Every day, interpreters are responsible for ensuring that someone else’s voice is heard. Community interpreters remove language barriers between service providers and clients. Those clients may be seeking legal aid or a domestic violence shelter, giving a sexual assault victim statement to police, or sharing with their therapist how they lost their relatives to a mortar blast in war.
Interpreters are not the lawyer, the caseworker, the police officer investigating the case, or the therapist conducting the session. They are the voice of the client and the provider, and it is their job to interpret accurately and faithfully everything said during the encounter so that the person may get the services they need.
Most community service clients are in life changing situations, and many have experienced deep trauma. To a certain extent, almost all community, court and general interpreters experience symptoms of vicarious trauma, emotional exhaustion, compassion fatigue, or severe stress because of their repeated exposure to traumatic information and stories. In addition to the already complex task of interpreting everything accurately and faithfully, without additions, omissions, distortions, or change of meaning, they also carry the heavy burden of living vicariously the anxiety, suffering, uncertainty and emotional distress their clients go through.
Vicarious trauma in interpreters typically occurs because of their compassion for clients who are, or have been, in dire situations. Many interpreters have big hearts. They feel responsible for helping clients. In a way, interpreters absorb the trauma and stress of their clients, and they experience this through the transformation of their inner sense of identity and experience. The interpreter’s physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual health is challenged as a result of conveying someone else’s traumatic history. Vicarious trauma can affect the interpreter’s perception of the world around them. If left untreated, it can result in severe mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and addiction.
Given that interpreters are the voice of their clients, they seem to experience vicarious trauma in a different way from “helping and healing” professionals . If you think about it, interpreters do much more than just witness the trauma. Because they convey the client’s ideas, feelings and experiences, they are actually a conduit for it.
Prevention is the key. Vicarious trauma doesn’t have to happen. However, most interpreter training programs consist of interpreting practice, terminology review and subject matter preparation. Not many of them equip their trainees with the tools to deal with vicarious trauma. That is why the Voice of Love plays an important role in helping interpreters who serve refugees and other survivors of torture and war trauma—or any major trauma. Trauma-informed interpreter training helps language professionals give their clients a voice.
Alejandro Gonzalez is the Resource Development Manager for MCIS Language Services, a Canadian non-profit language service provider serving survivors of sexual violence, human trafficking, and domestic violence.