Who make better translators, men or women?

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The issue of male versus female performance in translation and interpreting work is one that rarely comes up, but it is one where project managers may be surprisingly opinionated.

The question of whether women or men make better translators or interpreters is not one that is frequently asked. Perhaps this is because a career in translating or in interpreting, unlike many other careers, is not one where either males or females have an obvious advantage. That is to say, unlike trading or senior management, there is no ‘glass ceiling’ to be broken. Freelance translators can work from the comfort of their own home, and their client or contractor may not even be aware of their gender.

Similarly interpreters may not often have face-to-face contact with their contractor, and even when they are working directly for a client their role requires them to be neutral and impartial. Gender does not usually enter the equation, except in sensitive situations such as the interviewing of rape victims, or in situations where gender politics are being discussed.

I once worked as a volunteer interpreter in a feminist forum where no male interpreters were allowed, for example. Overall, however, the languages services industry is generally perceived as an industry where the quality of the written and spoken word, as well as speed and efficiency, are the primary goals, and where gender discrimination issues are noticeable only by their absence.

Ask language service project managers what they think about the question of male and female performance in translation and interpreting, however, and you might find them to be surprisingly opinionated. A quick survey among Rosetta’s project managers showed them to be of the opinion that male translators tend to be the best in terms of handling complex material and delivering idiomatic and well-presented translations. This does not go to say that Rosetta Translation does not have some extremely competent female translators. In fact a quick statistical survey of our preferred translators revealed that 55% of them were female and 45% male. When our project managers were quizzed on why they had the impression that male translators performed better faced with more challenging translation work, they gave a variety of responses. These were the following:

-male translators take feedback better as they tend to be less emotional and defensive than female translators

-male translators are better at formatting, especially when this becomes more technical

-male translators are better at ensuring consistency and accuracy in long documents as they are more pragmatic

On the other hand, our project managers were generally of the opinion that women made better interpreters than men. This assessment may not be entirely objective given that 81% of Rosetta’s interpreters are women and only 19% are men. When our project managers were asked why they had the impression that women were more suited to a career in interpreting than men, the reasons offered were that:

- interpreting (especially public service and liaison interpreting) requires good interpersonal skills. As women tend to be better at picking up on emotional cues than men then they may be better at dealing with tense and sensitive situations as interpreters

-interpreting involves a considerable amount of multi-tasking, which women are famously good at. This said, simultaneous interpreting requires the brain to be ‘re-wired’ in a certain sense, which in itself requires considerable training and practice, and therefore it may be that both male and female students face more or less the same challenges in this area.

Another point that came of the discussion was that interpreters working in high-profile political interpreting (especially for the European Union, for example), often tended to be men, and the supposition given for this was that men tend to be more salary-focused and more ambitious in terms of their career development. However it would be interesting to see statistics for the percentage of men and women working in the lucrative field of conference interpreting, for example. Given that men are perhaps more salary-focused, they may also be less likely to want to work for agencies, preferring to work only with direct clients.

The question of gender in the fields of translation and interpreting is certainly an interesting one, as it appears that freelance work may allow men and women to work in a professional environment that is freer from gender discrimination, in terms of remuneration for example. However it appears that gender characteristics, whether innate or resulting from social conditioning (which is another issue in itself), may have an effect on aspects of translation performance in general, though of course individual performance is still very much dependent on individual qualities, regardless of gender.

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