Women in interpreting

Women’s History Month: Celebrating Women in Interpreting in US History

Women are the backbone of the language interpretation field. In the U.S. alone, women make up 59% of medical interpreters and 68% of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. Similar gender imbalances appear among conferences interpreters in Western Europe, leading some to consider it a “female” profession. Meanwhile more women than ever are becoming interpreters in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.

Theories as to why more women than men enter the field are hotly debated—from women being natural communicators to education systems steering girls toward language arts. (The podcast Troublesome Terps tackles these topics and more in a two-part series.) Yet the history of women in interpreting goes much further back than you may think. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting the contributions of three female interpreters who have made U.S. history.

Sacagawea (1788 – 1812 or 1884; varying accounts of the trailblazer’s death exist)

Born in modern-day North Dakota, Sacagawea played an essential role in the exploration of the American West. She joined the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804 at age 16, and served as the group’s primary guide and interpreter. A member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, she spoke Hidatsa (her native language) and Shoshone. With the help of her French-Canadian husband Toussaint Charbonneau, she established an interpretation chain between English, French, and multiple indigenous languages.

Sarah Winnemucca (1844 –1891)

Interpreter and Native American rights activist Sarah Winnemucca was born Thoc-me-tony to the Paiute tribe in Nevada. By the age of 14, she spoke five languages—three indigenous dialects, English, and Spanish. She served as an interpreter for U.S. troops during the Bannock War of 1878, and as an intermediary between the military and the Paiutes for years. Winnemucca later became one of the most prominent Native American activists in the 19th century.

Lydia Callis (1982 – present)

The child of hearing parents, Lydia Callis, who was born deaf, has dedicated her life to bridging the gap between the deaf and hearing communities. She came to prominence in 2012 when she signed alongside New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during Hurricane Sandy. Praised for her animated signing, she drew more attention than Bloomberg himself. Her signing was so memorable that she was impersonated on the sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live. Callis has since used her fame to bring awareness to the Deaf Community, and encourages businesses to become more “deaf-friendly”.

Are there any other female interpreters you’d like to celebrate? Let us know in the comments!

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