“There is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as a pain with someone and for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”
As translators and interpreters, we are responsible for making someone’s message heard through our own voice. We never just transfer the words and sentences; instead, we are committed to delivering the inherent meaning, the tone, and emotion. We strive to realize our purpose and value the work we do, and we are all members of a noble and highly rewarding profession – a profession that connects people across language and culture. However, this often comes at a price: studies show that similar to healthcare workers, lawyers, military personnel, and journalists, a significant number of interpreters experience some symptoms of vicarious trauma, burnout, compassion fatigue, or increased stress as a result of their repeated exposure to traumatic information and stories. Interpreters are often warned that there will be times when they will be under significant stress and feel vulnerable in traumatic situations as a result of their everyday work.
Exposing ourselves to stressful situations on a daily basis can lead to vicarious trauma – a phenomenon best understood as the absorbing of another person’s trauma, the transformation of the helper’s inner sense of identity and experience. It is what happens to our physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual health in response to someone else’s traumatic history. A recent article published in the Atlantic explores vicarious trauma as it affects therapists and counselors. The concept is fairly recent; only after the Vietnam War psychologists began observing that trauma victims could “plant lasting images of violence in the minds of people who hadn’t experienced it.” One interviewee in the article sees vicarious trauma “first and foremost as a worker health and safety issue.” It can affect your performance on the job, and it can also affect your perception of the world around you, possibly resulting in serious mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, or addiction.
Within the past decade, researchers have released a growing number of academic publications focusing on various aspects of the issue of vicarious trauma. In his investigations into the psychological impact of providing services to traumatized populations, Dr. Brian Bride, associate professor in social work at the University of Georgia, argues that individuals who provide psychosocial services are at risk of experiencing symptoms of traumatic stress, disrupted cognitive schema, and general psychological distress as a result of their work with traumatized populations. Interpreters seem to experience vicarious trauma differently than other professionals providing aid since they don’t just listen to accounts of trauma, they channel them. Our own humanness can make us feel emotionally involved in the setting or situation for reasons such as empathy and understanding, cultural identity, or community affiliation.
In our desire to facilitate communication and understanding, we sometimes forget about our own wellbeing, about the need to remain mindful of what could lead to depression. In addition, bound by a professional code of ethics, we often believe that we have no opportunity to voice our emotional and cognitive experiences. Together with other professionals in the field, the MasterWord team offers certain tips, tools, and resources put together by interpreters for interpreters under the umbrella of MasterWord Wellness Connection.
Language professionals need ways to tackle stress, pay conscious attention to our internal and external experiences, and balance our performance. One technique that could aid translators and interpreters, and help them cope in their professional and personal environment better is recognizing and naming their emotions, and learning to distance themselves. Other tools that help address interpreters’ needs include how to practice mindfulness in everyday life, how to reset your mental wellbeing, and how to be present.
There are helpful resources and links from various public and private institutions across the globe, which focus exclusively on emotional challenges, cognitive patterns, and coping and support mechanisms for those experiencing vicarious trauma. The key is to find the technique that will work for you.
Share techniques that have worked for you in the comments below and join us in Houston on Monday, January 25 from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm for the second annual Wellness Connection Workshop. This event is co-hosted by MasterWord Services and the Friends of Integrative Medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Places are limited, register here: http://goo.gl/JbIh2Q
 Robert T. Muller, Ph.D., “Vicarious Trauma and the Professional Interpreter” (August 2, 2013). Available from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-about-trauma/201308/vicarious-trauma-and-the-professional-interpreter
 Ruben, Aaron, “When PSTD is Contagious” (December 15, 2015). Available from: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/12/ptsd-secondary-trauma/420282/
 Bride, Brian E. “The impact of providing psychosocial services to traumatized populations.” Stress, Trauma, and Crisis 7.1 (2004): 29-46.