A bad combination: The interpreter’s ego and sense of denial.

December 4, 2014 § 6 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We all know that most interpreters are very gifted and well-educated people, but due to the individual characteristics required for the job, and because of the lifestyle needed to be a top-tier interpreter, we interpreters are also very complicated. Not everyone is able to stand up in front of a crowd of thousands, and many would not be capable of speaking from a booth or a TV studio to millions of people around the world. It takes self-confidence, self-esteem, and courage to do it. These are the qualities of the professional interpreter, and they could also turn into our flaws or defects. All interpreters have a big ego, some can control it better, but the fact is that I have never met an interpreter without one. An ego is a good thing to have, and it comes in handy when interpreting for a dignitary or negotiating a contract. Yes, it is true that sometimes it jumps over the set limits and we have to reel it back. We all know it, we all have experienced it, and for this reason, we are all pretty much tolerant of the occasional diva explosion from our colleagues. We are grown-ups, we are professionals, and we all know how to live with it. The problem is when a colleague has an ego the size of the Sears Tower, she does nothing to control it, and this attitude affects the professional relationship with other colleagues, and gets on the way of the delivery of a quality professional interpreting service. Add to this mix the self-denial often caused by the same ego, and then you have an impossible situation that we all have lived through at one time during our careers.

I once worked with a colleague who at the time was more experienced than me. She was one of those pioneers of the profession who empirically became a good interpreter, in her particular market, which is different from mine as it is in another country, she was well-known and sought-after by some of the biggest names in the interpreting industry. She was widely respected, and in her old age she was also feared because of her influence on the market. She could ruin the future of an interpreter who was trying to access the highest levels with a simple phone call or comment.

In the past, I had worked at the same events she had worked, but until this occasion, I had never worked with her as a team. I was very impressed with the way she interacted with the colleagues, the organizers of the event, the speakers, and the media. It was evident that she knew her craft. I still remember thinking what a great experience this was going to be for me as the younger interpreter in the team (not a very common occurrence nowadays). My expectations collapsed little by little once we were in the booth. The first thing that shocked me was her total ignorance of modern technology. She had no computer skills at all, she did not know what a Power Point was, and complained about the interpreter console because “…it had too many unnecessary bells and whistles that are never used in the booth”. Of course, as the senior interpreter, she started the speech. I was determined to be a good booth partner, to help her with all the “technology” and to be ready with words, terms, water, anything she would need during her rendition. I was paying more attention to her work than I had for a long time, and I was so disappointed. Her speech was choppy as she seemed to get distracted very easily, soon she lagged way behind the speaker, and when she reached the point of no return because of her distance from the source language speech, she just skipped parts of the presentation; some of them crucial to the rest of the speech. The only notes she passed me were complaints about the sound; she claimed it was very low, but in reality it was extremely loud, you could even hear it without the earphones. When she finished her shift and handed me the microphone, she told me that she was going to step outside to talk to the sound technician because it was “impossible to hear the speaker.” I had no problem hearing everything he said during my shift. At the break she informed me that she was very upset because the equipment was bad, the technician had not fixed the problem and he was rude, and that she was going to look for the agency representative to ask him to tell the speakers to speak louder so they can be heard in the booth. I was very uncomfortable with the situation. When she went to look for the people she needed to find to formally complain, I grabbed a cup of coffee with the other Spanish interpreters who were working other rooms during the same event. One of them was a colleague from my market who I know very well. She had worked many times with this “living-legend” when she was at the peak of her career and also recently. I thought she would be a good person to talk to before I decided what to do next. After she listened to my story, nodding in agreement most of the time, she clearly told me that it would be better to leave things as they were. She stated that next to this interpreter, truly an “institution of the interpreting profession”, my credibility was zero, and that the only thing I would accomplish was to be blacklisted from future events, and nothing else. “Don’t you think that all of these colleagues feel exactly as you do? They all do, but they know there’s nothing we can do about it. Just forget it, do your best, and next time she will be dead or you will have another booth partner.” I followed the advice and did nothing.

My colleague was right, I returned the following year, and although the diva was there, I had a different partner in the booth. I felt bad for this new young woman who was in the booth with her, but that was not my problem this time around.

A few years later I received an offer to work as an interpreter of some business negotiations that would require a lot of consecutive interpreting, as part of the job would consist of inspecting mines, manufacturing plants, and exposition pavilions. The job was to last ten days. Because it was interesting, challenging, and well-paid, I immediately accepted the assignment without even asking who would be my colleague for the job. Of course, it was her! The only difference is that now this was about five years later and it would be consecutive interpretation in crowded places where it would be difficult to hear and be heard.

The assignment was a disaster. She could not hear anything and was constantly asking for repetitions to the point of making the parties lose their concentration. Her consecutive was non-existing; after the speaker uttered three words, she would jump in the middle of a statement doing a simultaneous rendition without equipment and with a voice so weak that nobody could hear it. People started to complain because there was a big contrast between her “consecutive” rendition full of requests for repetitions, and constantly stopping the speaker after just a few words, all in a voice so soft that nobody (including me just a few inches away from her) could hear. My consecutive was delivered without interruptions or repetitions and in a powerful voice. The worst part was that she was leaving out of her rendition many important details and she was giving the wrong figures, amounts, prices, etc.

This is when I decided to talk to her. This was five years after the first experience when I decided to remain silent, and during these period of time I had worked plenty of times in this market and was now well-known and respected by colleagues, promoters and agencies. In other words, I felt more confident of my share of the market than five years earlier. I also knew that if we didn’t do something the negotiations would collapse and the project would end in disaster.

That evening I invited my colleague to have a drink at the bar of the hotel. After some small talk, I spoke before she started complaining about everything, I told her that her consecutive had not been complete and that the clients had complained to me that she was interrupting them all the time in order to “interpret” what had been said. I told her that it was very difficult to hear her because she was speaking very softly without making any effort to project her voice. I even told her that her consecutive rendition was always in a softer voice than her normal conversational voice, and that this could be understood as lack of confidence because she did not remember what the speaker had just said in the source language. Finally, I asked her if she was willing to at least try to do the assignment as we had been asked to do it (consecutively) in which case I would do everything I could do to help her, or if she was not comfortable doing so, I asked her if it would be better for me to request a different interpreter for the rest of the job. She immediately became very angry. She blamed it all on me, and accused me of speaking very loud to contrast her more “feminine voice” and turn all the clients against her. She called me a liar and said that her consecutive rendition was impeccable and better than mine. She even claimed that I could not hear the speakers either, but since I was too chicken to complain, I had been inventing half of what I had interpreted. She got up and before storming out of the bar, she told me that she had never been disrespected like that before, that she was staying, and that she was going to ask for me to be taken off the assignment. After she left I was very upset and frustrated by her self-denial boosted by her gargantuan ego, but at the same time I felt a sense of relief: I had made my peace. The agency (and the client) would now decide if I had to leave the assignment. I remember thinking that I did not want to leave, I was enjoying the subject matter and wanted to see how these negotiations were going to end, but at the same time, If I had to leave I would still get paid for the entire assignment, and I had set the record straight with my colleague the diva.

The following morning I got a phone call from the agency informing me that my colleague had had a personal problem overnight and unfortunately she had left the assignment. I stayed on the job until the end and I got another colleague who was very easy to work with and had an excellent consecutive rendition. Months later I learned from another colleague that the client had sent a quality evaluation to the agency complaining about my diva colleague and praising the services rendered by the substitute colleague and me. I also saw on the diva’s online profile that now she does not do consecutive interpretation assignments. I have run into the diva interpreter a few times after this incident, mainly at interpreter gatherings; sometimes she politely greets me, and sometimes she ignores me pretending that I am not there. I now ask you to share with the rest of us some experience that you had with an interpreter whose ego was out of control or was in total denial.

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§ 6 Responses to A bad combination: The interpreter’s ego and sense of denial.

  • Consuelo says:

    Very interesting comment. I know a couple of people like that. It is a shame that some interpreters act and behave like divas

  • Chris says:

    I know someone like that myself back in the old continent, and the sad part is that he’s quite young, so the interpreting world will have to deal with him for a while. His rendition is usually good, but he works “alone”, refuses to accept help from his booth partner – even when he misinterprets and the speaker at the event voices “There’s obviously been a problem with the interpretation” into the microphone. On top of it all, he’s continuously trying to lure young, naive interpreters into his sphere of influence because seasoned interpreters refuse to socialize with him; given his current fame as a pompous and arrogant interpreter who is always ready to backstab colleagues, spread rumors and steal clients.
    I find this particularly sad, because the best part of being an interpreter is the lifelong learning process we embark upon, and although one learns through preparation and experience, I believe that we still learn a lot from our colleagues. Good camaraderie is what keeps us humble. We are all better or worse than the next interpreter at some aspect of interpreting; we all have room to grow, and we can learn so much from each other. Being open and receptive to this learning process is what will make us better professionals with time. So I truly pity arrogant interpreters: they might have their moment to shine, their fifteen minutes if you will, but it won’t last very long. They will never get better, because they are unable to learn from their peers or accept tips for improvement. The rest of us, on the other hand, will shine on throughout our entire careers!

    • Alexander Thomson says:

      Very insightful comments. As a trainee conference interpreter, I also appreciate the honesty and detail of the original post, as it confirms the truthfulness of portrayal in the novel “Entre deux voix” by Jenny Müller (I think the original is in German). It is the fictional diary of a rookie conference interpreter in Switzerland who has nightmarish booth encounters with a near-retirement colleague who (SPOILER ALERT) turns out to have failing hearing and resents being shown up by more competent performances, and who therefore tells the young lady repeatedly she is useless and will never work in that city again.

      There is a generational aspect to this ego complex, it strikes me as I get to grips with the market (I’m in my mid-thirties). The older divas, especially the grand dames and perhaps particularly in Europe, have great polish and reserve, and so can lash out elegantly with little warning and often with much credibilty unless agencies and colleagues are bold enough to let the client’s unvarnished opinion (that they are past their best physically) prevail against the bluster. They have immense vocabularies, social finesse and composure when it suits them. Many are from blue-blood families where this commanding bearing is ingested with mother’s milk. Younger divas of both sexes and all around the world are no less self-regarding but I feel that given the different education and training these days and the democratization of our profession in the past generation, they will never acquire the social graces and put-on superiority to lord it over hapless junior colleagues in quite the same dread way.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    Hi, Tony!

    It is most unfortunate that people who have a perpetually negative attitude will tend to spread their negativism upon others, not realizing that their actions will only alienate them from the rest of their colleagues.

    I consider it an honor and a privilege to be the court interpreter, conference interpreter and literary translator I am. It is difficult for me to imagine someone with that talent and not be happy to exercise it. I truly enjoy my profession and after all these years in the practice, I actually look forward to every work week with the excitement of a child in a candy store.

    I have had the good fortune of having been surrounded with seasoned interpreters in the booth, who kept their ears perked up when I interpreted my first conference, and whose smile of approval at lunch time was my greatest reward. I have also enjoyed the same privilege in court. Both were very rewarding and I shall forever be grateful to those who taught me.

    Our profession is not easy by a long shot, so those who would rather belittle a less-experienced interpreter, should actually consider teaching them because I strongly believe that with expertise and knowledge also comes responsibility; the responsibility to assist and mentor others coming up in the profession.
    I look forward to each unique opportunity in mentoring new interpreters by helping them in every way possible, with the hope of generating in them the same enthusiasm I feel for this profession.

    So please, those with the “mightier-than-thou” syndrome as well as the prima donnas and the divas, should really stay at home.

    André Csihás, FCCI

  • Hi Tony, here in Mexico, where I live and work, there are still some interpreters that coincidentally I have always called them “divas” or “divos”. I was not born in México and became an interpreter many years ago just because some small companies were tired of that “diva” attitude. Later I had a lot of training. The group I am talking about is probably the group you know. Most of them (thank God not all), would never recommend anybody outside their own circle, would not hire a novice recent graduated interpreter or would not even help her/him with tips that you only learned by experience. But the world is not Mexico, and Latin America is big, thank God I have had a lot of help and advice from interpreters from Brazil (Ewandro is one) and other Southamerican countries, I was able to begin a small business, hired junior interpreters, who are now senior ones, most of them have been so thankful that even now still work for me. Most of my clients are small and medium size companies but I have had to face very unpleasant situations from people who do not even say hello to having to threat some of those “divas” with a lawsuit for slander. Anyway, just mention this because of the situation you now share in your blog because I was even thinking that it was only a problem in Mexico with Mexican interpreters. I am kind of glad that it isn´t, where I was born we say: “Mal de muchos, consuelo de tontos”. Maybe I am a fool too and I want to be far away from those “divas” and certainly would not like to share a booth with them either. Thank you for sharing your tips and experiences. Saludos.

  • Lindsay says:

    I worked many years ago for 4 years as a staff interpreter at a European institution. I do not have such stories to tell as those above, but a couple of points to suggest.

    The work of an interpreter involves using your brain to do something it does not do naturally. I wondered then and still wonder if this ends up having a (negative) effect on the person who does this for many years.

    The job has an inherent contradiction which is one thing that drove me away from it. As the intro to the above piece says, interpreters need to be intelligent, people who learn quickly and easily, gifted in expressing themselves and have a bit of a talent for performance. They are then locked up in a small box with little human contact and have to speak the words of other people, never allowed to voice their own input or opinions.

    The suppression of personal views during the working day I am sure contributes to the ‘diva’ behavior off-duty.

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