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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.
Furthermore, there seems to be a nationwide backlash in the legal community against judiciary interpreters that is taking some of us back to the 1980s in terms of public perception, working conditions, and general respect for our profession.

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.

And we are all important… but never irreplaceable.

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.

18 thoughts on “The Prima Donna Judiciary Interpreter”

  1. Alfredo Babler says:

    Spot on! Outstanding article.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you, Alfredo!

  2. BENOIT AKOA says:

    The article is spot on. From personal experience, I remember treating my certificates and credentials as I would my babies. After all, it took long laboring hours to obtain each one of them, and I made sure I had them all, like notches on a belt. Afraid that I would be treated unequally, every encounter was a Voir Dire. No one was going to treat me like “they treated” folks with no credentials and or certificates, I was better than those “Hacks”, for sure. Then came the ego hammer of reality, I was not getting any more jobs than “those guys”, and the white imaginary horse I rode on into the profession died of “vanity thirst” and poverty. I still have an ego horse nonetheless; his name is Humbly Passive. And my horse has a new attitude, laissez-faire decision-making, let the talkers make their own decisions, I am simply a humble mouth piece, used when needed—No more pressure.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you for those very wise comments, Benoit!

  3. The interpreter/translator almost everyone forgets is the combat interpreter/translator. The vast majority of us learn the language from native liaisons/guides and interactions with the native populations. When our chu hois of kit carson scouts, as we sometimes called them, were present, they would interpret for us with the captives or villagers in our interrogations. When Tran Van Thu or Goi, a Montagnyard, who were natives of Vietnam like the Native Americans of the US, were not present Larry Comis and I would serve as interpreters until Larry was killed in and ambush and Tran Van Thu was assasinated in his home Qui Nhon while he was on leave. After that I was the only interpreter and interrogated a VC runner and read the documents he was carrying, Of course there were professional translators and interpreters, but they worked in the safety of the command posts where they listened to radio transmissions, translated documents and interrogated prisoners who had been sent to the rear. From watching reports from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Africa, I see that interpretation and translation is still being done the way we were doing it in Viêtnam. I had nearly gotten a major in German at Highlands University and when I was drafted I applied for military intelligence, but after TET they needed infantry, so I was given a combat MOS. While I was in Basic Training because I had a college degree, I was offered Engineering Officers Candidate School, but I turned it down because it was a lifetime commitment and I had to get home to take care of my grandfather who was in his 90’s, my mother who was disabled, my mentally disabled sister and my younger brother, so I refused the commission. Let’s remember our brother ad hoc interpreters who are interpreting in combat conditions under fire. Remember them, the dead, the wounded and the ones who made it back on this Veterans Day.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Juan José, it is so good to hear from you! Indeed, I salute and honor all veterans, starting with my dad who is a Korean War veteran, and thank you all for your heroic service!

  4. Michelle Kusuda says:

    Rather than concentrating on the prima donna interpreter, we should be focusing on getting the profession the recognition and compensation it deserves. Waste of time reading this article.

    1. jarawul oreg says:

      Funny how in marinating, sauteing and garnishing the red herring she serves us in this overwrought article Janis Palma acts somewhat like the the imaginary prima donna she has spun out of whole cloth to bash. Not in over 20 years of roaming the corridors of court rooms, clinics, conference rooms and counsel’s offices in the practice of this profession have I ever run into this mythological creature. Which is not to say they don’t exist. Every profession is likely to have its resident blowhard. But in no way does it reach the level of even registering as a problem much less the extreme claimed by Ms. Palma “of the number of interpreters with such undesirable manners…. starting to reflect negatively on the profession as a whole.”

      What does reflect negatively on the profession as a whole and has indeed been getting worse is the way agencies and other entities are treating interpreters. Increasing their profit margins and reducing their costs at the expense of our income. Imposing conditions at the expense of our health.

      As past president of NAJIT Ms. Palma presided over this ongoing ignominy. Here she blames the victim. Reflecting on NAJIT’s history of failing to take a stand on this deplorable state of affairs perhaps we should not be surprised.

      1. Janis Palma says:

        There are many battle fronts, Michelle, and they are all important. Thank you for your call to action on other fronts.

      2. Janis Palma says:

        Jarawul, I must say I honestly enjoyed reading your very poetic comments and if I have in any way, intentionally or unintentionally, contributed to any such ignominy as you describe, then I offer my most sincere apologies. Your feedback is important and will not go unheeded. Thank you.

  5. Terri Shaw says:

    It is so important for us to support each other. I have learned a lot from my more experienced–and even less experienced–colleagues. It makes no sense to run down other interpreters. If someone is not performing well, try to talk to him/her directly or take some other action. Everyone can learn.

    1. Janis Palma says:

      So true, Terri. Thank you for stressing that point.

  6. Constance Marina says:

    I loved your post, Janis, especially the last three lines beginining with, “We all….” Collaborative learning, mutual respect, and humility go a long way towards fostering a postive and supportive environment for all in our profession. When we respect ourselves and our colleagues, other professionals will respect us in turn. Thank you for your words of wisdom!

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Thank you, Constance. I completely agree!

  7. Nahla Baird says:

    Thank you for pointing this out. Perhaps the assignment managers should play more active roles in giving some feedback to the interpreters. Although it is not easy to provide negative feedbacks, I think holding back deprives those interpreters of the opportunity to correct themselves.

    1. Gio Lester says:

      You are so right, Nahla! I actually have written to colleagues asking how to provide feedback when it is negative. Maybe, agencies could have a form to be filled in by clients or we interpreters could have a colleague spot us from time to time.

      I know that I have approached colleagues who are not native speakers of my language and struck a deal: they help me and I help them. The idea was well received, but our schedules never coincided…

  8. Arnaldo B says:

    Thank you Michelle Kusuda and Jarawul Oreg for calling attention to the real problem this blog post helps obfuscate. It’s dangerously easy to dismiss as a prima donna an interpreter who may be simply demanding fair professional treatment and/or compensation….

    1. Janis Palma says:

      Arnaldo, I am mystified! How does a call for unity obfuscate any other issue the profession may need to address? Like I replied earlier, there are many “battle fronts” and taking one on does not preclude us from taking on others that also require our attention.

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