Here Are the Coping Mechanisms Interpreters Need to Deal With Vicarious Trauma

Language Interpreter Coping Mechanisms

Mental health and therapy, community and public services, healthcare and clinical settings, legal investigations and courtroom proceedings, as well as conflict zones are just a few of the circumstances where interpreters are needed.

To retell an experience with the speaker’s intended meaning, interpreters visualize the experience, cognitively engage with the content, reproduce the emotions of the speaker, and use the first-person singular or plural pronoun when delivering the message, according to research by Noor Khatijah Zafirah, Richard J. T. Hamshaw, and Annabella Dyer. This can intensify an interpreter’s emotions and enhance potential traumatic impact.

The Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting of the Ionian University organized an online event focusing on the significance of translation and interpreting in crisis settings as well as on the impact that such settings may have on interpreters.

John Richard Stokbak Sciabà, certified interpreter and translator of Norwegian, English, and Spanish, and founding member of the Norwegian Interpreters Association, spoke at the online event. He explained the immediate and long-term effects any embodiment of emotions may have on interpreters drawing on the literature and on some of his personal experiences — interpreting at the Breivik case, a Norwegian terrorist trial, as well as other court cases involving heinous crimes.

The Cost of Caring

According to Stokbak Sciabà, numerous studies have shown that repeated exposure to traumatic stories and information can have some psychological consequences for interpreters, such as the following:

  • Emotional choking – acute impairment of mental skills because of emotional reactions (i.e., fight-flight-freeze response);
  • Vicarious trauma – cognitive change resulting from empathic engagement with trauma survivors, causing alteration in beliefs about safety, trust, and control;
  • Secondary traumatic stress – natural and consequential behavior and emotions from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by a client, stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering client, behavioral symptoms that mirror post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in primary victims of trauma;
  • Professional burnout – physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual exhaustion resulting from continuous exposure to persons who are vulnerable or suffering;
  • Compassion fatigue (or “cost of caring”) – emotional and physical fatigue due to empathy (combines secondary traumatic stress and professional burnout).
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The aforementioned psychological consequences may be affected by some general as well as interpreter-specific risk factors, Stokbak Sciabà added. 

General risk factors include pre-existing conditions (such as personal trauma history), high workload, suppression of emotions, organizational setting, bureaucratic constraints, inadequate supervision, lack of availability of client resources, lack of support from colleagues, and agency culture. (The latter is defined as an accepting culture that helps alleviate the stigma professionals may have about feeling inadequate or incapable of completing work.)

Interpreter-specific risk factors include limited control of work situations, lack of peer support while working alone, the need to suppress feelings and express those of others, and the limited acceptance of own emotional reactions and the interpreter’s role (i.e., only interpret).

Stokbak Sciabà said he suffered both during and after the Breivik trial from emotional choking, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and “survivor’s guilt.”

Coping Strategies 

Consistent with its mission to promote the highest standards in the interpreting profession, the Board of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) recognized that vicarious trauma, burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue are real risks and that guidance for interpreters is needed.

More specifically, the ITI Board recommended the following:

  • Vicarious trauma awareness should be prevalent across all stages of the interpreting procurement process. It is crucial not to presume that helping interpreters experiencing secondary trauma is someone else’s concern. This problem requires a proactive response.
  • End organizations, intermediaries, interpreters, and professional associations should collaborate to ensure that interpreters working in potentially traumatizing settings are adequately informed about the risks involved in providing their services. Briefing and debriefing sessions are vital.
  • Increased communication between end organizations, intermediaries, interpreters, and professional associations is required to ensure that practices take into account interpreter well-being.
  • End organizations and intermediaries should make their facilities and support services — if established and available — known and accessible to interpreters.
  • Engagement between professional associations and already established facilities and support services of end organizations and intermediaries should be encouraged so that interpreters can receive training on how to recognize secondary trauma symptoms, how to protect themselves, and where to seek help if they are affected.
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Along the same lines, Ludmila Golovine, Founder and CEO of MasterWord, during a recent presentation at the American Translators Association (ATA), reported some coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and anxiety as well as the emotional toll of hearing the traumatic stories of other people.

  • Behavioral (healthy lifestyle, self-care,take a gratefulness moment)
  • Cognitive (reframing, mental grounding)
  • Emotional (name the emotion, ask for help)
  • Spiritual (meditation and/or prayer, spiritual support)
  • Physical (exercise, sleep, mini-breaks, well-balanced meals)
  • Interpersonal (informal debriefing, peer support)