We Say What They Say. Do We Feel What They Feel?

Vicarious trauma

“I interpreted that his wife had passed… it got to me how he kept asking and asking like he didn’t want to believe it. Every time he asked I had to interpret his question and then the doctor’s affirmation that she was indeed dead. Every time was as if I was telling him for the very first time.”

-Health Care Interpreter

I recently read an article in Psychology Today written by Dr. Robert T. Muller titled “Vicarious Trauma and the Professional Interpreter published in August of 2013. In this article, Dr. Muller interviewed an interpreter as she talked about the effects of interpreting traumatic situations such as rape and domestic violence. Some of the common effects of vicarious trauma as described by Dr. Muller and other publications listed below include changes in mood, stress and depression. However, by focusing on vicarious trauma I discovered that some interpreters also experience vicarious joy.

 Vicarious joy

“I was voicing for a deaf woman who was giving a speech to hearing and deaf students, inspiring them to overcome their challenges… I could see in the eyes of the audience that everyone was touched and moved by her words, by the words that I was interpreting… I had never felt such joy before.”

-ASL Interpreter

I can only imagine how empowered that ASL interpreter felt while watching the audience’s reaction to her words. Focusing on the positive effects of interpreting joyous occasions is one of the techniques some interpreters use to overcome vicarious trauma. In fact, those interpreters who are able to hold on to the positive emotions associated with the field are usually the ones who make a career out of it.

For better or for worse

As interpreters we are committed to making someone else’s words heard through our own voice. We do not simply transfer the message; we transfer the inherent meaning, the tone, and emotion. It is a noble and highly gratifying profession that can put us on an emotional rollercoaster of sorts. It is important that we realize the higher purpose and value of the work we do and learn to turn interpretations of traumatic experiences into positive memories. Yes, even interpreting for a victim of an atrocious crime can be a positive experience. As interpreters we give people the ability to hear and be heard, which could consequently be the first step towards recovery or acceptance.



Robert T. Muller, Ph.D., “Vicarious Trauma and the Professional Interpreter” (August 2, 2013).


Sonali Rana, Purvi Shah, and Kajori Chaudhuri, “Whose Trauma Is It? Vicarious Trauma and its Impact on Court Interpreters” NAJIT Newsletter Volume XVIII , No. 4.


Lor, Mailee, “Effects of Client Trauma on Interpreters: An Exploratory Study of Vicarious Trauma” (2012). Master of Social Work Clinical Research Papers. Paper 53 http://sophia.stkate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=msw_papers

Michael A. Harvey, Ph.D., “The Hazards of Empathy: Vicarious Trauma of Interpreters for the Deaf”