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A woman’s place

By Judith Woodsworth

At a time when women did not enjoy the freedom to write original work, they turned to translation to exercise their creativity. Even so, their work was not always recognized. One notable exception was Anne Le Fèvre Dacier (1654–1720), the French woman for whom the term traductrice was coined. She was so accomplished that her translations of the Iliad and Odyssey were reissued twenty-six times and they remained the authoritative French versions well into the twentieth century.1

Women translators have distinguished themselves at different times, in different traditions, and have stood out, notably, right here in Canada. The grande dame of literary translation, Sheila Fischman, has been highly acclaimed for having introduced the literature of French Canada to her English-speaking compatriots through an astonishing output of over 150 translations. And our very own feminist translators and translation theorists have earned the title, internationally, as the “Canadian School.”

Female representation at university

The presence, and even overrepresentation of women, across the translation profession, is obvious. Can we say that women have taken over? Do they hold the reins of power? Has anyone heard the glass ceiling crack? Is this an arena in which we no longer need to fight for our rights? In other words, can we relax, enjoy what we have accomplished and turn our attention to other things now?

For some years now, women students have made up over half the student population in university programs generally, including once male-dominated professions such as law and medicine. The current breakdown at Concordia University, for example, is 52% women, 48% men, across all programs. The proportions change significantly if we look at the humanities, of which translation is a part: 62% women, 38% men. And based on a rough calculation of students enrolled in translation courses, it is estimated that 80% are women and 20% men.2

When considering other aspects of university life, for example, translation as an academic career, women represent the same proportion of the students. However, in some other disciplines, while there is a solid representation of women at the undergraduate level, the proportion is reversed in graduate programs. Women are also underrepresented among professors, especially in the more senior ranks, such as full professor. Surveying the gender breakdown of university administrators – from deans, to vice-presidents and, in particular, to university presidents –the higher up the ladder, the scarcer the women.  

A brighter picture, but…

In the field of translation, in recent decades in any case, the picture is brighter. At department meetings, women are most definitely in the majority. They have long occupied the role of director of translation programs, departments or schools across Canada, have headed up both academic and professional organizations, and been editors of academic journals at home and abroad.

When considering the extensive body of knowledge on translation, the authors who jump out are famous men: St. Jerome, Walter Benjamin, Roman Jakobson, for example. The names of twentieth-century figures such as the late Antoine Berman, André Lefevere and Gideon Toury come to mind, along with more contemporary “stars” like Lawrence Venuti, Anthony Pym, and Michael Cronin. And yet, women also publish textbooks and fill the lecture halls. Think of prominent translation theorists in North America, Europe and further afield, who are increasingly productive and well-known: Maria Tymoczko, Emily Apter, Annie Brisset, Sherry Simon, Susan Bassnett, Mary Snell-Hornby, Mona Baker, Gisèle Sapiro, Christina Schäffner, Martha Cheung … and the list goes on. A systematic examination of articles published in journals, of entries in recent encyclopedias, of titles in series such as Benjamins Translation Library, as Schäffner has done, shows that women are now surpassing men.3

If there is one downside to this rather rosy picture of the place of women in the translation profession, it lies within the structure of the profession itself and the trend toward what could be called the “uberization” of translation. Not long ago, a senior executive of a translation organization publicly opined that translation was a good business for a woman to go into because she could stay at home, with the kids, bid on contracts when she liked, and do translation on her own time and in her home office. Doesn't that sound like the piecework women once did for appallingly low rates of pay? Of course it does! And therein lies the rub. Like Uber drivers, home-based, self-styled translators could simply set up shop, potentially lowering what today are exceptionally high professional standards. 

Today, women make up the majority of professional translators. They are actively producing an impressive number of scholarly publications and taking on leadership roles in academic and professional organizations. But we women cannot rest on our laurels: we must continue to monitor the question with vigilance, and pursue matters of gender with greater rigour, nuance and sensitivity. Indeed, there's still much work to be done to attain true equality. 

1 Jean Delisle & Judith Woodsworth, Translators through History, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2012, p. 145.

2 Leaving aside people whose gender is neither male nor female and who self-identify as such, using among others the term “non-binary.” This is a topic that certainly merits further discussion in the context of translation theory and practice.  

3 Christina Schäffner, “Women as translators, as translation trainers, and as translation scholars.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 2013, 40, pp. 144-151.

Judith Woodsworth is Professor of translation and translation studies in the French Studies Department at Concordia University. She was a professional translator at the Federal Translation Bureau before joining Concordia, and she has since translated two novels, Still Lives by Pierre Nepveu and Hutchison Street by Abla Farhoud. She was founding president of the Canadian Association for Translation Studies, of which she is currently an honorary member.

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