those pesky foreign characters, so I was hired as a desktop publisher (DTP-er). Everything was still very old-school for us, too, back then. We didn’t have Osborne Juniors like Inger, but we had those tiny first-generation Macs. Imagine having to do the layout of an entire manual in Microsoft Word on a screen the size of a large postage stamp!

We eventually graduated to bigger computers and more sophisticated programs like Ventura Publisher and PageMaker. Still, even then, our final deliverables went by snail mail on floppy disks accompanied by entire forests of hard-copy printouts. Accounting for at least three days of shipping in project schedules was standard. Even electronic file transfers took forever with the very noisy dial-up modems. CAT was in its infancy too. We used TSS, a pioneering precursor to Trados, kept under lock and key at ALPNET on those infamous five-inch floppies.

From DTP, I went into project management, which led to a dream job at Novell, which was at the time a very large and successful software company. It was the early ’90s, and I was hired to help manage the first user interface (UI) localization of their flagship product, NetWare, into French, Italian, German, and Spanish (FIGS). I was eventually promoted to localization manager, overseeing a team of 30 in-house reviewers, vendor managers, and project managers covering Novell’s 10 core languages. This was truly one of the best jobs I ever had. I had a brilliant manager and mentor, José de Hoyos; I worked with an incredible multilingual/multicultural team full of clever and talented people (including Silvia!); and I got to travel the world and make long-lasting friendships and connections. It’s where I met my husband! So, it really did change my life, both personally and professionally.

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Silvia: My first step into localization happened in the early ’90s when I was asked to help update the WordPerfect Suite because the original translator had to leave for a family emergency. At the time, I was a researcher in industrial economics at the Bocconi University in Milan, and all the translation I had done was what was needed for my papers and research. So, this was something completely new for me. Nevertheless, I found myself immediately at ease performing that kind of detail-oriented work, and I was fascinated by the subject.

The following year, after I permanently moved to the US, I made a concerted effort to find translation jobs in economics because of my educational background and experience. But the more I tried to carve a niche for myself as an “economic translator,” the more requests I received for technical translations. It seems I was destined for localization!

I started collaborating with ALPNET, where Nancy worked as a project manager and where I had the privilege of using one of the first CAT tools. After a year, I joined the localization department at Novell as an Italian translator and then supervisor over several languages, having Nancy as my manager. I cheer the years I spent at Novell working with an amazing group of professionals in an environment that promoted collaboration. I had continuous learning opportunities on products, programming languages, and other technologies, and I was immersed in a company culture where I felt valued as a worker and woman. It was a wonderful journey!

Upon leaving Novell in early 2000, I became a full-time freelance technical translator. The valuable experience I gained as a freelancer first and then as an in-house translator at Novell allowed me to establish long-lasting collaborations with many clients in the tech industry — and continue my localization journey until today.

Inger: So, when you reflect on your start, what are some things you feel have changed the most for women in the field?

Nancy: Well, when I think back to my time at Novell in particular, I think one of the most striking changes I have seen has been the increase of women in more technical roles in the industry. Our localization department had two main teams: (1) the reviewers and vendor managers (my team) and (2) the localization engineers and testers. My team was mixed but predominantly women, from linguistic and translation backgrounds. The localization testing and engineering team was all guys. This was normal in those days, but if I contrast it with what I see now in my current job at Acolad, the contrast is striking. A third of full-time employees in tech roles at Acolad are women in all areas, from engineering and IT to programmers working on CAT, machine translation (MT), and artificial intelligence (AI) development. This is remarkable and speaks volumes about the evolving opportunities for women in our field.

Silvia: I agree! I have also seen an increasing number of women in the tech industry working in capacities traditionally associated with men. Although I am not necessarily in a tech role, this change has directly impacted my working life. Discussing a bug or a test case with a woman engineer while working on-site with a client is not only somehow refreshing, but I think having more women in these roles has also helped to foster a more respectful work environment for me as a freelancer and for women in our industry in general.

Inger: What do you think is the reason for the change?

NANCY: It’s likely a mix of factors. I think younger generations of women have had more encouragement to explore tech as a career option. Also, I think many translators, once in the business, are choosing to upskill or re-train in new tech areas like CAT, MT, and AI. Women have felt empowered and enabled to do this within our female-dominated industry. And it’s had a knock-on effect. When I was at school and starting out in my career, there weren’t many role models for women in tech, but now they’re everywhere! I think this visibility plays a huge role in the exponential growth we’ve seen.

Silvia: Yes, good role models have had an impact, not only in this respect but also on the general workplace culture for women. I’ve witnessed some positive changes over the course of my career. I feel that today I’m light-years away from the early 1990s, when I had been occasionally on the receiving end of being condescended to or undervalued because of my gender. In 2024, I am now interfacing with new generations of colleague translators, project managers, administrators, owners, and people at all levels who are extremely professional and seem naturally less gender-biased. I cherish this new era of open-mindedness and respect. And I believe this is better for all freelancers or localization professionals of any gender.

Silvia: And you, Inger, what is the biggest change you have seen influencing women in our industry?

Inger: Well, it has to be the rise of flexible working. One of the main reasons why I set up my recruitment company was that I could work from home around my three young children’s childcare and school hours (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), their medical appointments, sick days, and endless school holidays. Also, I didn’t have to do a three-hour commute most days. And I really missed spending more time with my children.

Back in 2018, for our first event when I was the new chapter manager for Women in Localization UK, we focused on remote working. We surveyed our local members, and here are the top four responses regarding what they enjoy about working remotely: fewer distractions/better time management (67%), avoiding long commutes (66%), being more productive (60%), and having more time with family (57%).

Yet the survey also revealed that employers were not as keen on remote workers as the employees, sometimes only granting this as a favor to some or in emergency situations. Or if you were a parent, but not to those who weren’t.

Fast forward to the pandemic, and working from home and flexible working became necessary. It proved that adopting these practices was not only feasible, but also highly desirable even now that it is no longer a necessity. Many candidates, both men and women, list flexible working and/or working from home as a top priority in seeking a new position.

Left to right: Inger Larsen, Silvia Benassi, and Nancy Pollini

Nancy: I agree with the survey findings and, in my current position, enjoy the benefits of flexible working and working from home. I have been lucky to have had this benefit even before the pandemic, but not so early in my career. I wonder, if I had had the same choices that I do now, whether I would have made different decisions at certain points in my career.

Case in point: When I left Novell, I moved to the Netherlands to set up and run European operations for a Colorado-based language service provider (LSP) called ILE. After steering this ship through two acquisitions, I had twins, went on maternity leave, and subsequently decided to take a career break. I turned to freelancing, as many women do in our field. It allowed me to keep in touch with my profession yet have the freedom and flexibility to look after the kids. Once they started school, I felt ready to return to full-time employment. But a four-year career break meant I couldn’t easily slide back into a director-level role, nor did I necessarily want to, since my children were still young. I wanted a work-life balance that allowed me to continue to focus on them. So instead, I took a job as a project manager. It was lower in seniority and less responsibility than I had previously, but even this proved too inflexible. Working from home was still relatively unheard of, and flexible hours were not offered at this company. So, I left to take a part-time language teaching job at a local secondary school. It was not exactly what I wanted to do in my career, but it was more flexible and workable for my family.

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Another thing I find very encouraging about the current remote work revolution is that men also have more options for balancing work with family life. More paternity leave, the rise of flexible hours, and home working mean men are also able, and even encouraged, to play a more active role in family life. I think it also translates to a very positive development for women. Responsibility for children is less of a burden for women if men are encouraged and allowed to have a more active role. Career development can be shared equally within a partnership, regardless of gender.

Silvia: The topic of flexible working interests me as a freelancer. Many women turn to freelancing, as you both have done at various career stages because it offers flexibility when raising a family. As it is for many freelancers, I’ve had to juggle work and family duties by working very late at night, early in the morning, and on weekends to be available for my kids when needed. However, I’ve seen this wonderful flexibility slowly erode as the industry has evolved, with faster communication, follow-the-sun project management models, and increasingly shorter turnaround times. A client would contact me 34 years ago by (landline) phone, send me the brief by overnight (snail) mail, and — on those infamous floppy disks — the files to be translated along with a purchase order. 

A few years later, fax machines and the first modems would make this process faster. Then came the internet, e-mail, and super-fast broadband connections. As things started to move faster, deadlines got shorter. Now, 24/7 availability and instant communication are the norm. In 34 years, I have gone from working on projects scheduled months in advance and planning my personal life around them to being unable to take a lunch break without having an “emergency” pop up. This has resulted in lost flexibility, and my days are less predictable than they were in the past. My kids are grown now, but for many other freelancer colleagues, many of them women, I believe these changes have affected their freedom and ability to balance work and family.

Inger: We should talk about that big elephant in the room: pay! In the world, we know there are still serious discrepancies in pay between men and women in equal positions. Have you experienced this in our industry?

SILVIA: No, I have not perceived this as the case during my career. As a freelancer, my rates are contracted with each client, and the main factors driving them were and still are the rates offered by other translators, the rates that clients are willing and able to pay, and the quality and specialization of my work. What mostly affected my income over the years have been the macro trends in the market and the economy in general, the decline of prices due to a more globalized and interconnected market, and the rise of MT technology, which overall cannot necessarily be traced to gender-biased factors.

Nancy: Thankfully, I haven’t encountered overt pay discrimination in my career. As I mentioned before, in my case, accepting a lower-paying role after my maternity/career break was partly my choice and perhaps a hesitation to advocate for myself, often viewed as a typically female response. However, I believe I’ve received equal pay to my male counterparts in positions I’ve held. Our female-dominated field fosters this equality, though it’s not without challenges. As Silvia mentions, word rates for freelancers are constantly squeezed by technology and shrinking margins, and in-house salaries remain relatively low, except perhaps in client/buyer-side roles where salaries are aligned with the rest of the company. Compared to other industries, compensation for our skillset remains stagnant, which is a reality that I believe hasn’t changed since we first started in the field.

Silvia: Why is this, do you think?

Nancy: Could it be because the translation industry has always been female-dominated? There has always been a disproportionate number of women working as translators. Like nursing and teaching, is our industry undervalued because it has traditionally been filled with women? Can low rates for freelance translation perhaps even be traced back to women not feeling empowered to advocate for better compensation? I think this is probably one of the most challenging problems we face as an industry and one that won’t be solved easily.

INGER: Yes, even with all the progress women have made through new and better opportunities in tech, family-friendly working conditions, and changing attitudes around male/female roles, reversing years of undervaluing and underpaying for our skills and services would take a tectonic shift. And as we all know, AI is coming for us too! But let’s not be pessimistic. Maybe we can harness the power of AI to solve this problem and help elevate the value of our industry.

Nancy: Looking back on all the positive changes we’ve seen over the past 35 years has made me optimistic for the future. I hope my daughter and her cohort of women starting out in localization will continue to see progress, feel valued, and find as much fulfillment as we three have in this dynamic and fascinating field.

Silvia: Absolutely! We must continue advocating for ourselves, supporting each other, and embracing innovation. The future of localization is bright, and women will play a crucial role in shaping it. 

Inger Larsen is the founder of Larsen Globalization Recruitment, which has provided recruitment services to the localization industry worldwide since 2000. She’s worked in localization since 1983 as a freelance translator, in-house software localizer, project/account manager, and educator.

Silvia Benassi wields over 30 years of experience in the localization industry and has had a distinguished translation career. Possessing a versatile skillset, Silvia has thrived in both freelance and in-house environments, including with giants like Intel and Novell.

Nancy Pollini is a 35-year veteran with experience in freelance translating, desktop publishing, and project and department management. She has worked for business giants and large LSPs, now serving as director of business development for Acolad Life Sciences.

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