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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