The Cost of Caring – Vicarious Trauma in Interpreters

You’re sitting in a courtroom at a war tribunal. You hear “I had to watch them being slaughtered,” “I can still hear them scream.”

You’re standing at the hospital bed of someone who tried to kill himself. You hear, “My life is not worth living anymore, I just want it to be over.”

You’re talking to a child who was sexually abused. You hear, “He came to me every single night, I had no one to turn to.”

Except you’re not just hearing it. You’re saying it. You see it, you feel it, you live it. You can’t stop thinking about it. There’s no hiding from it. You feel physically ill. You’re stuck in a loop until the lines are blurred and you can no longer tell who this really happened to.

What is this and why won’t it go away?

When helping hurts

Vicarious trauma is a well-known phenomenon in first response and helping professions, such as nursing, child protective services, clergy work, and many more.

Interpreters have reported cases of vicarious trauma since the Nuremberg Trials, but it is reasonable to assume that they have struggled with it ever since the allegedly second oldest profession came about. Yet, not many know and talk about the issue in the interpreting community.

Let’s take a closer look.

Stress and burnout

It is no news that interpreting is a highly demanding and strenuous task. In fact, in a study from 2007, the WHO called simultaneous interpreting the third most stressful job in the world – after pilots and air traffic controllers. This is why interpreters work in strict intervals, take regular breaks, and receive recoup time to help them stay alert and reduce the risk of experiencing burnout and other negative effects.

Burnout is a known risk in the interpreting industry. Its main characteristics are physical, emotional, and cognitive exhaustion, caused by overwhelming demands and prolonged stress.  Vicarious trauma, however, goes beyond burnout.

The cost of caring

Vicarious trauma happens when we internalize someone else’s trauma and experience it as if it were our own. It is often referred to as the cost of caring and described as the emotional residue helpers are left with after working with victims and survivors.

People who experience vicarious trauma are affected on multiple levels – physically, emotionally, and mentally. Some feel ill or experience actual physical pain. Others are plagued with insomnia and nightmares.

Vicarious trauma mimics the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even though the actual trauma happened to someone else. Similarly, as with PTSD, some suffer from vicarious trauma for 10 or 20 years. Others even report that it permanently changed their view on the world and their personality.

Five years ago, Mila Golovine, CEO of MasterWord, launched the Wellness Connection program to raise awareness around the issue of vicarious trauma in interpreting. She is an interpreter herself and offers training and webinars specifically designed for interpreters, to help them combat the issue.

A study Mila brings attention to revealed that more than half of interpreters working in mental health services are negatively impacted by their work:


Source: Doherty, MacIntyre & Wyne, 2010

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The same study also found that 56 percent think about their sessions for up to half an hour afterward, and 23 percent think about it between several hours and days after sessions.

Why interpreters are particularly affected

Interpreters do more than just witness a trauma. They channel it. During an assignment, interpreters have to visualize what is being said and then retell it with the same intensity, emotions, and intent as the speaker.

In addition, by speaking in the first person and constantly repeating “I,” interpreters internalize the trauma and start to experience it as their own. It is not someone else telling a story, it is the interpreters themselves saying those words and expressing those feelings.

“We live through the same situation, with the patient, with the victim,” Mila explains. She points out that interpreters can feel emotionally devastated after certain encounters and asks: “What do you do after sitting next to a mother who is holding a dead baby in her arms?”

Mila elaborates that “research shows that 100 percent of people who witness a traumatic experience are affected by it. However, about 60-70 percent bounce back, but 30-40 percent don’t.” She states that interpreters are more likely to fall into the 30-40 percent bracket, “because it’s a repeated exposure.”

Especially for medical interpreters, interpreters working in conflict zones, and interpreters working with victims of abuse these are not one-off events. It’s their everyday jobs. They go through it over and over again, with the images and feelings piling up.

Lack of awareness

Unlike in other professions in which vicarious trauma is a common theme, there is a lack of awareness about the problem among interpreters. This has three main consequences:

One: Many interpreters who experience vicarious trauma do not recognize it. They experience the symptoms but don’t understand what is happening to them and why. Many report that it took them years and a major breakdown to realize what was going on.

Two: The ones able to identify the issue often feel isolated. They think they are the only one this is happening to. That they’re the odd one out. Maybe even that there is something wrong with them. Because nobody talks about it.

Three: Identifying the problem is the first step, but what good does it do when you have no way of changing your situation? There is a significant lack of tools and support available to interpreters to help them combat vicarious trauma.

What you can do to help

Vendors, talent managers, and even language service buyers should be aware of the problem. In another study Mila highlights, 30 percent of participants reported that their emotional difficulties stem from dealing with service providers. The main issues they named were:

  • a lack of understanding of the interpreter role
  • a lack of respect for the profession
  • feeling dehumanized when people view them as “machines”

So make an effort to inform yourself about the role of the interpreters you employ and remember to treat them like people, not translation machines.

Establish a network among your interpreters. Having someone available to listen without judgment can help to relieve the burden. This debrief partner concept has proven as an effective tool for interpreters to acknowledge what they’re going through and leave their work at work.

Educate your clients about the work your interpreters do and about the risk of vicarious trauma. Many hospitals offer services to chaplains and medical staff to help them deal with their experiences. If you’re working in the medical sector, ask your client to extend the service to the interpreters you provide.

Refer your interpreters to courses specifically designed to prepare them for vicarious trauma and help them combat it. Mila’s training and webinars, for example, offer great insights and applicable tools interpreters can use before, during, and after assignments.

What’s in it for you?

Aside from being a good person? There is a practical element for language service providers (LSPs), namely that looking after your interpreters is good for business. If your interpreters repeatedly suffer from vicarious trauma, chances are they will be less likely to take demanding assignments and leave slots unfilled.

They might also go through periods where the symptoms are so bad that they need to take prolonged leaves of absence, thereby increasing your interpreter turnover.

Even for the interpreters that do still take assignments, it is likely that these underlying struggles make them less focused. This can lead to a decrease in quality and patient/client satisfaction.

The Nimdzi recommendation

Inform yourself, help raise awareness, and support your interpreters. It’s good for them, for your clients, and for your business.

Interested in learning more? We are working on an insights report on the same topic to provide you with the data and tools you need to stay ahead of the game.

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