The youngest person in the room
In addition to the pressure of providing quality interpretation, younger interpreters can feel judged on their age
by Annika Schlesiger — 3 March 2020
When, after graduating, I started to work as a conference interpreter in politics, I was constantly the youngest person in the room. This was less due to my being particularly young (I graduated at the age of 25), but 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?
Setting the tone
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 to wearing dress pants.
However I had not been forewarned that at the beginning of my career, I would be likely to be the youngest participant at the meeting and that I’d need to strike a fine balance between professional self-confidence and respectful reservation that come with both being a young professional as well as – in my view – being a woman.
Age, hierarchy, authority
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 prove yourself, not only because you are working 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. This is not only the case for truly young interpreters, but also for those who simply look very young.
An opportunity to prove myself
I was fortunate: at the beginning of my career I held a full-time interpreting job in which I worked with the same clients and colleagues over and over again. For me this meant that I could prove my skills during the first assignment, after which my clients and colleagues would have more trust in me.
Young interpreters who start as freelancers, however, are more likely to feel the burden of their youth with each new client and every new colleague.
Support and collegiality
It is very important that experienced colleagues do not add to this pressure. Instead, you should support your fresh-faced colleagues and let them – and other colleagues and clients – know that they are valued as equal members of the team.
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, and foster this spirit of mutual support and collegiality.
I have learned from my experience. 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.