Vicarious Trauma in Interpreting


According to the Vicarious Trauma Institute, vicarious trauma is defined as what happens to an individual’s neurological (or cognitive), physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual health while listening to traumatic stories or responding to traumatic situations while having to control emotional reactions on a regular basis.

When thinking of vicarious trauma, we often think of those who work with victims of crime or medical professionals. From research done in the field of Interpreting Studies, we have seen that although the interpreter is often viewed as a simple “language machine”, this is obviously not the case. Apart from the various issues regarding the complex cognitive processes of the interpreter as well as their role as an intercultural communication mediator, an interpreter is a human being that has human emotions. As studies in neurophysiology have shown, the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions, is much older than the prefrontal cortex and neocortex, which are responsible for cognitive processes, reasoning, problem-solving, planning and analytic processes. When the brain receives new information, the thalamus sends out signals first to the amygdale, which is part of the limbic system, and then to the neocortex. Therefore, the emotional brain receives the information first. Furthermore, studies show that when our brains are triggered by a dangerous event or trauma (either physical or emotional), the limbic system temporarily takes over the brain. The left side of the brain shuts down and the right side of the brain takes over. Unfortunately for an interpreter, language is controlled by the left brain. If an interpreter experiences a traumatic event or feels empathy for the client, they may find it difficult to interpret the service user’s message without realizing why. However, unlike many health or legal professionals, interpreters often don’t have access to support and many interpreters may not even be aware that it is emotional stress that is affecting their performance.

To avoid an interpreter being affected by vicarious trauma, it is recommended that a short debrief take place with an interpreter upon completion of an assignment that could have been emotionally upsetting in any way. In addition, it may be a good idea to inform the interpreter of the possible emotional content of the meeting before it takes place so that he or she is able to mentally prepare for the assignment. If, during the meeting, emotions start to run high, perhaps it would appropriate to have a short break for all involved so that the meeting may carry on effectively. Finally, everyone has different life experiences and some assignments may include topics that are more sensitive to certain interpreters. Providing information about the assignment will help companies find an interpreter that is best suited to the assignment.

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7 Responses to Vicarious Trauma in Interpreting

  1. Robert Finnegan says:

    Hi, I work as a translator with the UN translating documents pertaining to crimes against humanity – statements, reports, forensics etc – I can attest to the vicarious trauma – the first year of my work it hit me hard and at times I very nearly quit. Eventually I learned to detach myself emotionally. I wouldn`t have been able to continue otherwise.

  2. Gemma Ravagni says:

    Yes, I too had similar esperience after interpreting in a highly charge atmosphere for a patient suffering with terminal cancer. After the interpretation I felt taken over by a range of emotional states and as the assignment was over a certain period of time I felt I was not able to cope and nearly quit but then slowly I adjusted to the situation.
    However everytime at the end of the session I felt very abandoned with my strong feeling going all over the place and once at the Hospital I asked if they have a councelor I could talk to. They hadn’t. I fully agree with the article that a debrief of any kind should take place after the session is over.

  3. Andrei says:

    Technically the gender of the itenrpreter should not make a difference, just as the examining doctor’s gender should not make a difference. But I would say it is a more complex issue than that which involves cultural background, assimilation and age of the client. As an itenrpreter my task is to remain neutral and pass the message in its truest form. And the message can only be passed on in its truest form if it is clear, straightforward and unambiguous. As soon as the client/patient is trying to find terminology to camouflage their own discomfort one is facing a very different task indeed. My experience is that I have sat in immigration hearings where the case has been adjourned because the appellant decided that her rape case should after all be discussed in a all female court (that option was available to her all the time but when it came to the crunch she just broke down).In answer to your question: yes I would agree to interpret however I would be prepared for the client/patient to change their mind half way through the discussion or procedure and seek a male itenrpreter.

  4. E Herrera says:

    Excellent article.

  5. Iris says:

    Prior to interpreting as a full time career I worked in Social Services for very low income residents for many years and before that I worked as a Mental Health worker. Both of those jobs really taught me how to detach from emotional involvement in order to be an effective help in the situation. Yet, there are occasions where my emotions get stirred up. I am always thankful when a judge or a prison guard gives me the “heads up” on any possibility of “trouble ahead” then I can quickly prepare myself mentally. Also, I am never really alone if I can remember to say a prayer. Thank you, great article. I’m glad somebody is thinking about interpreters!

  6. I was involved with an HIV Aids patient for just over three years. I did everything for him in terms of making and attending appointments, minor operations and so on. The people involved in arranging his life used to come through me for everything. So, in a way, I felt as though I had become him.

    One Christmas morning I was called to the hospital. I walked into the patient’s room and a youngish female doctor looked up from her clipboard and said “ Can you tell this patient he has perhaps two days to live” She then left the room without another word.

    I had never heard of Vicarious Trauma until recently and I guess this experience falls into this category. If I think about what happened I still get absolutely furious, especially as the hospital wrote to me about three months later asking me to get ‘my client’ to fill out a form saying whether or not he was satisfied in the way I interpreted for him. He had died on Boxing Day, the very next day. This took place in one of London’s leading Teaching Hospitals.

    I did not receive nor did I seek any counselling, but in retrospect, this was very traumatic and something not to be repeated and counselling of some kind might well have been in order.

    Why am I writing about this now, some fifteen years later? Because I am still furious with the doctor and the hospital, and this article has brought back the memory.

    A pre and post briefing should have taken place. The Doctor should have, at the very least, said good morning acknowledging the fact that I had made the effort to come out on a snowy Christmas morning, and she should have stayed with me while I spoke to the patient. I spent several hours with the patient before saying a final farewell. I had to ring for a nurse to attend, not only for me to tell them that I was leaving, but also, to have someone stay with the patient who was beyond himself with worry and fear.

    • Dear Philip,

      Thank you for sharing your experience with us. After so many years, understandably, it is still not easy.

      From an interpreting point of view, you should not have been left on your own with the patient. An interpreter is there to interpret for at least 2 parties. Therefore, including the interpreter, there should have been at least three parties in the room, namely the patient, the medical professional and the interpreter.

      Should the medical professional have been present in the room when delivering the sad news to the patient, perhaps the said medical professional would have noticed that you were affected by the news that you had to deliver.

      We could not agree more with you: a briefing and a debriefing is good practice in any interpreting scenario. It should have been a must in the one that you describe above.

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