INTERPRETERS AND MENTAL HEALTH: DEALING WITH CHALLENGING ASSIGNMENTS (Part 3)

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

(Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to maintain the confidentiality of the matter at hand. I have strived to hit a balance between sharing my experience and ensuring that no-one’s personal information can be identified through my writing. If, by any chance, someone in the interpreting community does recognise the particulars alluded to in this piece, it could only be through personal involvement in this court case and, if that is the case, I would kindly ask that they maintain confidentiality.)

A bit of background

It was early on in the year, shortly after the virus hit and all daily life seemed to shut down. Interpreting work was sparse, assignments few and far between. I had only just registered with the NRPSI and my initial excitement about the prospects that were opening to me were replaced with uncertainty about the future of interpreting. No one knew, at that point, how bad the situation around us would get, whether things would ever return to normal. So, when the offer to do a remote court interpreting session came through, I was elated. It was one of the very first, if not THE first remote hearing I was to undertake, so I didn’t quite know what to expect.

The job

The first thing I noticed was that the offer related to a court pretty much on the other side of the UK to where I live, a location I would have never even considered attending in person due to the distance. ‘What a stroke of luck’, I thought to myself. ‘All these new assignments I’ll be able to fulfil thank to the increase in utilisation of VRI.’. The other effect of this ‘remoteness’ of the remote hearing was the fact that I had never come across the defendant’s name. Most Level 6 qualified interpreters who have done court work for some time will be more or less familiar with the names that appear on court dockets. Cases can last for months, if not years, which means interpreters can meet the same people multiple times at various stages of their progress through the legal system. But, as I say, this was a completely unknown individual to me and all I knew was that we were dealing with a sentencing hearing.

A curveball

I was ready at the allocated time, sitting in front of my computer, smartly dressed, waiting for the joining link to the hearing to be sent by the court clerk. Instead, my phone rang. The lady at the end introduced herself as the defendant’s barrister and said we were being linked into the prison where the defendant is being held, for a pre-hearing conference. Again, I thought to myself – ‘this is unexpected, probably a bit more serious than I expected but at least it will be interesting.’. The conversation began innocuously enough – ‘how have you been’, ‘are you aware of what today’s hearing will be about’, ‘is there anything you wish for me to say on your behalf’. It was strange, not knowing what the offence being dealt with was, but I went with the flow, not wanting to disrupt the conversation.

And then came the killer question. ‘Do you still maintain that the you were manipulated into the acts you carried out?’ ‘Yes’, came the answer. ‘The child wanted me to do it.’. The barrister tried again: ‘But we are talking about a minor of x years, surely they would not have had any knowledge about sexual acts, let alone shown a desire to have them done to them?’.

Reeling

At this point I experienced a fully physical reaction to the words. My heart started pounding, blood drained out of my face. I did not know the details of the assault; all I knew was that someone had done something horrendous to a child and not only were they not showing remorse, they were maintaining that the child had ‘seduced’ them. I felt sick and while continuing to interpret in automated mode, I thanked my gut decision to send my children to school that morning (during the height of the pandemic, an interpreter was seen as a key worker, and as such I was permitted to have them attend school on days when I had work assignments booked). I kept on thinking to myself – ‘I’m impartial, I need to keep my voice neutral’, but I honestly struggled, interpreting the sordid details through my teeth.

Luckily, the conference did not take long, but I was given no time to compose myself as the judge was waiting. Immediately after ending the call, I connected to the video call and braced myself to see the face of the defendant. As we waited for all parties to join, I looked around the virtual ‘room’ and, as dramatic as it may sound, I felt betrayed. There were so many people present, judge, counsel, solicitors, social workers – every single one of them knew exactly what was being dealt with and had time to prepare themselves mentally. Myself, I felt like I had been thrown in the deep end. Surely in cases such as these, the interpreter should be given at least some kind of advance warning, or at the very least be made aware by whichever party speaks to them first about the delicate nature of the case? Not that I would have necessarily declined to interpret had I known the topic, but at least I would have had time to prepare an expression and distance myself internally.

It was all a blur

As it happened, the defendant’s camera was turned off. Whether that was a technical issue or intentional, I don’t know. More harrowing details came to light during the hearing, the worst of which was the continued lack of remorse on the defendant’s part. Some may say paedophilia is a sign of a mental illness, personally after this experience I would struggle to give such individuals that amount of credit.

The conclusion was as to be expected within the British judicial system – what initially started as a decent sentence was followed by a deduction for an early guilty plea, with the end result meaning the child will barely be an adult on paper before the offender is once again a free man. Some final sentencing remarks about the technicalities of deportation into the home country post-Brexit followed and with that, we disconnected.

Addendum

I will admit, this case haunted me for a long time afterwards. Who could I have turned to to speak about what I’d heard, the images I could not shake? I could not rest until I found the person’s mug shot in the town news – an article had been written by a local journalist about the hearing in the days that followed. Bearing in mind that all I had to go on was the name of the court the hearing took place at, you can imagine how much digging I had to do to unearth the article. What scared me most of all was how normal the offender looked. I would have never thought that someone so plain could commit such monstrous acts, but then again – how can we possibly ever know what is happening behind people’s blank stares?

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