INTERPRETERS AND MENTAL HEALTH: DEALING WITH CHALLENGING ASSIGNMENTS (Part 1)

WHO DO YOU TURN TO WHEN A JOB LEAVES YOU REELING? 

Interpreting is an incredibly complex profession.

When one chooses to go down this path, there is so much to learn. You need qualifications to ensure you conform to the industry standard in terms of theoretical knowledge and practical skills. You need experience to help you improve. You need to learn the techniques, the mirroring, the empathy. You have to study the Code of Conduct, know how to react when you are put into a situation which may compromise your impartiality, your objectivity, your personal safety. You need to learn where your ethical boundaries lie, where your professional responsibilities end to ensure you don’t overstep the mark.

Such a vast amount of knowledge needs to be gathered, so many processes followed, to ensure compliance with the Code of Conduct, the T&Cs of the agency you are attending on behalf of – all needing to be mastered before you begin your assignment.

The reality of the assignment

Eventually, fully quipped, you walk into the session. Sometimes the assignment is simple and straight-forward, goes without hiccups, all parties leave content. However, sometimes, the assignment hits you like a sucker-punch in the gut, taking you on a roller-coaster of emotions and spits you out at the end, exhausted and emotionally drained. The professionals are trained for this, the LES is most likely in their own personal hell. And you? Who to you turn to when you need to vent, talk, cry, process – all in record speed so you can take on the next assignment with equal objectivity and impartiality as the last one?

Is there any support?

My own experience and as well as informal conversations with other interpreters have confirmed to me that the general feeling across the board is that there is not much support available for linguists, at least certainly not from agencies. It seems that LSPs are simply unaware of the challenging situations we may find ourselves in and the difficulty in processing what we witness, experience, become part of, during the course of the assignment. It is actually quite mind-boggling that this is a side of our job that has been overlooked form a mental health point of view. We, the interpreters, are required to be a person’s voice in the most difficult of personal situations; situations where emotions run high, lives can be at stake and the onus is on us to enable the process to run as smoothly and naturally as it would between two speakers of the same language. Granted, the vast majority of assignments are run-of-the-mill, where you walk out the door and never think about it again. Yet, every now and again, a job burrows under your skin in the most unpleasant way possible.

The personal trigger

We all have that trigger, the one sore point that, when prodded, tests our capabilities to remain neutral, professional and, above all, impartial. For me, personally, that trigger is children – more specifically, seeing or hearing about children being subjected to pain and violence. Thus far in my interpreting career, twice have I been in a position where I struggled to keep my composure during an assignment and had trouble shaking off the feeling it left me with long after I’d had my timesheet signed. They say that talking about our feelings is cathartic, so here goes:

 

(to be continued)

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