Through the Looking Glass

They are easy to spot. Capricious, overdemanding interpreters for whom nothing is ever right: the pay is meager, the hours are long, the tasks are boring, and the coffee is not fresh enough. Judgmental and vocal, they are constantly scanning their surroundings for colleagues or circumstances to blame for their misery.

While some are excellent at what they do, most grossly overestimate their own abilities. These chronic attention-seekers make poor booth mates because of their propensity to compete rather than collaborate. Despite telling evidence, they hardly ever acknowledge a mistake. It will always be your fault, or mine, and they will be sure to rub it in.

These colleagues respond to life’s many blessings with a feeling of entitlement rather than gratitude, and no matter how generous their lot, it’s never enough. Life owes them a buck, and so do you.

Such attitude—exaggerated here for the sake of argument—is usually rooted in unconscious insecurity. It’s the machinations of an ego that feels threatened and unimportant, doing anything it can to create some separation from the ordinary. It stems from a broken sense of self that got the notions of being and doing all twisted.

Deep down, we all like to think we’re good and sensible. We root for the good guys in movies and are unanimous in condemning blatant acts of injustice. No one thinks of themselves as cruel, mean-spirited, cold, or unappreciative. Oh, we’re not that. Yet a quick look around proves that we all can exhibit such behavior on occasion if the wrong buttons are pushed. We just don’t bring ourselves to admit it often.

It’s always easier to see and condemn misconduct in others; hence the constant criticism and finger-pointing. It’s a projection whereby the unconscious mind provides us with a tilted mirror image against which to vent and direct our anger, all the while fooling ourselves that the silhouette reflected back is not our own. This mechanism is meant to protect us.

At the end of the day, other people’s behavior will always change in response to what they get from us. Again, we tend to take the reflection for the reality, never looking at the true source of light.

We all know a few self-important interpreters who cannot be pleased. Yet in their hearts they all think of themselves as nice people, no matter how unbearably obnoxious they may seem to us.

So, if too many arrogant divas are popping up in your booth, perhaps it’s about time you take a long, good look at the image reflected back at you on that glass. Here are a few subtle points to ponder as you talk to yourself:

  • Who do you blame when circumstances don’t conform to your expectations?
  • Do the words “always” and “never” pop up in your head or slip off your tongue often?
  • Does your performance determine how you feel about yourself?
  • Are you in a silent competition with your booth mate?

The answers to the first two questions will tell you how personal, permanent, and pervasive you perceive the annoying circumstances in your life to be. The final two will show you how much of your identity you have wrapped around what you do, rather than who you are.

The exercise will expose beliefs and circumstances that may be triggering you off your best behavior. It will show areas where there may be room for improvement. Most importantly, it will make you a better and more conscientious interpreter that clients and colleagues will want to have around.

Give it a try and you may find yourself wondering whatever happened to those prima donnas.


Ewandro Magalhães is an experienced conference interpreter and interpreter trainer. He has a master’s degree in conference interpreting from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. A former senior staff and chief interpreter in the United Nations system, he is the author of Sua Majestade, o Intérprete—o fascinante mundo da tradução simultânea. He is the vice president of communications of KUDO, Inc., a cloud-based platform for multilingual conferencing and online collaboration. You can read his blog at ewandro.com. Contact: ewandro@gmail.com.

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