Ignorance or Over-Involvement…That is the Question!

To say that we interpreters are sometimes exposed to trauma is an understatement. Perhaps the worst is how it can happen so suddenly. I can go about my day nice as you please, interpreting tedious status conferences where attorneys are all legalese about dates and motions, sit through two hours of court to interpret a five-minute probation violation, go back to my office to handle some paperwork and then suddenly get called into the most horrific temporary restraining order testimony I have ever had to hear.

We interpret for domestic violence, child abuse, homicides and rape. We are the voices for people begging not to have their homes taken from them, and we witness tears, anger and frustration. We don’t just witness, either; we absorb, contextualize and interpret. We hear it once, then we process it, then we speak it. Ergo, our exposure rates are three times higher than anyone else in the courtroom.

I will say right now that I am just a lay-interpreter with no special knowledge on vicarious trauma (for more research from people who have studied this topic, refer to the articles below). But I have felt its impact personally. And thus I begin to pose the question: How do we prepare ourselves for interpreting, utilize good interpretation techniques, and still protect our own emotional well-being?

I’m sorry to say I haven’t found the answer yet, but I am trying. One of the solutions I have found is something that appears to be important in life, always: balance. On the one hand, we don’t want to go into court proceedings blind. Context is extremely important so that we have a foundation on which to build, an arsenal of vocabulary already at the ready and an idea of what may be about to transpire. On the flip side, perhaps reviewing every single graphic photograph in a violent abuse case will be counter-productive. We need to prepare our minds but we don’t need to bombard ourselves to the point where our functioning becomes impaired.

In addition to context, we interpreters are also trained to use techniques of visualization in order to interpret more accurately. On top of that, we are often instructed to visualize things that are familiar to us; if the plaintiff talks about her living room, we should picture our own living room! I have worked hard to implement this and it has proven extremely helpful to my interpretation. Except for when the plaintiff begins to discuss how her boyfriend approached her in her living room, demanded she remove her clothes, held a knife to her throat and forced her to engage in sexual relations. At that point, perhaps I should not be picturing my living room, my clothes or my own boyfriend.

Finally, the use of equipment can help to distance us from emotional exchanges and allow us to focus on just listening to the words without absorbing too much body language and facial expression. It can be helpful to create physical and emotional distance from the topic of hand in order to do our jobs accurately and professionally.

This is all easier said than done, and I write this post a way to start a conversation…to compare notes, share tips, acknowledge our difficulties and applaud our successes. So feel free to share your story below: When the question is “Ignorance or emotional over-involvement,” how do you find balance?

For further reference:

Psychology Today


Voice of Love: Resources

Voice of Love: Vicarious Trauma

Published on 9/18/15 at najit.org/blog

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