10 Nov The Prima Donna Judiciary Interpreter
We don’t want our new readers to be left out or our fans to forget nuggets we have shared here before. That’s why we periodically republish a few gems. This time, Janis comments on professional behavior, self-awareness and group dynamics. But she does so with her usual grace.
By Janis Palma
Prima donna: A very temperamental person with an inflated view of their own talent or importance. (Oxford Dictionary)
We all know at least one of those, don’t we? Or maybe we have been one at some point or another in our lives (gasp! Do we dare admit such a thing?)
Well, even if you don’t think you have ever been or acted like a prima donna, you could be perceived as one by your peers and co-workers if you:
(1) have strong dogmatic opinions about all matters related to interpreting (particularly judiciary interpreting), and dismiss all others that do not agree with yours because—of course!—they are wrong;
(2) expect—or even demand—certain comforts and concessions not ordinarily part of the work environment in the court where you are providing your services and complain bitterly or even threaten to walk out if you do not get them;
(3) hold prescriptive positions on terminology issues and are completely inflexible about accepting new meanings or different usages in other speech communities;
(4) display a contemptuous attitude towards any interpreter who has not had formal training or does not hold a degree in the field, and take every opportunity to bash interpreters who have no professional license or certification regardless of whether or not you know or have ever worked with one;
(5) brag openly about charging the highest fees in the market and quickly vilify anyone who charges less than you do;
(6) monopolize every conversation—mostly to talk about yourself—and expect to be the focus of everyone’s attention at all times;
(7) believe you are the most important person in the courtroom, and are absolutely indispensable and irreplaceable.
I could go on, but I think this short list paints a fairly clear picture of the prima donna interpreter. And it is not a pretty picture. Unfortunately, these attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors seem to be contagious, rather than something to be contained or even rejected by our peers. As the profession grows, so does the number of interpreters with such undesirable manners, to the point that it is starting to reflect negatively on the profession as a whole.
Now, as I recall, this was not the case 20 or 30 years ago, so I have to wonder, how did we get here? And most importantly: how do we stop this? Because, frankly, it is doing more harm than good to our profession right now. Any time a member of the legal community has an encounter with a prima donna judiciary interpreter, we all lose a bit of respect and credibility as members of this profession.
I suspect that as we, collectively, endeavored to create and increase awareness among the legal community as to the pivotal role judiciary interpreters play in the administration of justice and the protection of criminal defendants’ constitutional guarantees, some of us took all this to another level entirely and developed an inflated sense of self-importance. As the knowledge base for our discipline flourished and the credentialing processes matured, some of us seem to have also cultivated elitist values and attitudes that serve no good purpose.
We should be the ones to open the doors for those eager to learn, the ones to take the time to guide our new colleagues with proper educational tools so they can eventually join the ranks of competent—and certified—judiciary interpreters, which should be what we all want. We instead have small turf wars sprouting all over the country with individual interpreters jockeying for positions of personal prominence that have a devastating effect on the profession’s overall public image. Furthermore, it is sabotaging our ability to coalesce as a group with common goals and objectives; it undermines all the hard work done over the course of the past three or four decades.
As the knowledge base for our discipline flourished and the credentialing processes matured, some of us seem to have also cultivated elitist values and attitudes that serve no good purpose.
Whenever a group of persons with similar interests starts to build a community where they can find mutual support to grow in positive directions, everyone wins. When that same community starts to disintegrate because of selfish interests and attitudes, everyone loses. It’s time for our community of judiciary interpreters to take a very honest and close look at ourselves and realize there are very negative repercussions to this prima donna-ish posturing by some members of the profession.
We are all talented, but not so extraordinary no one else can do what we do.
We all have above-average intelligence, but we are not infallible.
Janis Palma has been a federally certified English<>Spanish judiciary interpreter since 1981. She worked as an independent contractor for over 20 years in different states. Her experience includes conference work in the private sector and seminar interpreting for the U.S. State Department. She joined the U.S. District Courts in Puerto Rico as a full-time staff interpreter in April 2002. She has been a consultant for various higher education institutions, professional associations, and government agencies on judiciary interpreting and translating issues. She is a past president of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.