When I started to work as a conference interpreter in politics after graduating, I constantly was the youngest person in the room. This was less due to the fact that I was particularly young (I graduated at the age of 25), but much more because for everyone else who attended the meetings where I was asked to interpret, it had taken years to get to a position that allowed them to take part in these meeting. When interpreting bilateral meetings consecutively, I could see the question marks in the participants’ eyes, questioning my seat at the table. Once, I was even asked: „How old exactly are you?“ A question that I would have never dared to ask this (older and female) delegate. Why is it that some people display such arrogance in the face of young professionals?
The female aspect
During my studies, I had been warned that interpretations rendered in a high-pitched voice are less trustworthy to many listeners than words spoken in a lower voice. There had also been talks about the dress code for women and about how wearing a dress or skirt can have a different effect than wearing dress pants. Yet, I had not been confronted with the fact that at the beginning of your career, you are likely to be the youngest participant at the meeting and you might need to strike the fine balance between professional self-confidence and respectful reservation that come with both being a young professional as well as, at least I think so, being a woman.
The burden of age
At university, we learn to trust in our skills, be self-assured, keep calm and, if worse comes to worse, to “fake it till you make it”. And yet, the question of age, hierarchy and authority can put a whole different pressure on young interpreters. There is a feeling of having to proof yourself, not only because you work with a client for the first time, but because everyone assumes that this is one of the first times that you are professionally interpreting at all. Unfortunately, this does not only hold true for very young interpreters, but also for those who simply look very young. I consider myself lucky to have started my career with a full-time interpreting job where I got to work with the same clients and colleagues over and over again. For me, this meant that after having proven my skills during the first assignment, I knew that my client and colleague would have more trust in me at the beginning of the next meeting. Young interpreters who start as freelancers, however, are more likely to feel the burden of their age with each new client they interpret for and every new colleague they work together with.
Therefore, I find it so very important that experienced colleagues do not add to this already existing pressure but convey the feeling that they consider their young colleague equal. It is encouraging to see that AIIC and many national conference interpreting associations offer newcomer programmes and events to welcome young interpreters into the profession.
My experience has been a lesson for me. I will never underestimate a colleague, client or service provider only because they look young. Yet for once, I think it is fair to say that, fortunately, we do not stay young forever.