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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