Do many interpreters experience vicarious trauma?

May 7, 2019 § 26 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

I ask this question because I have been an interpreter for over 30 years and I have experienced no symptoms of vicarious trauma. When I started my career, nobody ever talked about vicarious trauma whether by its name or by any other name; however, in the last few years I have read many articles and attended many interpreter conferences where some of my colleagues dealt with this issue. I did my homework before writing this post. I read about the symptoms and activities that, as interpreters, put us at a higher risk because of the exposure to people or situations involving suffering, injustice, and many terrible things.  I read about empathy, compassion, internalizing your feelings, emptiness, denial, coping with big world tragedies through psychic numbing, and even sociopathy (antisocial personality disorder) and discover that none apply.

I consider myself “normal”. My friends see me as a regular guy. I am kind and considerate to those around me; I am a happy guy, and I have been told that I am a good friend, relative, and colleague. I will never be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but I have a full life doing what I like with those I care for.

After much consideration, I concluded that my attitude towards my profession has kept me from vicarious trauma. My background is in Law. I was an attorney before I was an interpreter. During the years I practiced my former profession, I was exposed to many bad things. I got to see the dark side of human nature. Then, my interpreting career began in the courtroom. I now work as a conference interpreter, and I have never worked as a healthcare interpreter, but I spent my days in courthouses and jails for many years. Both occupations put me in the middle of murders, rapes, drug crimes, child molestation, ugly divorces, loss of parental rights, domestic violence, wrongful dead, bankruptcies, deportations, and similar situations. For years I interacted with people: defendants, plaintiffs, witnesses, and victims, providing my professional services on what had to be the worst day of their lives. People do not get up in the morning and say: “I think I would love to be arrested today”; or “today is a good day to terminate my parent-child relationship forever”. Unless they go to get married or to adopt a child, regular humans do not go to courthouses just because.

I have worked side by side with many interpreters during trials involving vicious criminals and people found not guilty by a jury. I have interpreted testimony of children graphically describing sexual crimes committed against them, and have interpreted when a mother described to the jury how the bad guys killed her son in front of her.

I have sat next to individuals charged with murder and facing the dead penalty, and with parents of young children who know they will be deported on that day. During those hundreds of cases throughout several decades, I never heard a fellow interpreter say they were feeling the symptoms of vicarious trauma. I now wonder if they, like I, experienced none of them, they did not recognize them, or they were just hiding them.

I think that I have never suffered the effects of this trauma because, even though I cry at the movies, I have always focused on the task and delivered the service, always knowing these were cases, not my personal life. I have always treated the client with respect, addressing them by their name and accommodating their professional interpreting needs regardless of the charges they were facing. To me, a murder trial is never about the gross details of the killing. It is about the theory of the defense, the prosecutorial strategy, the skill needed to get certain evidence admitted to trial. It is never about the small kid telling the judge who he rather be with: his father or mother; it is about delivering the rendition with the proper register, hearing everything that child is mumbling from the stand, staying out of the judge’s field of vision so she can better evaluate the witness’ testimony. I have never injected myself into a case or the personal life of the parties. Unlike most of my colleagues, after a rendition, I remember the legal arguments in a motions hearing much better than the testimony of an eyewitness. When I do legal interpreting without ever thinking about it, I have always seen myself as a person looking through a window, a spectator, a professional doing his job. I never identify my life or feelings with those of the parties in a case. I act professionally around those I interpret for, but I have never held a conversation with them; not even small talk beyond inquiring their place of origin so I can hear their accent and know what to expect. I never asked them if they want a glass of water. I never ask them if they have questions. Those are things for their lawyer or the Marshall to ask. When they occasionally ask me to convey a message to a relative in the courtroom, I simply tell them I cannot. It is not part of my job. Except for the names of those who I first interpreted for many years ago, unless my client was a celebrity for the right or for the wrong reasons, I never even remember their names or faces.

I never planned it; this is how it always was. This is how it always will be. Therefore, when I leave the courtroom after the convicted felon has been sentenced to life, after I interpret the deportation order, or when I hear the still doors closing behind me as I leave a prison, I go home, meet friends for happy hour, or catch a baseball game at Wrigley Field without ever thinking about the things that took place at work. I close the drapes of that window.

The question at the beginning of this post is real: Have you experienced vicarious trauma? I am sure some of you have, but I would like to know if I am in the minority or not. Please share your experience; I would love to hear from you. It is fine if you just want to tell us yes or no. The last thing I want is for you to bring back your bad memories again.

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§ 26 Responses to Do many interpreters experience vicarious trauma?

  • Kathleen M Morris says:

    Yes, vicarious trauma is a real phenomenon (consciously recognized or not) for many interpreters who work primarily in criminal court and jail settings. This includes (especially) immigration court hearings. Though often not consciously recognized by interpreters themselves, repeated exposure to horrific testimony of atrocities committed, followed by immediate interpretation of same (during witness testimony) can have profound and lasting effects on our mental, emotional, and physical health.

    VT and its closely related cousin, secondary trauma, can have particularly damaging effects on our mental and physical health, long term, due to rarely if ever having the luxury of absorbing witnesses’ testimony of atrocities committed on them or family members (as in the case of immigration respondents’ description of events in their countries of origin), before immediately rendering an instant interpretation of same, for the court record.

    I was informed about the potential effects of vicarious and secondary trauma, by a social worker friend, when I described the physical and emotional toll that my job sometimes takes on me. She explained that VT is a common affliction for first responders, such as police officers, fire fighters, and paramedics. In my considered opinion, many court interpreters can be considered “first responders”, in the sense of constantly being exposed to emotionally draining testimony, then immediately having to render it letter perfect into English.

    Techniques described by Tony in this blog (professional demeanor, control of facial expression, projecting calmness and impartiality, etc.) are all extremely helpful in combatting the possible effects of VT. But these in themselves, do not “eliminate” the possible effects of VT, over time. Remember that many interpreters actually can suffer from this syndrome (I include myself here), and actually not realize it. Coping mechanisms for me are singing in community choirs, lots of leisure (non-court related) reading, pets, and family time.

    VT and secondary trauma for interpreters are now being addressed in our professional conferences and association workshops. There is an emerging short term therapy to counteract it, which I am not familiar with.
    What have been others’ experiences, if any, with vicarious trauma in court and legal settings?

    • Thank you, Kathleen. I agree with you. It is real, but not everyone experiences it. I honestly do not. My question is: Am I the only one, or there are many, but they will not say it because they do not want to be different?

    • Tom says:

      Hi Kathy. I’ll politely disagree with your consideration that court interpreters are “first responders.” They work in the safety of the guarded court room or interview room. First responders are on the scene with their lives on the line. Public safety interpreters, intelligence interpreters, military interpreters, when on the scene or in the field of battle are “first responders.” Please, don’t conflate the two.

  • Excellent article discussing vicarious trauma through your own experience and professional input. As a healthcare interpreter, we are not part of the conversation to adhere to impartiality, accuracy, and role boundaries (unless a situation is warranted to act an advocate). I too have not experienced (not to my awareness) vicarious trauma; I am more concerned with my task and rendition than my personal judgments of the content of the conversations.

  • Tom says:

    I remember when carpal tunnel syndrome was all-the-rage. Some who use a keyboard/mouse get it. Most don’t. I suspect the same is true for vicarious trauma. With both, if you’re affected, maybe you should try changing your career. I worked with countless translator/interpreters in my intelligence work through the mid-1990’s. I planted microphones. They listened. Yes, they eavesdropped to the foreign languages and wrote English transcripts. At times, we targeted (now defunct) KGB officers’ residences. The translator/interpreter listened to EVERYTHING. Husband & wife making love? They listened. Husband beat his wife to a pulp? They listened. The same is true for a law enforcement translator/interpreter listening to the police interrogate/torture a suspect. It’s not clean like a courtroom. It gets ugly. I, too, on occasions had the experience to listen live or to recordings of beatings. You don’t have to understand the words (as I did not for most operations). Hearing the thuds, smacks, screams and moans is enough. Of all the translators I worked with, most reported being deeply touched and sympathized with the beaten victims. None, however, shared with me that they personalized and empathized the experiences, i.e. suffered vicariously though the victims’ trauma.

    • Thank you Tom. You bring up a great perspective.

    • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

      Tom, as a person interested in data, I think it was wise of you to preface your remarks about the incidence of vicarious trauma with “I suspect…” In fact, you don’t know. You do not have the data, and I don’t, either. It would be nice to have. Comparing it to carpal-tunnel syndrome doesn’t really work. That is a medical condition about which data does exist.
      The fact of experiencing either carpal tunnel syndrome or vicarious trauma from interpreting does not necessarily mean that a person should switch fields.There are remedies for carpal tunnel syndrome, up to and including surgery. There are trainings available to help interpreters deal with vicarious trauma.
      The experience of vicarious trauma is apparently sufficiently widespread that it led to an international effort to create training materials for interpreters on how to deal with it. Those materials, called “Breaking Silence,” are available, gratis, here:

      • Kathleen M Morris says:

        Alohalani, thank you so much for your comments and links to resources on this topic. I had never heard of “vicarious trauma” until I started working in U.S. immigration court. It would not surprise me to know that some immigration court judges and even physicians and nurses may suffer from VT.

        We just tend to “suck it up” with a stiff upper lip, as “all part of the job”. And yes, it is part of the job. But there are valuable coping tools and resources available to us now, that did not exist before. On the last resource link you provided, under which section or page # is VT resources/information provided? I do not see it.

  • André Csihás, FCCI says:

    I’ve read your post and I’m happy to tell you that no matter how “tough” the hearing was, I never gave an inch of regard toward the “poor” witness, or the “poor” anyone on the stand or anywhere else: Some instances made me want to be elsewhere due to the offense in question, but I persevered because of my work ethic.

    During my apprenticeship and education in this profession, my teachers, mentors and advisors were very firm and clear with me regarding emotions during my interpretation.

    You can throw the worst of the worst against me, and after all the drama in any venues, I’ll calmly walk out of the courtroom feeling I’m the luckiest man in the world.

    No, I’ve NOT experienced vicarious trauma of any kind and I’m not about to: I simply let it roll like water off a duck’s back!

  • Kathleen M Morris says:

    Tom, I did not mean that interpreters are literally “first responders”. What the social worker was trying to convey to me was that the effect of repeated testimony about atrocities, can affect those of us who regularly work in criminal and immigration court settings, *in a similar way* as first responders can be emotionally affected by repeated witnessing of same (or of the “consequences” of cruel acts, fires, and medical conditions).

    • Tom Hoar says:

      Kathleen, not to argue but I simply disagree. Words have meanings. “vicarious” means “experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person.” These imagined fears and sorrows are no at all similar to the real experience of a bullet passing 1/2 inch from your ear, falling 2 stories through a burning building or suffering a lifetime of pain from inhaling toxic fumes. Does the person suffering from vicarious trauma feel emotional stress? Yes… but as the name of the condition clearly states, these are imagined emotions. I repeat. An interpreter (or anyone) suffers imagined trauma from exposure to an environment he/she should find a different environment that doesn’t affects their well-being. The awareness that this condition exists in some people is good. They need help. Through that help, they can change their career… but imagined trauma is not the same a memory of a real trauma.

      • Kathleen M Morris says:

        My comments on VT should not be taken to mean that, as court interpreters, we “literally” suffer the emotional trauma of a victim witness who has suffered from atrocities, nor that we “identify” with him/her. We are obviously impartial language professionals, and our work ethic and techniques should always reflect this, as rightly brought up by Tony and Tom.

        Nor should anyone assume that VT is a disabling or incapacitating condition (usually not the case at all), that would indicate that anyone should seek a “less stressful” occupation. Those potentially subject to VR are often not consciously aware of it. If you work in criminal and/or immigration court settings, in particular, be aware that it’s sensible to engage in pleasurable, enjoyable hobbies and activities, to release stress and tension.

        VR is real for some of us, an actual medical syndrome, as well explained to me by my social worker friend. That is all I was trying to communicate.

      • Tom, I think you are right. I believe that the vicarious trauma is another example of continuous effort to eliminate facts and override them with feel good feelings. All this is talk and talk is cheap. Facts are uch harder to come by and they are usually ignored by feel good crowd.

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    So far, I have not seen any reliable survey data that would show the incidence of vicarious trauma in various settings. That vicarious trauma exists, however, is a reality. There is a training offered to deal with it. One can find a description of the workshop “The Trauma-Informed Interpreter: Working with Domestic Violence and Abuse Victims” on p. 14 ((using overall page numbering); p. 2, using the numbering at the top of the page of the document. See:

  • Marcella Alohalani Boido says:

    “Breaking Silence,” the materials for training on trauma-informed interpreting are available for free here:

  • María Baker says:

    Thank you, Mr Rosado, for your perspective. As a medical interpreter, my feelings are similar. Vicarious trauma does not seem close to me, at least to my knowledge (I know some of the symptoms can sneak up to you even when you think you’re fine). Yet I hear about it at every conference I attend. I consider myself lucky that I don’t suffer from this, and I take advantage of it by taking on the assignments that might affect other professionals in a different way.

  • Balkies says:

    Hi 🙂
    Thank you for this article! It’s a very important topic.
    I’ve been following you for a relatively short time . I haven’t read everything but I really like this place!
    Recently after graduation , I started working as as a medical interpreter. I was very enthusiastic and excited to start my first job . I felt good about it . the fact that I’m helping people made feel satisfied. At the same time , I was pretty much overwhelmed by the daily doses of human suffering. I was too involved with the patients. I would actually think that they were my patients . I felt responsible for what happens to them . I felt their pain too deeply and for some reason I was holding my self accountable if something bad happens to them . To me , it wasn’t just interpreting , I would always stress their pain to the doctors . I would memorized their names , their diagnosis, the medication they received. I would follow up with every case I interpret . I was very obsessed you see . I was more like an advocate /interpreter ,if there’s something like that .Consequently ,I started to feel emotionally exhausted. I even experienced compassion fatigue , went through lots and lots of burn outs. I tried to take a vacation whenever it becomes intolerable.This wasn’t a solution obviously. It was more challenging to me to go back and report to work after all of that . After a year and half of working , I attended this workshop about vicarious trauma . All symptoms were familiar to me . I felt like I went through all of that without even knowing what it was . I’ve been reaching out to psychologists ever since. Reading what you wrote about being a spectator made me recall what my psychologist said in my first session . I really think you’re not a minority , I worked with four other interpreters who did more or less the same tasks I was doing and they haven’t experienced what I experienced. Now it’s my third year of working in interpreting and translating field . I’m no longer a medical translator but I’m still working with healthcare workers. It’s still difficult to me to not prolong deeply into work and remembering who I am and what I’m doing exactly . I think it depends on the interpreter’s background and personality. What you described was a very healthy environment and lifestyle and it made you immune maybe ? I honestly thought of quitting translating because it affected me negatively. But you sir, you’re impressive . ..And inspiring!

  • Em says:

    The folks at CCC are not too content with your blog Tony.

    • Dear Em, thank you for your comment. I do not believe they are talking about me because they do not mention me by name, but in the unfortunate case they are, all I can say is they misunderstood my article and arrived to conclusions that serve their interests. I never said what they attribute to me (if it is my blog they are quoting). I understand their reaction, remember, I never went beyond describing my own experience, but they have to protect their business from anything that may remotely raise a simple honest question. I would probably do the same if I offered workshops on interpreters’ vicarious trauma. The post was not meant to attack or endorse someone else’s business, it was an honest question from an experienced conference and court interpreter who has never experienced any trauma.

      • Em says:

        Tony they are talking about you, they even linked your blog post. in their article. The quote they posted is directly from your blog post.
        Is worth the discussion. I respect your experience and I think you have made good points.

  • Kathleen M Morris says:

    I, for one, applaud Tony for bringing up VT in this blog, for all to explore, whether you feel you may have been affected by it, or not. We have read comments from some who feel it affects them, and from others who have definitely not experienced VT. All professional topics are valid to explore on this blog, so generously organized and provided by Tony, on an infinite variety of valid issues that affect many in the profession.

  • Daniel V says:

    I haven’t experienced the trauma either. I know what is expected of me and I also feel like I know my profession well enough to have the right mental framework to keep most situations from getting out of hand. That’s the nature of our craft. Maybe I haven’t gone through something “so shocking” or maybe it takes something much more extreme. I’m just happy and thankful that no trauma has been inflicted so far.

    I have colleagues that indeed needed a way to explain their struggles and these seminars have allowed them to share an experience and find a moment of support from others that have gone through the same experiences and felt the same way. My co-workers had the opportunity to overcome a difficulty in their careers that i didn’t know they had, and I’m grateful for that.

    However, in my case, I feel like I’m being convinced that I have gone through trauma when I haven’t.

    Currently, the topic is being presented very often. It is a “hot” topic and it’s worth being presented-by professionals.

    Not everyone that presents on this topic knows the subject well enough.

    • André Csihás, FCCI says:

      Thank you, Daniel V. for your input and for cutting the pie with me!

      Seems to me, that this whole business has become more of a therapy session for the non-hackers than the matter at hand.

      My opinion has been, is and always will be, like that of Harry Truman: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!

  • We cannot generalise. Every person is different, and they may be different from one day to the next. Interpreters have mental health issues or vulnerabilities themselves, most of the time unaware unless they practice mindfulness or something similar. Also, it has been demonstrated that traumatic events leave ‘scars’ in the body (nervous system) and may come up much later. Wether you can ‘take the heat’ or not depends on your resilience, your stress levels, your emotional intelligence and even on your gut microbiome, which we now know plays a pivotal role in your mental health state.

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