A few weeks ago, there was a post in a translators’ Facebook group that appalled me. A woman translator described how she was telephoned by a supposed colleague with what was apparently a job offer only for the conversation to deteriorate into him making unsolicited lewd suggestions about her, leaving her shocked and angry. The subsequent conversation in the group revealed that she was by no means the only woman to have found herself in a similar situation, or to suffer some kind of unwanted sexual approach in a professional context.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. The revelations of the “Me Too” movement over the past few years have made it clear what woman have had to put up with from men for far too long in their professional and personal lives. I remember then women friends and colleagues telling me none of what they were hearing came as any surprise to them. Some had been stalked, others threatened, others had close friends who had been raped. Someone close to me has been hounded out of a (non-translation) job by sexual harassment. But even so, I had imagined that women freelance translators, safe in their own homes, were unlikely to be affected by these threats.
Some might say this is not my business. But I believe it’s important for everyone, particularly men, to come out and say that this kind of behaviour is utterly unacceptable. It sickens and repels me that women I respect and admire should have to suffer feelings of fear and helplessness on a regular basis just because some man has a problem dealing with his sexual inclinations. Women are tired of having to put up with it, I’m tired of having to hear about it, and it’s time for it to stop.
Harassment of any kind is obviously unacceptable, but there’s another level to this too, and this is where it becomes more complicated. Many women translators I know have complained about being romantically approached by men in professional forums, principally LinkedIn. Now this might come as a surprise to some, but I don’t know any woman who wants or expects approaches of this kind in a professional context. Bearing that in mind, propositions made via these platforms are hardly likely ever to be successful and will only antagonise and irritate the woman concerned.
Where things become more difficult is the definition of what might be perceived as a romantic approach. Is, for example, saying that you like a photograph posted on a colleague’s profile page acceptable or not? The answer, like so many other translation issues, is that it depends on the context. Between two people who know each other quite well, it most likely wouldn’t be a problem. But if you hardly know the other person, and the context is a professional one, it may not be welcome, even if the intention is entirely innocent. No one wants to outlaw genuine friendliness, but the fact remains that there is huge scope for misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Perhaps on one side some sort of understanding that a compliment can often be just a compliment might be good. But, on the other side, it would be even better if men realised how tiring some women find constant comments about their appearance, and how these can sometimes open up old wounds.
Until the pandemic made them unthinkable, hugs and kisses also came into this awkward category. As much as anything, this is a cultural issue. Having lived in a Mediterranean culture for 20 years, I’ve become accustomed to hugging and kissing to greet colleagues at conferences, for example. Just how much I’d gone native I realised for the first time when I met an English colleague who lived in another European culture where that sort of thing is definitely not the norm. As I enthusiastically went to kiss her on both cheeks I felt her unease. “Do we know each other well enough for this?” she asked me. Maybe we didn’t, and I should have thought twice before letting my adopted Mediterranean instincts get the better of me.
On another occasion I was quite surprised when, as we said our goodbyes at the end of a conference, another woman colleague asked me “Do you mind if I hug you?” Well, of course I didn’t. But I don’t think she was asking me because she really thought I would object. She was asking because it’s what she would have wanted me to do if I was planning to hug her. I’ve read so many women saying how delighted they are that coronavirus has now made this sort of thing out of the question, that, if and when hugging and kissing become an option once again, I certainly won’t be doing it without asking first.
Adapting to new ways is not easy, of course. I once tried to explain to a female colleague how difficult it seems these days for men to navigate our way through all these minefields. But she just looked back at me unblinkingly. “It’s simple,” she said. “Just don’t be an arse.” I, for one, plan to do my best not to.