Dealing with Sexual Harassment

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, women and men around the world finally feel more comfortable discussing the issue of sexual harassment in and out of the workplace. However, I’ve noticed that this is a subject that rarely comes up in the interpreting profession.

Does that mean it doesn’t exist? Of course not, but perhaps especially in court interpreting, oftentimes interpreters feel like a small cog in the wheels of justice (even though they’re one of the most essential elements). Interpreters have been taught to be invisible (which, in my opinion, we shouldn’t be). This may be compounded by the fact that interpreting, and in particular court interpreting, is a female-dominated profession.

This is a complicated and complex issue with no easy answers and lots of room for improvement, and one that might be best suited for either a conference session or in-depth personal discussions, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts here in the hopes of perhaps jumpstarting the conversation.

Yes, It Has Happened to Me: The situation occurred only once, but it had a lasting effect. It was in a room full of male lawyers where I was the only woman. It was uncomfortable and felt humiliating, especially because the unwelcome comment was made by a senior lawyer in front of everyone, which luckily resulted in some outrage from other attorneys. It was very clear to me that sexual harassment is about power and control. It’s a way to objectify women (and men). The harasser feels he (or she) can do it, and probably has done it for years and gotten away with it. I hate to admit it, but I wish I would have had a brilliant reaction, but I didn’t. I was just too stunned to say anything, especially since the comment came out of left field and I was ill-prepared to deal with it. Afterwards, I felt terrible that my rhetoric and usually quick reactions let me down, and that I was essentially propagating the problem by not having said anything. I hope it doesn’t happen again, but I will be prepared to react if it does.

How Should You React? This is a tricky issue, and I’m no expert in dealing with this, but whatever you say isn’t good enough/strong enough or too strong. Oftentimes, regardless of what you say, the harasser might remark, “But it’s only a compliment!” to which you could say “I welcome compliments on my work, but not on my appearance” or something similar. I think you should make it clear to whoever made the unwelcome comment or advance that you think it’s inappropriate and that you want them to stop. Depending on the setting, you may also bring this up with the appropriate governing body and/or authority. But here we run into yet more complexity. It’s a well-documented fact that sexual harassment goes underreported because the harassed party fears for her (or his) job. Most of us are independent contractors, but still, would you report one of your best law firm clients to the bar association and risk never getting retained by them again? What about if the senior judge at the courthouse you work at the most is harassing you? Now we’re back to power and control, aren’t we? I wish there were better answers.

The Flip Side: While being a woman in the oftentimes male-dominated world of law can be challenging, it can also have its advantages, whether we like it or not. I’ve been retained for several assignments specifically because I’m a woman, which seemed unfair to my male colleagues, but that was the client’s request. I don’t think that gender should be a factor in interpreting (unless you are going to an oil platform or to a women-only hospital or something similar), but it can be.

Sexual harassment is an issue in all professions and every walk of life, including ours. I look forward to discussing this issue more widely with colleagues and clients alike. What do you think? Has this happened to you? How have you dealt with it?


Judy Jenner is a Spanish and German business and legal translator and a federally and state-certified (California, Nevada) Spanish court interpreter. She has an MBA in marketing and runs her boutique translation and interpreting business, Twin Translations, with her twin sister Dagmar. She was born in Austria and grew up in Mexico City. A former in-house translation department manager, she is a past president of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association. She writes the blog Translation Times and is a frequent conference speaker. She is the co-author of The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation. Contact: judy.jenner@twintranslations.com.

This column is not intended to constitute legal, financial, or other business advice. Each individual or company should make its own independent business decisions and consult its own legal, financial, or other advisors as appropriate. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of ATA or its Board of Directors. Ideas and questions should be directed to judy.jenner@entrepreneuriallinguist.com.

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