Vicarious Trauma and the Professional Interpreter

Vicarious Trauma and the Professional Interpreter

Imagine yourself in a situation where it is entirely your responsibility to ensure that someone else’s voice is heard. Perhaps, that person is a refugee seeking legal aid, or a woman moving into a domestic abuse shelter, or maybe a young girl sitting in a police station describing her recent sexual assault. You are not the lawyer, social worker or detective investigating the case. Rather, you are the interpreter and it is your job to make sure the person gets the help needed.

Studies have shown that nearly all language interpreters experience some symptoms of vicarious trauma, burn out, compassion fatigue, or increased stress as a result of their repeated exposure to traumatic information and stories.

Vicarious trauma can be best understood as the absorbing of another person’s trauma, the transformation of the helper’s inner sense of identity and experience. It is what happens to your physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual health in response to someone else’s traumatic history. Vicarious trauma can affect your perception of the world around you and can result in serious mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and addiction if untreated. Interpreters seem to experience vicarious trauma differently than other professionals providing aid since they do more than witness the trauma; they channel it.

The Trauma and Attachment Report recently had the opportunity to speak with Simona, a Czech and Slovak language interpreter who works mainly with Czech, Slovak and Roma refugees and newly immigrated individuals; Simona spoke about her experiences as an interpreter.

Q: Can you describe your role and responsibilities as an interpreter?

A: As an interpreter we have our own code of ethics. I have to interpret meaning for meaning, everything that is said with accuracy and fidelity. There has to be confidentiality on my part which means I cannot share anything with anyone other than those I work with. I have to remain impartial and objective, and cannot show bias or preference for anything regarding the case. Simply put, I am not there. I do not have an opinion; I merely act as a channel for each side.

Q: What is an average day like for you?

A: I work with all kinds of service providers: Children’s Aid Society, parole and probation officers, lawyers, police, hospitals, schools, courts, victim witness services, settlement workers, community workers, public health and home visitors , addictions workers, insurance companies, refugee shelters, shelters for women and children, emigration, social benefits tribunal and more.

An average day usually consists of two in-person interpreting assignments and a number of assignments over the phone. Most of the time I’m interpreting problems that are more extreme than the average person experiences because, considering the service providers I work with, there is usually a problem if the client needs their assistance.

Q: Have you come into contact with vicarious trauma?

A: I first heard about it during my interpreter’s training. We were warned that there will be times when the job would be extremely difficult and that we may come into contact with traumatic situations that will affect us emotionally and physically. It was explained that journalists, humanitarian workers and health care providers can experience vicarious trauma because of what they witness every day. The difference is that I interpret both sides and I have to experience the feelings of those two sides. So, for example, if the doctor says something really painful to a patient, I am the one relaying the information; so to these people who don’t understand English, I am the one delivering the news. But I am also the one who interprets the reaction and the pain of the patient to the doctor. Sometimes people get so frustrated that they curse and yell and I have to say it the same way, with the same feelings, because I must interpret meaning for meaning.

It’s difficult to have to speak in this manner to a service provider, but it’s not me who is talking. Again, however, in the first person I feel the emotion. Because you are constantly saying “I, I, I,” you start associating with the story much more than if you were just reading or hearing about it, and you unwittingly start to absorb the trauma as if it were your own.

Q: Can you describe your own experience with vicarious trauma?

A: Without going into specific details I can say that interpreting for victims of physical abuse and rape, or for a person with a terminal disease, are the hardest situations. Sometimes what happens is that a certain situation can trigger some of your own past experiences and negative emotions.

Even after twenty years, I’m sometimes reliving how difficult it was to be a new immigrant, how I felt that I was not accepted, that I was not smart enough because I didn’t speak the language, and how much I missed my family and my country. There have been situations where I had to work very hard to compose myself, and after the session, I would sit in my car and cry. And, there were times when I would feel physically sick afterwards. I’ve only cried once during an assignment, but we are all only human and there are certain situations that are just too difficult not to have an emotional response.

Q: Do you experience any other side effects?

A: I experience their sadness, their pain, their emotional pain; but there have been times when I’ve actually experienced physical pain as well. When I interpreted physical abuse or rape, it was as though my body actually felt it. Occasionally I have nightmares or insomnia and I go back in my mind and I think about the person. Sometimes I cry and that helps me. I also appreciate my life and my family and friends much more, and try not to take them for granted.

Q: What helps you overcome these negative symptoms?

A: Truthfully, it always takes me a couple of days after a particularly hard case to go back to normal. It helps to talk to a friend who is also an interpreter because they understand better than anyone what this job is about, and that it can bring you into contact with very unusual and painful situations. Meditation and prayer help, and even watching a movie or reading a book can help me get back to normal.

Sometimes remembering that at least I can help the person in pain to express themselves and get the help they need makes me feel better. Also, starting on another interpreting assignment helps put me back in the present and reminds me that I have to remain focused on the task at hand. It’s as though I’m wiping the slate clean, so to speak, and moving forward. And, I have to remind myself that it’s not my trauma, and that I can help.

Q: Have your experiences affected any other parts of your life?

A: Yes. Sometimes I get angry. I get angry that my friends and others take things for granted and don’t see how difficult life is for so many. And I can’t exactly explain it to them because of confidentiality. At home, sometimes I don’t feel like talking for the whole evening because I’m still processing what happened.

After a particularly hard assignment, it’s really difficult for me to read the newspaper or watch the news because I have a feeling that there is so much pain and negativity in the world, it can be hard to bear sometimes. I need some time and space before I can get back to my regular life.

Q: Do you feel that there are any positive aspects of your experiences as an interpreter?

A: Absolutely. I had a client and I went through her entire pregnancy with her. I was in the delivery room with her as well, and she had beautiful twins. I felt the joy of the parents and the doctors as well. Knowing that I help people to communicate makes it worthwhile. And when I start an assignment and people tell me they are happy that I’m there for them, that makes it worthwhile.

Even though the interpreter should be invisible and just channel what the parties are saying, it is inevitable that they find you comforting because you speak their language and you understand their culture. My job teaches me to treat people with dignity and respect regardless of their life situation. I have to be grateful for that.


-Jana Vigor, Contributing writer