By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator
In today’s world, women play a substantial role in the language industry. In the U.S., over 60 per cent of translators are women. Women also make up the majority, up to 67.5% jobs of freelance translators. Considering women occupy only less than half of the workforce, this percentage is actually quite remarkable and labels translation as one of the professions where women are not only welcomed but also can truly hold power and dominance.
It hasn’t always been this way. Formal education and the right to publish one’s work have long been predominantly (if not exclusively) a men’s privilege in history, let alone to read and write in a foreign language. In 18th century Britain, translations for women were only limited to “ephemeral texts” such as novels, biographies, conduct literature, instructive manuals or travel accounts. Some educated women who had the financial power and resources to do translation work would instead hire male writers, direct their work and hide behind those male names. Given the societal emphasis on female modesty, self-expression and aspirations for fame were certainly disapproved. Financial difficulty once seemed to be the most acceptable reason for any women to seek translation as a profession. It was until the 20th century, when large groups of women started joining the workforce, the imbalance between male and female translators began to shift.
Women in Translation
Despite the challenges, history records instances of women who embraced translation, leaving an indelible mark on the language industry:
Catherine Parr was Henry VIII’s sixth wife and the first woman in English history to publish a book under her own name. She garnered recognition for translating religious texts from French, Latin, Italian and Spanish to English. The Tudor era’s complex interplay between England, the Church, and faith prompted Parr to wield her translation work as a means to influence public perceptions of religion and monarchy. Her works included Psalms or Prayers, Prayers or Meditations and The Lamentation of a Sinner.
Elizabeth Carter was a polyglot in the 1700s who was able to speak Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic. Since young age, she was encouraged towards the fields of language-learning and literature by her father, and formed a social circle with both male and female writers. She published her first translation works in her early 20s, and began pursuing translation as her career and published her most famous work, All the Works of Epictetus, in 1758. Widely recognized as “one of the most acclaimed and learned women of this historical period,” Carter’s fame and social standing made her a proto-feminist symbol in subsequent scholarship.
Constance Garnett, who speaks Latin, Greek and Russian, is best known for her translation of Russian novels by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. She started learning Russian at the age of 30, and published her first translation work A Common Story and The Kingdom of God is Within You only three years later. During her professional path, she translated 71 volumes of Russian literature. It’s fair to say that it was her work that shaped the concept and understanding of Russia to readers in the English-speaking world.
Why Female Translators
Why, one may ask, do the translators’ gender matter, other than for the simple and obvious reason of representation? The first answer is that women are naturally masters of language. Statistically speaking, women are more descriptive and obtain a larger vocabulary when it comes to colours, and are more proficient at using elaborate colour names regardless of what they do for hobbies. Women are also more familiar with expressions describing emotions and feelings, and more easily resonate with fictional depiction of emotions (e.g. films); All of which make women the perfect candidate for translating novels, movies, plays and more.
Another reason is that book shapes our world view, and our only window to books written in foreign languages that we don’t speak is through translated copies. Therefore, a female perspective, which has long been lost in history, might bring into vision what has been neglected, whether due to the selection of texts being translated or the style of writing in the translation. With more women in the translation industry, more foreign female writers will receive the attention and reputation they deserve; and a female approach to classic literature traditionally only translated by men can also pick up hints and details that the predecessors could not see due to their gender role and social status.
In the past century, the translation industry has witnessed women’s rights movements and experienced the shift in women’s participation in the industry. Currently, 60 per cent of the translators working at MCIS are women. From heroines behind the scene to the main force driving the steering wheel, female translators have presented the kind of power and influence women are capable of when society allows their voices to be heard. These voices should be brought more, not limited to the language industry, but also in the fields of science, mathematics, medicine, engineering, and so forth.
To learn more about MCIS’ translation services, click here
To become a professional translator, click here