7 tips for interpreting in emotionally challenging settings

Recent events in Afghanistan drew the public’s attention to the often-unnoticed role of interpreters and translators in today’s world. It also demonstrated how interpreting work can be fraught with dangers that leave interpreters in a vulnerable position.

We must remember, however, that there does not need to be an armed conflict for interpreters to find themselves in difficult and emotionally challenging situations. Any interpreter who has ever done work in a hospital, police station, courtroom, immigrant centre, would know all too well the feelings of stress and anxiety that can result from what they see, hear, and have to interpret. “Vicarious trauma”, caused by continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence, is a recognised hazard of the interpreting profession.

Unlike counsellors, therapists, and other care providers, interpreters are often not trained to deal with the stress and anxiety that can result from certain interpreting assignments. Being totally unprepared for the emotional whiplash of an interview with a victim of horrific violence can leave an interpreter severely traumatised, without knowing what to do about it, and often even without realising what has happened to them.

One of the settings that can be particularly stressful and traumatic is interpreting for victims of sexual violence. Sex in itself is a highly charged topic, surrounded by many taboos, cultural norms, personal views, and prejudices. Add violence into the mix, and the topic can quickly gain the power to greatly upset our worldview and stir up anxieties and deep-seated fears for ourselves and our dearest and nearest.

Indeed, how can an unprepared interpreter be expected to relay stories told by severely traumatised victims of sexual violence in every brutal detail, and not be affected by it? How can they be expected not to associate the victims with themselves, their children and partners, and not suffer emotional stress, flashbacks, fear, insomnia, guilt, sadness?

Interpreting for victims of sexual violence very often happens in the context of migration. Unfortunately, many migrants become victims of sexual violence in the country of origin, in transit, and also in the country of their destination, with various forces, including people in the position of power, preying on, and taking advantage of their vulnerability. For example, research on violence against sub-Saharan migrants entering and crossing Morocco with the intention of reaching Europe showed that 45% of the violence experienced within Morocco was of a sexual nature. Since their arrival in Europe, more than half of refugees, applicants for international protection and undocumented migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands were exposed to sexual violence incidents. (Source: Keygnaert et al., 2012).

So, how can interpreters provide a high-quality interpreting service when working with victims of sexual violence, while making sure they protect their own mental health and emotional well-being? Here are just a few suggestions that you may find helpful when working with victims of any type of violence, including sexual violence.

  1. Request a briefing where possible

The more you know of the nature of the assignment before you get there, the better. Try to ascertain to the best of your ability what the assignment is going to involve, if at all possible. For example, is it the first interview with a victim, a follow-up medical or psychological consultation, collection of test samples, a counselling session?

  1. Be mentally prepared

Before the assignment, take time to take some deep breaths, feel the contact your feet make with the ground, tell yourself that you have a shield in front of you that will stop you from getting hurt by the emotions filling the room. These techniques help you to stay strong and steady and to exercise your professional detachment more efficiently.

  1. Introduce yourself and stress your impartiality and adherence to confidentiality rules

State your name, your role (“I am here to interpret what is said by the parties without any changes or omissions”). Explain that you take no sides and that everything that you witness will remain confidential. Say these things in both languages, for the care provider and for the victim.

  1. Be ready for the silence

Victims of violence can often be in a state of shock and unable to communicate. Don’t show any impatience, do not repeat the questions asked by the care provider, do not try to encourage the victim to talk. Stay calm and relaxed and allow the care provider to lead and direct the communication.

  1. Full and accurate interpretation

Talking about sexual violence is very difficult. When communication occurs, interpret accurately and fully, using the words in the target language that reflect as closely as possible the emotional colouring of the words used in the source language. Do your best to keep your own emotions and views at bay so that they do not colour the interpretations. When necessary, supply non-lingual information if you have it (for example, certain hand gestures in reply to a question can mean different things in different cultures).

  1. Cultural mediation

A wide range of expectations exists in different countries regarding the interpreter’s role as a cultural mediator. Be familiar with the norms existing in your country and professional organisation and stay within these rules as much as possible.

  1. Look after yourself

If you feel that the assignment is becoming too much for you, ask for a break and speak for the care provider, if possible. Upon the completion of the assignment, if you feel affected by what has happened, do not ignore your feelings. Talk to someone about your feelings (making sure you do not breach confidentiality rules), go for a walk, do some exercise.

Learn to recognise signs of trauma (anxiety, fears, insomnia, feelings of confusion, anger, guilt, etc) and seek professional help for it as soon as you can.

/By Svetlana O’Farrell, TRANSLIT Training Development Managers/