The Prima Donna Judiciary Interpreter

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.

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.




16 thoughts on “The Prima Donna Judiciary Interpreter”

  1. Rob Cruz says:

    Thnak you for the great contribution, Janis.

  2. Athena Matilsky says:

    Agreed! Thank you for cleverly illustrating one of the pitfalls we can encounter/experience in our profession. We all need to hear this as either a reminder, or as moral support (perhaps a bit of both depending on the day). Thanks again!

  3. constance marina says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Janis, on all points. I’ve been working as an interpreter for almost fifteen years in Massachusetts. I’m state-certified and have a Ph.D. in Hispanic literature. Nothing irks me more than to hear one interpreter badmouth another. What impresses me most in a colleague is a positive attitude and willingness to help others and to learn. When a colleague tells me that s/he learns every day, I know that they will be good collaborators. I can’t fully express the shame I felt when a lawyer told me in confidence one day that no member of a professional group speaks worse about their colleagues than interpreters. That is a culture that has no place in this profession.

    1. María Cecilia Valencia says:

      Yes, I couldn’t agree more either. There are a few Prima Donnas around in Massachusetts who believe and make it known publicly that many of us are just “rookies” even though, many of us lots of experience. It has never been a profession in which people share their knowledge or experience. In the other hand, some of the attorneys also bad mouth the interpreters. Many of them do not understand our jobs.

    2. Carmen M. says:

      Absolutely very insightful article. I too experienced deity complex in various sectors of professions, medical doctor, psychologist…..attorneys (the ones from Italy more ) and I could never understand why….One of the reason judiciary interpreting breeds more ‘prima donnas’ is because there is a large room of errors due to limited experience in a court room, lack of proper academic and professional training, working conditions, brain fatigue. Recently I used my own mom’s wisdom, and suggested a team work using tandem consecutive interpreting for a civil trail, with a quasi prima donna colleague. Well it turned out very useful because we could see first hand the weakness and strengths of each other skills. My colleague thanked me for the suggestion and availability, our stress level went down because we could relay on each other, and the parties involved, including the judge, were pleased because our tandem approach saved time and gained accuracy! Oh I forgot to mention that I have years of experience in court as an interpreter of a very seldom used language….and I am the opposite of a Prima Donna, I study and improve almost everyday, and so far I had no complains because I love this profession so I won’t do it another way but my very best.

  4. Gio Lester says:

    This is true in so many different dimensions, Janis. My daughter says we interpreters have a God Complex and that’s why she will n-e-v-e-r be one. I wonder what signals I am sending her…

  5. Dan DeCoursey says:

    Amen! Sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.

  6. John M Estill says:

    Very nice, Janis. I also appreciated Rob’s (Susan’s?) email notice that a new blog was up.

  7. Kathleen M. Morris says:

    Very wise comments, Janis. Factors that currently do not encourage collegiality are (it has to be said) the practice of many district courts that prefer to hire non-certified colleagues to save money, and the insulting pay and bad treatment of colleagues by big agencies, in general. These practices do little to encourage mutual respect and collaboration. I totally agree with your views. One of the most rewarding aspects of this profession is the opportunity to”pay it forward” by encouraging and mentoring talented young colleagues, just as we ourselves were helped along the way, once upon a time.

  8. Maria L says:

    I am so glad you are addressing this problem. It truly is an embarrassment to the profession when inteligent adults malign one another for the sake of winning clients, stealing clients or blocking the path for aspiring interpreters. I recall the many times I walked into a courtroom with my head down, unable to look at the judge or prosecutor from the embarrasment I felt for the prima donna behavior displaced by the prior interpreter. Some go as far as giving ultimatums to the court administrator if not given priority over certain cases. Such a shame! As one court administrator said “we are sitting on a golden egg”. And I agree, we are sitting on a golden egg. We should consider ourselves blessed and priviliged for everything this profession brings to us as individuals and as a whole.

  9. Denise Green says:

    Thank you for the article.
    I’d like to add the idea that not only is a lack of cooperation hurting people’s perceptions of the profession, it is hurting our clients.
    Let us not forget our primary purpose as interpreters – serving our clients, linguistically and ethically.
    I like to imagine a world where everyone who calls themselves an interpreter (or hires one, for that matter) might be first required to use an interpreter in a high stakes situation in order to fully comprehend the kind of trust that must be relinquished, willingly or not, to us every single day.
    Revisiting our function as interpreters (maybe even our inspiration for pursuing this path) and putting our clients’ needs for equal access before our personal concerns is often the easiest way to dissolve the kind of behavior this article highlights…and help us enjoy our work more deeply.

  10. José Luis says:

    Thank you for the accurate perspective Janis. Your descriptions vividly portray one or more persons (sometimes the person is in the mirror) that we’ve encountered along the years in this profession. Someone has to play the devil’s advocate here however…

    When it comes to the narrow mindedness of thinking that one is always right, I believe your points are irrefutable. Often times this is a sign of insecurity – perhaps in other areas.

    As far as turf wars and competing by badmouthing colleagues, this is a “no-no” in any arena of advanced skill. It is simply not professional.

    Yet where do we draw the line between having boldness, taking initiative and courageously (yet prudently) blazing the trail for the profession? Sometimes there are indeed work environments where conditions are lacking and concessions need to be made. If everyone displays an “accepting” mode and believes that we are fortunate to simply be in the position of getting work hours and getting paid – then the one person who attempts to raise the bar may be seen as a “prima donna”.

  11. Anna says:

    Thank you, Janis for your insights. I was certified 35 years ago, and it never ceases to amaze me how some colleagues think they’re the “star” of the show—and they happen to be usually the worst educated and unprofessional ones in the courtroom. Sad.

  12. Miriam Villegas-Negron says:

    My goodness! You have expressed so well my thoughts about a minority of colleagues that I’ve encountered in my home state. That minority stands out, because of the noise it makes, in a crowd of professionals that want to do the best job possible and move on to the next case.
    I have been a certified court interpreter, since 1996, and must say that I’ve seen the prima donnas among more experienced interpreters. The newer ones want to do their job well, welcome feedback, and tend to be humbled by the fact that they are in a minority of people that are certified.
    When they vent about colleagues’ snubbing behaviors I highlight that a certification does not mean expertise, but that a person has met the minimum requirements to become certified, it is not a recognition of professionalism or education. There are people with big heads everywhere.

  13. Martin Anderson says:

    This has not been my experience, by and large, in two years in New Hampshire and fifteen years in New Jersey and New York. New Jersey, in particular, has a elevated level of experience and dignity, it seems to me. Is it different elsewhere?
    These are alarming tendencies, I hope they are rare.

  14. Line Valen says:

    Extremely well put! And universal – recognize exactly what you are pointing out with regard to the situation in Norway as well. My only chagrin: I can`t seem to print out your excellent blog entry on Prima Donnas. Could you possibly send it to me by e-mail?
    Line Valen

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