Vicarious Trauma Affecting Interpreters and Translators

Vicarious Trauma Affecting Interpreters and Translators

Vicarious trauma is a phrase heard often in the victim service and medical professions. Crisis responders bear witness to the trauma that their clients and patients experience and are routinely provided opportunities to release some of the emotional burden that their work encompasses.

Professional translators and interpreters act as language tools and are expected to perform like machines. Yet the very real nature of the interpreter’s assignments has an emotional and physical impact that, if unaddressed, can significantly impair an individual’s ability to perform their job. Language professionals may find that they are completing their assignments in a timely manner, but that they are unable to leave behind the images of their client’s experience. Whether transcribing a police interview, interpreting during a medical crisis, or translating a victim statement, language professionals are rarely given the opportunity to debrief after a stressful event.

Studies show that when our brains are triggered by a dangerous event or trauma (either physical or emotional), the limbic system “hijacks” the brain temporarily. 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 has experienced a similar event or feels empathy for the client, he or she may struggle with finding the appropriate words to interpret the client’s experience. The interpreter may walk out of the appointment saying, “What just happened- I am normally so good at what I do?”

The symptoms of vicarious trauma, including anxiety, anger and self doubt, were relayed by interpreters and translators who were working on projects for the TI Center. Our translators reported feeling agitated and sad, reading their completed translations over and over, doubting themselves and their competency.

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As a result, the TI Center staff, along with staff at the Denver Center for Crime Victims, began researching how they could help language professionals understand the impact of interpreting others’ stress and trauma and recapture their energy for working with the public.

In response, the TI Center has launched a 6-hour workshop, entitled Health Enabling for Language Professionals (HELP). Participants will learn how to cope with the physical and emotional challenges that you face as a language professional. You will learn how the brain and body react to trauma and then practice some proven stress management techniques. By the end of the workshop you will be a stronger more positive person, both professionally and personally.