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.

How to Defend Your Rendition and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter.

May 7, 2013 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Good professional interpreters are usually consumed with taking care of their clients, improving their skills, managing their agenda, and marketing to new clients.  This takes a lot of time and energy, and it is essential to succeed in this career.  Unfortunately, sometimes during their career some interpreters may experience other aspects of the profession that are less pleasant, more time-consuming, and very stressful.

Our professional tools are our brain, mouth, and a language combination. We can make mistakes, we are susceptible to questioning and second-guessing by others, and in out litigious society we are exposed to lawsuits that can leave us with no career, no resources, and a tainted reputation.

There are many circumstances that can affect our career as professional interpreters, but at this time I would like to focus on two of them:

When our work is subject to criticism and questioning by our peers or by a counterpart in a legal setting. We all have faced situations when in the middle of a court hearing a judge, attorney, witness, litigant, and even a juror, have interrupted our rendition to correct what we just said. Most of the time we were right and they were wrong. On occasion, because we are not machines, and because nobody can possibly know all regional expressions, these voices do us a favor as they correct our mistake and allow justice to be served. These are the scenarios we usually face when doing our job.  It sounds simple and straight to the point:  Either we are right and we say so in order to keep the process moving along, or we are wrong, and in that case we correct our error.  Unfortunately this is not how it happens in the real world.  Out there we have to deal with attorneys who are not happy because their non-English speaking client or witness is not saying what they wanted them to say, so the first thing they do is to cast a doubt over the rendition of the interpreter; there are those cases when the non-English speaker passionately defends his “translation” of a term even though we know for sure that he is mistaken. Sometimes the problem may be the judge who does not speak the foreign language, but out of fear of offending the non-English speaker decides to question the interpreter and sometimes even to adopt this person’s rendition of a word or term that you know is clearly wrong.

The second situation I want to mention to you is when a case does not end the way that one of the parties wanted it to conclude and the blame is totally or partly placed on the interpretation. The court decision is appealed on grounds of inadequate interpretation, or even worse, the interpreter is sued for damages by this losing party.  How can we defend our work when our rendition is questioned and the case goes on appeal? What can we do to protect ourselves in case somebody takes us to court for damages? There are preventive measures that we can take as interpreters to diminish the possibility of having to defend our work, our assets, and our reputation.  There are also steps we must follow in case our professional work is questioned or attacked in court.

These complex issues have to be addressed, and as true professionals we must be prepared in case this happens to us. For this reason, I will present: How to Defend Your Interpretation and Professional Reputation as an Interpreter in and out of Court” during the NAJIT annual conference in St. Louis, Missouri on May 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm. I invite you to go to the conference and I encourage you to attend this presentation where we will discuss these sad but possible scenarios and we will explore the different preventive measures that we should always take in order to avoid an adverse outcome, as well as the path to follow once our rendition or our skill has been formally questioned in a court of law.  I hope to see you in St. Louis.

Are court interpreters at risk of committing a crime?

March 5, 2013 § 12 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Some of you may have noticed that for about a couple of years there has been a tendency to redefine the court interpreter profession.  Some are now saying that we should not even call ourselves court interpreters; that we should instead refer to those who interpret in court as “cultural brokers,” “language specialists,” “language facilitators,” and many other similar titles.  The basic idea behind this new movement is that many times court interpreters interpret correctly and accurately what has being said in court, but the person they are interpreting for, usually a defendant, victim, or witness, does not understand what happened during the court proceeding.  Some claim that because of cultural differences, lack of formal education, economic factors, and others, these people who do not speak English need more than just interpretation. They need explanations, descriptions, maybe even a lower registry in order to understand what is happening in court.

It has been suggested that court interpretation rules and practices are outdated and therefore ineffective; it has been said that these ethical and professional considerations and expectations cripple the process as they contribute to increase the barrier of misunderstanding instead of eliminating it. The proposal is to approach judges and attorneys and inform them that court interpreters need to change their ethical and professional rules, and that as language professionals, they need to be the ones amending them, not other professionals who are not entirely familiar with the interpreter profession.

It has been suggested that nothing changes in a case when the interpreter tells the defendant that his charges have been “dropped” even though the judge said that they had been “dismissed.”  That this allows the defendant to understand better.

I agree that our job is to make sure that two people who do not speak the same language can communicate.  I agree that the law is technical, complicated, and full of big words and obscure terms. I am aware of the speed at which hearings are conducted in most courthouses, and I do not dispute that it is very difficult to follow a proceeding that took 90 seconds.  The problem is that I am also aware of a crime named: “Unauthorized Practice of the Law.”

Black’s Law Dictionary defines it as “The practice of law by a person, typically a non-lawyer, who has not been licensed or admitted to practice law in a given jurisdiction.” (Black’s Law Dictionary. 7th. Ed. St. Paul, MN: West. Pp 1191-1192) Even licensed attorneys are barred from practicing in jurisdictions (states) where they have not passed the bar exam and being sworn in as attorneys according to Rule 5.5 of the Multijurisdictional Practice of Law Rules of the American Bar Association (ABA) Moreover, unlawful practice of the law is illegal in the federal and state judicial systems, and it  constitutes a crime. Some states treat it as a misdemeanor like Arizona and New Mexico, and in some states a behavior of falsely claiming to be a lawyer is a felony  (TX Penal Code Ch. 38 Section 38.122 & 38.123) Misdemeanors can carry up to one year in jail, and felonies can land a person in prison for even longer.

Asking an interpreter to interpret accurately and completely is appropriate and expected. Asking an interpreter to “edit” and decide what to say and how to say it, even with an amended set of rules of ethics and professionalism, creates a situation where that interpreter has to navigate the very treacherous waters of the law, and act as a cultural and linguistic broker without breaking the law, and with the constant possibility of being deprived of his or her freedom.   In my opinion the risk is too high and many interpreters are not prepared or willing to make a distinction between those illegal activities that constitute unlawful practice of law, and those others that would help the defendant, victim, or witness understand what just happed in a court hearing.

The solution has to be somewhere in the middle:  A good and honest interpreter must be aware of the cultural differences between client and attorney, parties and judge.  If the interpreter determines that there is a problem in the communication, he or she must tell the English speaker attorney that his client may be having difficulties understanding some of the concepts that were debated, the interpreter must help the attorney by explaining the possibility of a cultural, economic, emotional wall between her and her client.  That ends the interpreter’s obligation. Now it is up to the attorney (or judge) who needs to explain and maybe rephrase some of what has been mentioned to her client: the defendant.  It is the attorney who should be giving legal advice, not the interpreter. The attorney needs to determine what is said and explained to the client. The interpreter must interpret all explanations the attorney gives to her client.  In other words, there is nothing wrong in telling the attorney that his client is not understanding what is being said in court.  This way the interpreter stays within his field, and the attorney practices law.  Please share with us your thoughts on this new trend, and tell us your opinion on what needs to be done.

When law enforcement agencies do everything they can to avoid hiring a real interpreter.

August 17, 2012 § 9 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

The other day one of my colleagues asked my opinion about the quality of the Spanish a police officer was using during a recorded interview.  This colleague had been retained by the defense to analyze and transcribe the video of a police interview by a police woman in a very small town in the Midwest. As I sat there and listened to the nonsensical utterances that were emanating from this officer’s mouth, I went down memory lane and lived through them all again. I will never forget the police department that used a monolingual (in English) Hispanic woman as an interpreter for all of their investigations because “she grew up 20 miles from the Texas-Mexico border…(and that)…was enough to assume she spoke enough Spanish to communicate with the suspects…”  and how could I forget the police station that hired as interpreters all those who had failed the court interpreter certification test because “…they were cheaper and knew about the same…”  Never mind the disastrous results like the time when a little girl who had been the alleged victim of sexual abuse was considered to be a liar because the police interpreter did not know how to say “Christmas tree” in Spanish.  And the time when the “interpreter” referred to the pedestrian charges as the “pedophile charges”.  And yes! There was the man who interpreted the polygraph tests into Spanish and explained how to wear the wires by lifting, holding, bending, and stretching the suspects.  Hulk Hogan would have been proud of his technique.

During all my years as an interpreter, and specifically through my work as a court interpreter, I have learned that the common denominator among most police forces in the country seems to be their desire to save money on interpretation.  Apparently the fact that the investigation is jeopardized by using the services of unqualified or under-qualified linguists is not a concern.  Even in those towns where cases are systematically dismissed by the prosecution, or dismissed by the judges, because of violations to the rights of the defendant, or where indictments are based on faulty testimony, all due to a lack of communication between the English speaking authority and the non-English speaker defendant, victim, or witness,  because of poor interpretation, chiefs of police,  budget analysts, and city administrators are choosing the cheaper service provider over the sound and accurate legal investigation.

We all know that a dollar saved on a bad interpreter will translate on thousands of dollars spent on a new trial, an appeal process, or a brand new investigation.  Every time I have a chance, I talk to law enforcement administrators and try to explain how a real interpreter costs more, but at the same time she saves you money.  A $100.00 per hour interpreter will do her job correctly in two hours, while a mediocre $40.00 per hour individual will take longer, as he struggles to understand the language, comprehend the process, and communicate the concepts to both, police officer and non-English speaker.  After 8 long hours with a bad “interpreter”, the investigation moved very little, the legal process was violated several times, the cheap interpreter cost $320.00, and he has to come back the next day to finish the interview.  There were no savings.

So, as I sat there watching this video, looking at my colleague working so hard, writing down the mistakes of the interpreter doing the interview, making footnotes of her omissions, charting the additions she volunteered into the interview, and listening to my interpreter friend telling me how this police woman, part-time “interpreter” had already caused the dismissal of many cases because of her lack of skill and knowledge, I came to a strange realization:  The good interpreters are losing these police assignments to the bad ones, but because of this policy by the police departments, these good interpreters are now working as expert witnesses and linguistic advisors to the parties.  Therefore, at the end, the good interpreter wins because it is more lucrative to be the expert witness or advisor. But wait; what about the defendant, the victim, and society at large?  They may all get their justice in the long run after a lengthy legal process of appeals and re-tried cases, but in the meantime the victim will not feel safe, the innocent defendant will sit in a cell, and society will pay a hefty legal bill. All because the police department wants to save by hiring the bad interpreter.  I would like to read your comments and experiences about this topic.

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