Do many interpreters experience vicarious trauma?
May 7, 2019 § 26 Comments
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.
When the interpreter needs to see the speaker in person.
April 19, 2016 § 3 Comments
Earlier this year I interpreted an event on victims’ rights and vulnerable populations, and part of the assignment took place in the town of Truckee, California, right at the state line with Nevada, in the area of Lake Tahoe. Among many topics, the conference touched upon the temporary restraining order, and no-contact hearings held at the request of alleged victims by both, the California and Nevada state court systems. The presenters who dealt with this issue were an attorney and a social worker. They both discussed the many obstacles faced by the victims of these crimes, who are often re-victimized by the court proceedings, and the added difficulties when the alleged victim does not speak English. They explained that in these cases, they have to resort to a telephonic interpreting service that is far from ideal, as there are many things that cannot be interpreted or conveyed over the phone in domestic violence, or any type of violence hearings. The social worker commented that the problems are the same when the alleged victims are taken to a medical facility for care or examination.
All of us have read and talked so much about telephonic and video remote interpreting during the last few years, that I did not think that another blog entry on this issue could be of any interest, but the description of the problems faced by these alleged victims, and a recent personal experience with video remote interpreting where the computer showed image, but the telephone lines did not work, and after almost an hour of fruitless efforts by the technicians, we had to do the remote meeting between Texas and Washington, D.C. using regular Skype, with all of its shortfalls and limitations, is what made me realize that there may be certain events that are not big, that may not be high profile, and that may only impact a handful of people, which necessarily require of in-person interpreting.
Those of you who have been following this blog for years know that I am all for technology and video remote interpreting (VRI), as long as it benefits those providing the service, there is not an intermediary taking advantage of the interpreters, and the quality of the event does not suffer. My opinion about these technologies has not changed, but I have come to the conclusion that a blanket endorsement of VRI interpreting is as bad and damaging as total opposition to it. After the California event I mentioned above, I contacted the speakers to hear more about the obstacles they have faced when doing telephone interpreting for these court hearings and medical appointments.
They explained that it is very difficult to convey the gravity of a violent act, or the seriousness of an injury, when the alleged victim points to a part of the body, or describes a symptom, and the interpreter is not there to see the action, to witness the physical motions, or to understand the body language and cultural nuances. In other words, it is very hard to interpret: “your honor, it hurts here” when the interpreter has no idea of where “here” is. Remote interpreting in these cases could easily result in the denial of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and the alleged victim could remain unprotected by the law, while the alleged perpetrator may become emboldened by the lack of action by the courts. It could also adversely affect the medical care that an alleged victim needs, simply because the interpreter could not see what was going on at the doctor’s office or the emergency room.
To me, it is clear that the nature of the interpreting assignment, and the ultimate goals of the event interpreted: to protect the life and physical integrity of another human being, or to assess a medical condition and provide the appropriate care and treatment, clearly justifies the expense of physically having the interpreter in the same room as the non-English speaker. There are cases when a telephonic or VRI interpreter is better than nothing. Nobody is saying that these resources have no application in reality. Of course, emergency rooms in rural areas, and 9-11 emergency operators are better off with the assistance of a telephonic or video remote interpreter, but the cases we are discussing today do not fall under this category. There is no moral excuse, and I would even say that in my opinion legal justification, for not providing in-person interpreting for these hearings or medical appointments. Of course it will be more expensive than using a telephone line, but the goal justifies it. This is an area where governments cannot be saving money. There are no places in the United States that are so inaccessible that an interpreter cannot get there once he or she has been properly scheduled (and remunerated). In the case I am referring to, the town in question is less than an hour away from Reno, Nevada. I know there are court and healthcare interpreters in Reno who would be willing to travel to these towns to provide their services in person. The only reason they do not go at this time is that nobody wants to pay them what they deserve as professionals. If the fee was appropriate, interpreters would be going to this town from places as far away as Las Vegas or Sacramento. The same can be said about every town in the country.
VRI and telephone interpreting should never be used in situations where the physical element is crucial for a proper rendition, even when the money savings make it so attractive that those responsible for the event look the other way in order to save money. I have heard from several colleagues that in the state-level court system of one of the states, video and telephonic interpreting is currently used even when there is not appropriate equipment. Allegedly, even hand-held cellular phones have been used to interpret hearings. Interpreters also complain that in the same state, complex hearings such as change of plea hearings, those court proceedings where an individual admits guilt in a criminal case that can potentially carry many years in prison, have been held telephonically; and apparently, said state does not have a policy or protocol to educate judges and other court officers as to what hearings should be off limits for telephone or VRI interpreting. Obviously, a first appearance before court, or a status hearing where no testimony will be heard, and no change of plea will be allowed, are fine for telephonic and VRI interpreting services when the equipment is appropriate and the staff has been properly trained.
Interpreters do exist for many reasons, and sometimes, those reasons are so important that the only acceptable interpreting service is that rendered in person. We need to make sure that it is now that correct policy is adopted and safeguards are in place. This is the right time as we are still at the beginning of this technological wave that will eventually influence everything we do as professional interpreters. If we do not act at this time, it will be more difficult in the future once systems are in place and money has been spent to do something that should have never been considered as feasible. I ask you to please share your thoughts and comments about this very important topic.