For most of its history, translation, and interpretation, like many other professions, have been male-dominated. Female translators and interpreters haven’t always had the same opportunities or been considered as seriously as their male colleagues.
That isn’t to say they lacked ability or talent. Even when women were prohibited from pursuing education and employment, many persevered and used their language abilities to build a name for themselves as translators and interpreters.
Let’s take a look at two notable women from our history and one from today.
Interpreters are typically relegated to background characters in history if they’re recognized at all. And unfortunately, female interpreters, like linguists from other marginalized groups, were even more likely to be overlooked. Yet they’ve always played an essential role in the conversations that shape our world. So, we’re celebrating the women who have bridged language gaps and worked to improve intercultural understandings across time and geography.
La Malinche – She is considered one of the first interpreters: La Malinche, also known as doña Marina. Malinche worked alongside Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés from 1519 to 1526 as Cortés traveled across Mexico. Though hundreds of languages were spoken in Mesoamerica at this time, Cortés understood only Spanish. Malinche, offered as a slave to Cortés by a Mayan lord, quickly became one of his most important allies; she could translate, negotiate, and mediate between the conquistadors and the indigenous peoples. Sadly, Malinche died around 1527, but numerous descriptions of her great skill and beauty appear in accounts of various conquistadors. However, Cortés, who was the most indebted to her, mentioned her only twice in his letters to the King of Spain.
Sarah Winnemucca – Another famous female interpreter and advocate for Native American rights is Sarah Winnemucca, born Thoc-me-tony to the Paiute tribe in Nevada. Having developed language skills in her youth in a Roman Catholic school, Winnemucca acted as an intermediary between the American military and the Paiutes for years. After the end of the Bannock war, she began to advocate against the mistreatment of Native Americans, and eventually became one of the most significant activists for Native American rights in the 19th century. Winnemucca also published an autobiography regarding her personal accounts of relations between whites and Paiutes. Later in her life, she worked at a school in Nevada, teaching children to maintain their Native American heritage along with learning the language and culture of the whites, until her death in 1891.
A lot has changed since then and these days language industry has a higher representation of women than men. Oh, how the tables have turned! Here is a very recent example of an inspiring female interpreter.
Lydia Callis –Lydia Callis received an outpouring of positive attention when she signed alongside New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during his discussion of Hurricane Sandy in a 2012 press conference. Despite the grave subject matter at hand, Callis’s emotive interpreting was praised as being a beacon of positivity for struggling citizens. By the end of the press conference, Callis’s lively, animated signing drew more attention than Bloomberg’s own speech, and she quickly gained a fan base overnight. Callis used her newfound exposure to bring greater awareness to the Deaf community and continues to encourage businesses to become more “deaf-friendly” for hearing-impaired customers.
Are there any other female interpreters, translators, or linguists you’d like to celebrate?
Give them a shout-out in the comments!
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