Professional Encounters:

Before the Encounter

What can you do before an assignment to minimize stress?

Language professionals may be subjected to many different stressors in the course of their professional practice. We can identify two main sources of stress for interpreters and translators: task-related stress and content-related stress.

Task-related stress is caused by stressors associated with preparing and completing assignments and projects, such as technological demands, commuting, and time pressures. Stuck in traffic while on the way to an interpreting assignment? Computer malfunction caused a delay in a translation project? If this sounds familiar, then you may have experienced a task-related stress.

Content-related stress is accompanied by anxious apprehension – the type of stress experienced by an interpreter during a traumatic encounter or a translator working on a document with distressing content. It is the emotional charge that a language professional experiences while translating a document describing a client’s trauma or interpreting a client’s traumatic narrative. It is content-related stress that causes vicarious trauma in language professionals.

So what can you do to minimize or eliminate the negative stressors before your next interpreting assignment or a translation project?

Scroll to learn more.

Did you know?…

Before we move further, consider this: STRESS IS YOUR FRIEND! Friend? Yes, you read it right! How you perceive stress makes all the difference. Watch this TED Talk where a psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive.


Minimize task-related stress

Remember that task-related stress comes from the mechanics of an assignment or project. The good news is that you can control most – if not all – task-related stress. Thus, it is possible to greatly minimize task-related stress in your professional practice, and even eliminate it for certain activities. Here are a few things you can do before your next interpreting assignment or translation project:

Be prepared! Be punctual! Be present!

Know where you are going

If you are on an interpreting assignment, make sure you have the correct address/location information, including any suite, office or room number. If applicable, ask about where you should check in before and check out after your assignment.

Have your tools ready

Make sure your have a pen and a note pad for taking notes during your interpreting assignment. Starting a translation project? Ensure that you have the right software, logins, reference resources and any other tools necessary for completing the project before you start.

Dress appropriately

If you want to be seen as a professional, dress like a professional. Your outfit should always be appropriate for the setting you are working in. Some workplaces may provide a written dress code outlining specifically what is appropriate and what is not, so be sure to check for specific instructions. If you are not sure what type of dress code* a particular assignment calls for, it is always better to overdress. If you are a freelance interpreter, it is a good idea to have a spare professional outfit in your car in case you are called to an assignment while out running errands. (Of course, dress code rules don’t apply if you are a freelance translator working from home. Go ahead, enjoy your favorite PJs).

Be on time

Have you heard a saying "Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable"? Punctuality is as important for language professionals as their linguistic skills. An interpreter or translator who is chronically late is untrustworthy. But besides hurting your professional reputation, tardiness can have a tangible psychological impact. Nothing gets you more riled up and breaking into a cold sweat as running late. If you are on your way to an interpreting assignment, make sure you allow enough time for traffic and parking, especially if you are heading to an unfamiliar location for the first time. Starting a new translation project? Before committing to it, make sure you are confident you can complete the project by the promised deadline. A rush project now and then is understandable, but don't make it a habit. Time pressures on a continuous or regular basis are a sure way to an unhealthy anxiety and burnout.

Eliminate distractions

You know what they are: phones, gadgets, emails, social media... They all vie for our attention at the most inopportune moments. The cost of these distractions to our personal and professional lives is well researched. A joint study** conducted by the University of California (Irvine, CA) and Humboldt University (Berlin, Germany) found that a typical office employee gets only 11 minutes between interruptions, while it takes on average 25 minutes (!) to return to the original task. Another experiment*** performed by the researchers at Carnegie Mellon University revealed that interruptions cause a 20 percent decline in accuracy and efficiency. That is a high price to pay for checking that unrelated text message. So next time you get ready to walk into the room to interpret for a patient, or sit down at your computer to start a new translation project, turn off your distractions and focus on your task. Remember, you can control these task-related stressors!

*For helpful tips about different types of dress code, check out this illustrated guide.
**Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008). The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. Available here.
***Sullivan, B., Thompson, H. (2013). Brain, Interrupted. The New York Times, 3 May, 2013. Available here.

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

~ Alexander Graham Bell

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

~ Alexander Graham Bell

Prepare for content-related stress

Unlike task-related stressors discussed earlier, content-related stressors are usually outside of your control. Depending on the environment you work in (for example, community interpreting for child protective services, healthcare interpreting at the cancer hospital, translating victims’ statements or criminal investigation reports), content-related stress may be an inherent part of your professional practice. As human beings, it is natural for us to have emotional responses to the traumatic stories we interpret or translate. But while you don’t always have control over the circumstances you are walking into on your next interpreting assignment, with these helpful tips and techniques you can prevent or reduce the undesirable effects of content-related professional hazards.

Pre-session briefing

One study* identified that 78% of interpreters find it particularly difficult not being briefed prior to sessions. Understandably, not knowing what to expect from your next assignment or project can be unnerving. To help clear this uncertainty, ask the practitioner or client you will be interpreting for to dedicate a few minutes prior to the session to defining the purpose of the encounter, discussing the expectations, and clarifying roles of all the participants, including your role as an interpreter. Some interpreters report occasional resistance from clients to provide these pre-session briefings, but this usually happens when a practitioner or client is not accustomed to working with an interpreter. In this case, you can explain that a pre-session briefing is not to satisfy your curiosity, but is vital for you to provide a more effective interpreting and deliver better service to all session participants.

“Get in the zone” ritual

Develop and practice a boundary ritual before each session that will help you to get in the right mindset and focus on the task ahead. It could be a prayer, a song, a short meditation, a set of movements or a relaxation exercise. A good example of a ritual could be hand-washing** right before the session. This helps you “wash away” any distractions, leave your personal problems and concerns outside, and prepare for a possibly tough encounter.

Mental grounding

Along with the “get in the zone” ritual, mental grounding is another useful pre-session technique. But while boundary ritual can be very physical, like hand-washing or relaxation exercise, for example, mental grounding is… well, mental. A good example of mental grounding technique is remembering a “safe place”. Most of us have that one special place, maybe a grandmother’s house that we used to visit as kids, that made us feel safe and protected. Before a tough encounter, close your eyes for a few seconds and travel to that safe place in your mind. And then go back to that warm-and-fuzzy feeling each time an encounter gets particularly tough. Another good mental grounding technique is reminding yourself that “I am NOT my emotions”. While emotional reactions are a natural response to the traumatic stories you interpret or translate, at the end of the day, you are in control of what you think, say, and do – not your emotions.

Stress is your friend!

Remember that stress doesn’t have to be your enemy. If you put yourself in the right mindset, stress can actually be beneficial for you. Didn’t watch that TED Talk with a psychologist Kelly McGonigal we mentioned earlier? Scroll up and click on the link.

*Doherty, S. M., MacIntyre, A. M. & Wyne, T. (2010). How does it feel for you? The emotional impact and specific challenges of mental health interpreting. Mental Health Review Journal, 15(3), 31-44. doi:10.5042/mhrj.2010.0657. Abstract available here.
**Interested in learning more? Watch this guided meditation presented by Dr. Chaoul.

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    What we have learned so far…

    Start with the Why

    Vicarious trauma vs. burnout

    Start with the Why

    Vicarious trauma in language professionals

    Start with the Why

    Effect of stress on brain function & performance

    Professional Encounters

    Before the encounter

    Professional Encounters

    During the encounter

    Professional Encounters

    After the encounter

    What’s next?

    Now that you have learned some useful tips and techniques that you can use before an assignment or project to prepare for task-related and content-related stress, discover a five-step approach that you can follow during a particularly stressful encounter to help you deal with strong emotions.